At the request of a friend, I’ve decided to write about one of Barcelona’s most celebrated contemporary artists, Joan Miró.
Born in 1893 to well-to-do parents, Miró did all the things a budding artistic genius was supposed to do: drawing classes at seven years old, nervous breakdown at 17, move to Paris and hang out with weirdos at 27.
Digging through his biographies, I came across words like “surrealism,” “Dadaism,” and “Cubism.” I can’t speak at length about these styles. I am in no way an art expert. But to put Miró’s style in layman’s terms, it’s the type of artwork that makes Republicans in the United States Congress want to immediately defund the National Endowment for the Arts.
The museum sits tucked away in the gardens of Montjuïc. I got there by taking a bus to within 50 feet of the front door, but if you’re not a lazy slob like me I recommend walking to it. The Montjuïc gardens act as a nature refuge in the middle of the densely packed city. Strolling through them might help put you in the proper zen mindset you need before viewing contemporary art.
Before I continue, let me get a few technical matters out of the way. First, the Joan Miró Museum is officially called the “Fundació Joan Miró.” I, however, will be using the word “museum.” Going to a contemporary art museum is pretentious enough without having to also call it a “fundació.”
Secondly, this post–like all my posts–will have virtually no educational value at all. This is not a graduate thesis on Joan Miró’s impact on the modern art world. The pieces I show here are in no particular order. They’re just some of my favorites from the museum. This post is simply Miró’s art as viewed through the eyes of someone who thinks “Smokey and the Bandit” is one of the greatest artistic achievements in the history of mankind.
Now let’s get to it.
Personage – 1970
The first chunk of art I came across was this six-foot-tall bronze sculpture right outside the front door. A profile photo of this piece would be too graphic to show, but if you look carefully you’ll notice that this fellow sports a bronze erection. In fact, the sculpture’s “surreal dada” has been burnished by countless visitors grabbing hold of it. Come on, people. This is a fundació. Show some respect.
Village and Church of Mont-Roig – 1919
Miró painted this when he was 26 years old. It was during a period in his life when skies were still blue, people were anatomically correct, and right angles weren’t yet considered grotesque indulgences of the bourgeois.
Painting (The White Glove) – 1925
Miró is starting to flip out here. We’ve still got blue skies. Then again, maybe it’s an ocean. The figure on the upper right has a banging hot body, but it’s somewhat negated by all the Tom Selleck chest hair. Or maybe that’s not chest hair. Maybe it’s black clouds of pollution swirling in transgender Tom Selleck’s lungs and this whole piece is a commentary about industrialization’s effect on nature.
The thing on the bottom right looks like a butterfly. It could also be one of those masks like Tom Cruise wore during the pervy masquerade ball scene in “Eyes Wide Shut.” That might explain why a disembodied Mickey Mouse hand is about to get gropey on a hirsute mannequin. I don’t honestly know how it fits in with everything. I’m not convinced Miró knew either.
Man and Woman in Front of a Pile of Excrement – 1935
There’s a lot to unpack here. I think I’ve got a solid ID on the man and the woman. The man is the one on the left with the floppy rabbit ears for cheeks and the balloon animal for a penis. The figure on the right who seems to be giving birth to her own vagina is probably the woman.
The big question is, “Where’s the pile of excrement?” Just over the horizon and directly underneath the man’s surreal dada, you can see a blob of blue. Could that be the excrement? If so, it seems like Miró is taking some serious license with what a turd looks like. I’ve hiked a lot and come across all kinds of animal droppings, but I’ve never seen anything like this on the trail. Of course, it’s safe to assume Miró wasn’t going for photorealism here. There’s a cobra lurking in the background on the right. Could that actually be the excrement? If so, kudos to the animal that produced it. It’s quite a sculptural output.
It does occur to me that technically the one definitive thing the man and woman are always in front of is actually the person who’s looking at the painting.
In other words, I’m the pile of shit.
I’m sure that like everyone else on the planet Miró probably could have cut back on the doughnuts and spent a few more hours in the gym every week. But come on. It couldn’t have been this bad.
One interesting thing about this piece is that it took Miró 23 years to finish it. He did the original sketches in the background in 1937. Twenty-three years later, he ordered a copy of those sketches to be made. (Wait. What? You can do that?) Then he painted over top of it to create this piece. It’s an interesting blend of two completely different styles from two completely different periods of his life.
The lark’s wing encircled with golden blue joins the heart of the poppy sleeping on the diamond-studded meadow – 1967
Miró ran around with plenty of poets and authors and would sometimes incorporate complete words or at least letters into his paintings and collages. In this case, he threw them all into the title.
I’m a big fan of this technique, especially when it comes to contemporary art. The longer the title, the better. It removes the guess work. If you’ve painted a lark’s wing encircled in golden blue and a poppy heart sleeping on the diamond-studded meadow, let me know it. Don’t make me stand there like an idiot wondering why a blue Froot Loop is swimming through a sea of urine in order to lance a boil on the other side of Interstate 40.
