“I work” the great Catalan painter Joan Miró once said, “Like a gardener, or a vine grower. Things come slowly. At a certain point you have to cut”. As the splendid exhibition of his work at Tate Modern, “The Ladder of Escape” (until Sept 11) demonstrates, Miro’s work did indeed develop organically and steadily, and he pruned away a great deal of excess over the years. At one point he even held a bonfire.
The “Burnt Canvases” (1973) which hang towards the end are dramatic evidence of that. They are works created out of paint and canvas – and then partially destroyed by fire. It was a gesture typical of Miró (1893-1983) in its anarchistic extremity, and one that – like the other works that form a startling conclusion to the Tate exhibition – suggest that he was just as radical at 80 as at 30, if not more so.
These works are typical in another way: they were burnt, as the catalogue explains, carefully, “a wet mop was used for control and a blowtorch for concentration on specific areas.” That is the paradox of Miró. On the one hand, he was a fiery pioneer of modernism, boldly plunging into areas of ever bolder, starker abstraction. On the other, he was meticulous and industrious (both, like anarchism, typical Catalan qualities).
His starting-point was the agricultural countryside, wonderfully depicted in his early masterpiece, “The Farm” (1921-22. He was good on the combination of the macrocosm and the microcosm. This painting, once owned by Ernest Hemingway, dwells on tiny details – the snail crawling on the earth, the cracks in the barn wall – and also the infinity of blue above. The spectacle of the sky, he said, overwhelmed him.
From that idiom, stylised in a cubist manner but still naturalistic, he moved to something wilder and freer. His paintings of the next decade often seem to consist of nothing but sky, blue paint brushed with fastidious care over the whole surface with just a few vestiges of a subject – the red cap of a Catalan peasant, say, and a couple of wiry lines for his arms and body.
In a way, he just carried on cutting away the inessential. “What will be the direction of my work now?” He asked himself in 1961, and answered, “Sparer and sparer”. Sparest of all perhaps are the three paintings “for the Cell of a Recluse” (1968), each consisting of a single spidery line wandering across a huge expanse of white. The effect is very Spanish – austere, crazy, mystical: almost nothing but, somehow, enough.
From my column in The Lady