Joan Miro Assassinates Painting at the MoMA


Published: November 20, 2008

You may have heard the MoMA has an exhibit on view now dedicated to Vincent Van Gogh—probably the world’s most famous painter of all time. Too bad, then, that you will be so intent on seeing “Starry Night” that you’ll miss an equally fascinating show just a few flights up, dedicated to Joan Miro, the self-proclaimed “assassin of painting.”

Joan Miro explored various artistic media, including sculpture and collage, in his one-man war on painting. (Carl Van Vechten)

That’s right. Assassin. This exhibit, titled “Joan Miro: Painting and Anti-Painting 1927-1937,” examines the efforts of the Surrealist painter to destroy—well, deconstruct—the traditional ideas of painting. The show reads like a survey of Miro’s various artistic endeavors, despite the fact that it covers only a single decade of his life. In just these few years, Miro paints, collages and sculpts his way through his war on painting. But by the end of the show, you wonder, has he won the war or just the battle?

If you’re unfamiliar with Miro’s work, you will definitely find yourself questioning his museum-worthiness as you wander through the show—but remember, this is the MoMA, and anything goes. As you wonder whether the first room of collage-painting hybrids was done by an adult or a toddler, keep in mind the goals of post-World War II European art movements: destroy everything. There have been a great number of approaches to this aspiration to contradict all previous art history (Cubism, Dada, Abstract Expressionism, etc.), but Surrealism usually manages to capture the imagination of even the most apathetic audiences. So is the case with Miro. It’s hard to resist the child-like charm of his collages and paintings, which, on the surface, seem like fingerpaints or cartoons.  But don’t let yourself end your experience there—consider Miro’s goals.

In the earliest collages on view, from 1927, Miro begins to explore the concept of medium. He chooses to use ugly, brown, unprimed canvases and applies fine lines and splotches of bright paint seemingly at random. Here, he contradicts the inherent two-dimensionality of a painting and chooses the route of abstraction rather than realistic depiction of his subjects. This idea continues in other collages in the show, including the “Spanish Dancer” series from 1928 and the celestial collages from 1929. These are especially engaging, as Miro uses various materials, such as tar paper, to create titillating textures and re-examine how shapes and colors interact to create the illusion of depth.

Miro’s “objects”—surrealists didn’t want to use the word “sculpture,” as that is too conventional—are also equally whimsical. The most memorable piece consists of a painted rock, mounted on two short wooden pilings. On the top of the rock is an abstracted woman; glued to the bottom is an open mussel shell. Beneath the rock is a sliver of mirror. Seemingly random elements come together and could be read as a scene from the beach. A woman floats on the surface on the water, but we are treated to a view of what lies hidden in the ocean depths beneath her. The object is inviting and amusing, and perhaps a tad confusing—achieving the goals of Surrealism perfectly.

Paintings in the show range from exquisitely beautiful, to nightmarish, to just plain ugly—sometimes all at once. Two series, one a play on traditional Dutch interiors (think Johannes Vermeer) from 1928-29 and the other an acid trip of small, neon dreamscapes from 1935-36, stand out above the others on view.

In the earlier series, Miro addresses classical themes, such as photographically realistic portraits, through his own unique lens. In “Dutch Interior II” (1928), Miro transforms a painting of a lute player by Henrich Martensz-Gorgh, into an abstract fractured fairy tale. The lute player’s face is a red circle with at first barely discernable, grimacing features, and his limbs are practically non-existent, his body overtaken by his instrument. Miro eliminates shading altogether, instead using bold colors to create the illusion of depth—again questioning the figure-ground relationship, as he does in his collages.

The later series is quite a trip—and it comes as no wonder, considering the paintings were made during the turmoil of the Spanish Civil War. With fascism on the rise throughout Europe, it’s no surprise Miro chose to return to creating (slightly) more recognizable forms—an attempt to regain a sense of control. Yet the intense colors and bizarre narratives in the paintings bring the images back into the realm of Surrealism. These images seem like dreams in their most vivid moments—just as they’re slipping away from your memory, begging to be remembered, but fated to be forgotten.

The show concludes with the most realistic-looking subject matter in the entire show, a work entitled “Still Life with Old Shoe” (1937). Despite its easily identifiable objects, it’s clear that Miro’s experiments have not been abandoned, but rather have coalesced into cohesion. The hallucinatory color palette lends a shifting liquidity to the shoe and its companions (a fork stuck in a piece a fruit and a wine bottle), making them seem positively animated. This still life proves that Miro is in fact infatuated with painting and all its possibilities. He never really wanted to kill it—just make it stronger.