(Burnt Canvas 5) – 1973
This may be my favorite Miró piece. It looks as if Jason Voorhees took a break from slaughtering teenagers and decided to paint a self-portrait instead.
For this piece, Miró stretched the canvas, hit it with some color, set it on fire, then attacked it with a knife. He did a whole series like this. The museum has two of them on permanent display. On the second floor, you can watch a fantastic video of him making one.
This piece makes more sense when you consider that Miró once said he supported the “assassination of painting.” He thought conventional painting methods only catered to the bourgeoisie. Or to put it another way, Miró wanted to create art for people who have never heard of him but know exactly who Jason Voorhees is.
Painting on white background for the cell of a recluse I, II, and III – 1968
This is a famous triptych Miró did. Each panel is approximately two meters by three meters. They’re giant. You’re probably saying to yourself, “What the hell? It looks like the same line drawn three times.”
If so, you’re absolutely right. I just took one painting in the triptych (Cell of a Recluse #1), rotated it two different times, then posted each rotated photo. Congratulations. You just passed your first art exam.
Now that I’ve played my little joke, let’s look at the three different paintings that comprise the actual triptych.
Painting on white background for the cell of a recluse, I – 1968
Painting on white background for the cell of a recluse, II – 1968
Painting on white background for the cell of a recluse, III – 1968
See the difference? It all makes sense now, right?
Here they are as exhibited in the museum.
If you’ve ever been to a contemporary art museum, there’s a good chance there was one piece that stopped you in your tracks when you first saw it. It just left you stunned. You got close to it and examined each droplet, smear, and splatter of paint and imagined them coming off the artist’s brush. Why a splash of color here? Why not over there? Why these colors in the first place?
Next, you backed up as far as you could to take it in as whole. You had seen the details up close, but what was the artist’s overall message? Perhaps you even tried to put yourself inside the artist’s head. You pictured him in his studio, surrounded by dozens of paint cans struggling to take his creative vision and somehow put it on the canvas in front of you now. What could have possibly led him to create such a work?
Then after finding yourself completely captivated by the piece, you finally come to a realization. As you stand there staring, you whisper what so many before you have probably also said; “Fuck this guy.”
For many visitors at the Joan Miró Museum, this is that piece.
You’re not missing many details here. This work features three white canvases with a single black line painted on each one. I think Miró drew each line in connected segments. If you look closely at the lines, you can see where they taper at points as the paint in his brush seemed to have run low. Then they get thicker again, where I assume he dipped his brush in paint again and continued. That’s about all there is, technically speaking.
Well, there are a few dents on one of them, too.
A few years ago this piece–which is valued at approximately $25 million, by the way–was on loan to the Tate Modern in London. Some poor guy there lost his balance and steadied himself by placing both hands on Cell of a Recluse #1. The repairs are supposedly still visible if you look closely enough. And why not look? There isn’t much else to see.
Miró said, “To me, conquering freedom means conquering simplicity. At the very limit, then, one line, one color can make a painting.” It’s safe to say that with this piece, Miró bludgeoned simplicity, strangled it with a thin rope, and buried it in a minimally marked grave. (The Cell of a Recluse triptych is second only to Miró’s painting Landscape in terms of simplicity. I didn’t include Landscape here because I’ve never laid eyes on it in person. Here’s a link to it, though. I guess he liked painting in the Antarctic countryside.)
So there’s your brief trip through the Joan Miró Museum. A bronze penis, a few charred canvases, blobs of primary colors, and what may be a $25 million practical joke. I’ve included here just a small selection of the works at the museum. A person could easily spend two or three hours going through all the exhibits. It’s my favorite museum in Barcelona. I’ve been several times, which is remarkable for a Neanderthal like me.
While I am a huge fan of Miró’s work, what most impresses me about him isn’t his artistic ability. It’s the determination, curiosity, and self-confidence he must have had. Miró painted. He sculpted. He wrote poetry. He made pottery. He even collaborated on a 20 x 35-foot tapestry that hung in the World Trade Centers until they were destroyed. The man seemed like he was born simply to create, and to his credit he was brave enough to follow through on it.
When Miró was 25 years old, he had his first solo art exhibition in Paris. People didn’t just snicker at his work; they actually defaced his paintings right there on the gallery walls. It takes certain intestinal fortitude to pick up a paint brush again after receiving that kind of drubbing. If my blog posts don’t get at least 50,000 views within the first fifteen minutes of publication, I descend into a yearlong catatonic depression.
Take another look at Miró’s charbroiled painting above, Burnt Canvas 5. He made that when he was 80 years old. How can anyone not admire an artist–especially a rich and famous octogenarian–who wakes up one morning and says, “Get me a steak knife, a blowtorch, a can of paint, and some canvas. I have an idea.” Miró could have spent his final days ordering sycophantic art students to tidy up bricks of cash in his garage. Instead, he kept exploring.
People make fun of Miró and contemporary art in general, but keep in mind that for more than 500 years people painted nothing but Bible scenes, fruit baskets, and bloated European kings who looked like they were wearing the palace curtains.
Weren’t we due for a change?