THE Catalan artist Joan Miro (1893-1983) arrived at the symbolic as if by surprise. He was alert to unexpected promptings and unplanned connections. The smallest thing might ignite what he called "the magic spark" of art.
"The cause... ," he once said "may be a tiny thread ... a drop of water falling, this print made by my finger on the shiny surface of this table. In any case, I need a point of departure, even if it is only a speck of dust or a flash of light."
Similar attitudes were shared by many artists who were called, or called themselves, Surrealists. Miro was certainly a participant in that European movement. Like the other Surrealists - but more genial and popularist than many of them - Miro was never an abstractionist, and he was more interested in what might lie below the surface of his work than in mere appearance. He went out of his way to discover the significant in the familiar, the universal in the local.
Players of games involving the subconscious or dreams, the Surrealists could nevertheless be quite theatrically self-conscious. An element of performance is frequently present, and this means awareness of an effect on a viewer. They were not always quite as unknowing as they made out.
They might deliberately undermine convention or mischievously activate the instinctual imagination of their audience. Less inclined to overtly shock than the Dadaists, many Surrealists had contributed to that earlier movement and then continued to exploit some of its subversiveness, absurdism, and anti-art stance. Miro himself described his move into sculpture as a way of "murdering" painting. In fact his sculpture, which was mostly produced in the last few decades of his long career as a painter, printm aker, and ceramicist, is a kind of exuberant development of his two dimensional work. Collage is at the back of it. Like other painters who made sculpture late in their careers - Renoir, for example, or Degas - Mirs sculpture really does not destroy his paintings, it fulfills them.
He described his sculptures - so often symbolic personages of one kind or another - as "monsters." If so, they seem to distinctly lack real ferocity. Like bull-terriers they may be ugly, but they are essentially domesticated: good with the kids. Mirs art is almost always touched with wit and humor, and seems to spring from the child in him. Primeval it may be, but unlike many of his Surrealist confreres, Miro really did bring into his work an element of uncalculated subconsciousness; a sense of basic inn ocence is rarely contravened. His work marvellously lacks cynicism, that most deadly enemy to the art.
More than anything it is the way Miro continually links his idea of art with his idea of nature, which saves his work from some of the more obvious and pervasive cliches of Surrealism. For example - although "woman" is very often his preoccupation, and he doesn't shy away from the anatomical, his forms are still metaphors. The female, to him, is "like a goddess, like the birth of humanity." Possibly threatening - like the spider eating her mate - Mirs "woman" is almost always closer to grotesque comedy t han to the sensual. There is little reason to discredit his statement that "... there's nothing erotic in [his] work." The female has to do with fertility no less than the fruit on a tree or the stars in the night sky; they are all part of universal nature to Miro.
Perhaps it was his sculptures' actuality, their solid form standing on the same ground as people walking down the street, that made him feel these works moved his art into a bolder or even a more aggressive realm than his painting. Of course sculpture is more tangible and tactile than painting, which can explore forms as if they are no thicker than paper and no weightier than air.
However light a sculpture might seem - and Miro is not necessarily concerned to make his seem light - it still has an unavoidable mass and solidity different from painting. Mirs paintings have a cosmic, airy quality that can temper their body weight and take the imagination off into a fantastic kind of outer space; while his sculpture - no less fantastic and cosmic - has its feet inevitably on the earth.
Many of his sculptures are composed of "found objects" which, once he had brought them together, were cast in bronze. Made durable and permanent by this transformation, the ephemeral nature of some of these "objects" - anything from chairs and garden tools, to eggs, croissants, wooden crates, toys, gourds, bits of tree trunk and branch, shoe lasts, turtle shells, and dismembered parts of mannequins - is still conceptually apparent. He even emphasized the separateness of these different parts by unconvent ionally painting the bronze in bright glossy housepaint: red, yellow, blue, black, white. In this practice there was, certainly, an element of witty mischief: Painted as if it were cheap furniture shows scant respect for the past service of bronze as an art material no less honorific than marble. It is possible that Mirs childlike delight in such vigorous colors was prompted by the painted steel sculpture of his friend Alexander Calder.
But the sheer inventiveness of Mirs sculpture, whether painted or left to look like bronze with a patina, comes mainly from what he called "the unlikely marriage of recognizable forms." Sometimes he would enlarge something very small - a pebble becomes a head, a bar of soap with a hole worn through it becomes a torso - and sometimes his objects are no longer "recognizable" at all: They had become the new symbolic personage he was looking for. This personage may be extraordinary, but in Mirs hands it seem s perfectly natural.
In 1941-42, he paid tribute in his "working notes" to the importance of nature - the country - as inspiration for his sculpture. He also incidentally revealed his admiration for a fellow Spanish sculptor, Julio Gonzalez. He wrote:
"....when sculpting, start from the objects I collect, just as I make use of stains on paper and imperfections in canvases - do this here in the country in a way that is really alive, in touch with the elements of nature ... make a cast of these objects and work on it as Gonzalez does, until the object as such no longer exists but becomes a sculpture... ."
Since it wasn't until the mid 1960s that Miro started making sculpture in earnest, this earlier note to himself shows a prescient self-knowledge.
* The sculptures shown here belong to the Foundation Maeght in St. Paul de Vence, France. They were recently part of an exhibition on Miro at the Royal Scottish Academy, Edinburgh.