A Fresh Look at the Spanish Artist Joan Miro

The 2012 Joan Miro show at the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC offers a fresh look at this important Spanish artist of the twentieth century. Entitled “The Ladder of Escape,” it provides new insights into the political views of the famed artist and sculptor.

When you think of Miro you probably think of bright colors and whimsical objects. There are some examples of that in this exhibit but there are also darker works that will probably be new to most audiences. After all, Miro lived through very turbulent times including both World War I and World War II, the Spanish Civil War and the long regime of the dictator Francisco Franco. Also important to his identity was his birth in Catalonia, a region in northern Spain that has its own distinct culture and long struggle for autonomy.

The show begins with Miro’s depictions of the family farm and surroundings in Catalonia. It’s staggering how the largely realistic works evolve into a new and more surreal pictorial language within the space of barely one year. Some of the most beautiful images are the animated landscapes with their rich fields of color and intriguingly sparse collection of unrelated forms like animals and geometric objects. There are also posters of the huge anti-war mural, “The Reaper,” that he made for the 1937 Paris World Fair. Other highlights include an extensive array of works from the famous Constellation series with their characteristic spidery stars and crescent moons. Ladders are often present in this series and throughout all his paintings as if they offer a device for departing the suffering earth and escaping into a happier celestial realm.

It’s a large show of more than 100 works. If you get tired you can stop and read the catalog. Also worthwhile is the brief film narrated by Ed Harris about Miro’s life and times that shows continuously in a separate room within the exhibition.