Joan Miró, “Mural Painting,” Barcelona, October 18, 1950 -January 26, 1951. Oil on canvas. Mrs. Simon Guggenheim Fund. © 2018 Successió Miró / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris. Photo: Adel Gorgy.
Picture in your mind’s eye what you think of when you think of the work of Joan Miró — curious little bowling-pin shaped people, pencil-line stars, triangles, primary colors. Now think of things you don’t envision when you picture Miró’s work — like Baroque Dutch interiors, earthy still lifes recalling Chardin, Fauvist portraits, and tilted Cubist tabletops with newspapers. You’ll find all those and more in “Joan Miró: Birth of the World” at the Museum of Modern Art through June 15.
You’ll also find poetry, in both the installation and the inspiration. MoMA’s galleries are filled with bright, joyous, thoughtful, inventive works in this presentation of some 60 paintings, sculptures, books and mixed media works. Most are from the museum’s own significant Miró collection, augmented by wonderful loans.
The exhibition is organized by senior curator Anne Umland, with Laura Braverman, curatorial assistant, and focuses on the years between 1920 (when Miró made his first trip to Paris) and the early 1950s.
Curating an exhibition of a beloved artist like Miró isn’t about taking some pictures out of the closet, dusting them off, rearranging the lights and sending out a memo, though all that does happen. It’s about making new discoveries, reframing old questions and relationships, and finding ways to connect the art to a new audience. Umland and Braverman do all that by presenting poetry as a lens through which to see Miró’s works in a new light.
A friend of the Surrealists, poets, and writers, and an author himself, Miró once stated that he made no distinction between painting and poetry. “I try to apply colors like words that shape poems,” he said. Rhythms between language, color and line create a sense of syncopation throughout the exhibition, and poetry keeps seeping in, like rhymes at the end of lines. We learn that on seeing “Still Life II” a small panting in muted tones, Pablo Picasso stated “This is poetry.” We see Miró’s etchings and engravings printed as collaborations in books of French poetry. We see his use of words as both snippets of poetry and ways of marking canvas. In the large painting “Hirondelle Amour,” the curators point out that “interweaving of visual and verbal motifs epitomize the fluid exchange between painting and poetry in Miró’s work.” Swirling lines trailing from the ends of words seem to suggest the flight path of swallows (hirondelle in French).
The centerpiece of the exhibition is Miró’s “Birth of the World.” Limited to mostly black, white and red, with a vast empty space populated by simple shapes and a single line (recalling the string of a balloon) to create a sense of movement and flight, it is a kind of birth of something new. But, the show itself starts earlier. Arranged roughly chronologically, the exhibition shows the artist’s evolution from early influences to completely uncharted territories. It’s fascinating to see not only where Miró broke free, but how his freedom influenced others. “Still Life—Glove and Newspaper” from 1921 seems to channel earlier works by Georges Braque, while his 1936 “Object,” a sculpture comprised of a stuffed bird, strings, balls, a map, and other curiosities, presages both Robert Rauschenberg’s “Combines” and Joseph Cornell’s assemblages.
Witness Miró’s freedom in his imaginative use of materials. In “Relief Construction” (1930) staples incompletely fastened to a painted wooden surface create shapes and shadows replacing drawn lines. Crinkled papers turn a 1929 collage into a bas-relief sculpture. Miró’s subjects are also freely imagined, as seen in so many feathery spider forms, floating shapes with faces, and feet with heads. His surreal dreamscapes seem welcoming and filled with light, perhaps from his sunny Catalan roots.
“Joan Miró: Birth of the World” is a beautiful, energizing exhibition that presents familiar favorites while introducing important insights about the poetic nature of the artist and his creations. As Umland notes, “Throughout his decades-long career, Miró sought to reveal the marvelous in the quotidian. His work celebrates the wildness of the imagination even as it remains firmly rooted in the realities of his life and times. Today, when so much value is placed on the prosaic — the data-driven, the quantifiable, hard numbers — Miró’s poetic vision is newly urgent.”