Joan Miro Made Doodling Divine

Museum of Modern Art retrospective reveals how much planning actually went into the Catalan artist's `spontaneous' creations

CATALAN artist Joan Miro was in touch with his ``inner child'' before the term even existed. His playful canvasses seem as effortless as drawing in the sand. A delightful bestiary of squiggled spiders and snails swarms through a new Miro retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art until Jan. 11.

The exhibition celebrates the centennial of Mirs birth by showing 400 works in various media from 1915 to the late 1970s. These pieces ring every note in the emotional scale from giddy to angry, erotic to cosmic, absurd to profound.

The survey also retrieves Miro from the Surrealist folder where art history has filed him. Far from bursting into painting the way a bird bursts into song, Miro meticulously planned his paintings. Notebook sketches document exactly how unspontaneous Mirs work was. Certainly the artist cultivated random effects for a jolt of the unexpected in generating his paintings, but in the final product, he left nothing to chance.

Mirs work results from the collision of two Catalan traits, according to curator Carolyn Lanchner: seny i rauxa, common sense and passion. Miro mixed dogged industry with flights of imagination.

His works alternate between an elaborate style, as densely figured as a Persian carpet, and loose, expansive spareness. As Miro put it, ``We Catalans believe you must always plant your feet firmly on the ground if you want to be able to jump up in the air. The fact that I come down to earth from time to time makes it possible for me to jump all the higher.''

This vacillation between fact and fancy is evident in two early works dealing with an identical subject - the Catalan landscape that nourished the painter's imagination. (Catalonia is an autonomous region in northeast Spain.) In ``The Farm'' (1921-1922), Miro crammed everything he loved into the picture in precise detail, from footprints on a path to pebbles in a field.

One year later, in ``The Tilled Field,'' the same elements - furrowed earth, vegetation, and barnyard animals - have been completely transformed into archetypal symbols. A tree magically sprouts an eye and ear, while fantastic animals cavort in antic extraterrestrial gaiety, like cartoons from another world.

Clearly Mirs friendship with Surrealist poets in Paris liberated him from verisimilitude and caused him to focus on intuition. Another factor in his reinvention of visual imagery was hunger. Desperately poor and subsisting on a few dried figs and chewing gum as each day's ration, the painter based many of his works during the 1920s on hunger-induced hallucinations.

In works called ``dream paintings,'' Miro abandoned representational images to create his own unique symbols of reality. ``The Birth of the World'' suggests a primordial soup through bare geometric shapes floating in gravity-less space. Picasso told his compatriot, Miro, ``After me, you are the one who is opening a new door.'' Indeed, Miro went beyond Cubism and Fauvism to dream up a new kind of pictorial space that annihilated orthodox elements like modeling, figure-ground contrast, perspective, and shading.

As his work grew more abstract, Miro insisted, ``Everything in my pictures exists.'' He based his leaps of imagination on the hard ground of reality. The real was a means ``to rediscover the sources of human feeling,'' as Miro described his aim in art.

``Tableaux sauvages'' replaced dream paintings when Miro lived in exile during the Spanish Civil War. The humor of ``The Policeman (Figure and Horse)'' of 1925, in which a horse's muzzle resembles a platypus snout, gives way to the disturbing ``Head of a Man'' (1937). If the former work seems childlike, the latter seems to spring from a deranged child.

An entire gallery is devoted to 23 works on paper called the ``Constellation'' series - the glory of the exhibition. These are shown together for the first time since they hung in Mirs studio more than 50 years ago. The pictures are small-scale, each slightly more than a foot square, but vast in grandeur.

``They were my refuge during the war,'' Miro once said, referring to his retreat into fantasy after Germany invaded France. We see his familiar iconography - eyes, ladders, stars, biomorphic blobs, curlicues - in careful balance yet flowing sublimely. While the outside world was in flames, Miro created a triumphant new world composed of earthly and celestial elements.

Poetic titles in the series further catalyze escape from the quotidian. In ``Woman at the Border of a Lake Irradiated by the Passage of a Swan,'' the ``woman'' is indicated by little more than an eye and lashes. Nevertheless, Mirs lyrical galaxy of signs, like Matisse's eloquent lines, makes doodling divine.

TOWARD the end of his prolific career (he died at age 90 in 1983), Miro reduced his imagery to a few lean symbols for the most direct impact. The huge triptych of cerulean blue canvases punctuated by red dashes or black dots has a concentrated power like haiku. ``The simpler the alphabet, the easier it is to read,'' Miro said as he distilled his visual symbols to basic shapes in primary colors. What he achieved was ``a maximum of intensity,'' as Miro said, ``with a minimum of means.''

Miro was once taken to visit a sumptuously appointed studio in the hope that he would rent it. Instead of admiring the decor, however, the painter focused on a scrap of Wedgwood blue paper he discovered at the bottom of an apple crate. ``Isn't it wonderful!'' he kept repeating.

His art similarly reveals the marvelous in the mundane, whether a shred of paper or a grain of dust. But he infuses these banalities with such miraculous power that they vibrate in harmony with the music of the spheres and ``express with precision,'' Miro has said, ``all the golden sparks the soul gives off.''

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