There’s a certain amount of crap in the new exhibition, “Joan Miro: The Ladder of Escape,” at Tate Modern in London.
That doesn’t prevent it from being a fine show, which not only contains many of the artist’s most celebrated works, but transforms your ideas about him.
Indeed, the crap is part of the point. It appears unforgettably in the title of the 1935 painting “Man and Woman in Front of a Pile of Excrement.” As the critic Robert Hughes pointed out in his book “Barcelona,” that’s an extremely Catalan subject. Miro (1893-1983) was a most Catalan artist -- industrious and anarchic, mystical and earthy.
In Catalonia, Hughes wrote, an unusual figure is on sale for the Christmas crib. “A red Catalan cap, or barretina, flopping over his head, the fellow squats, breeches down, with a brown cone of excrement connecting his buttocks to the earth.”
An infant in just this posture is to be seen in the center of Miro’s early masterpiece, “The Farm” (1921-2), an encyclopedic catalog of the Catalan countryside: the animals, plants, ancient buildings and fertile soil (being fertilized further by the small individual in the middle).
This powerful painting would have been a perfectly distinguished climax to an artistic career. For Miro, it was only the beginning of half a century of dizzying exploration. Moving to Paris, he allied himself with the Surrealists.
His images of the countryside became the theme of increasingly radical, almost abstract pictures. The Catalan peasant was reduced to a few fine lines, plus that characteristic cap, on a canvas of carefully painted nothingness suggesting an empty sky or the nebulous backdrop to a dream.
Then, in the mid-1930s, as the politic crisis in Spain turned to civil war, Miro’s art became harsher and more grotesque (as in that couple with the pile of excrement). In 1937, he created an extraordinary apocalyptic still life, “Still Life With Old Shoe.” It’s one of the greatest of Spanish paintings, in which the horrors of contemporary conflict are evoked by a few humble objects: a broken bottle, as Miro said himself, “like a burning house,” an apple speared by a “cruel fork.”
Miro fled the German invasion of France in 1940, moving first to the coast of Normandy, eventually back to his native land, then ruled by Franco. During this flight, he produced a series of marvelous paintings on paper, the “Constellations” (1940-41). These consisted of his personal symbols -- colorful squiggles and blobs denoting “bird,” “star,” “woman” -- strewn across an airy background.
Miro might simply have gone on repeating this idiom -- and he did frequently. The exhibition focuses on a series of adventurous works he produced in the 1960s and 1970s. There are violent-looking burned pictures from 1973 in which he allowed fire to mutilate the canvases. They’re startling.
Even more impressive are series of huge three-piece works in a sort of zen-abstract manner, including one triptych in which a single fine line wanders across the monochrome white surface of each enormous picture. This sounds boring yet is actually a compelling demonstration that even less can be more. The three “Fireworks” I-III (1974) were created by throwing paint at the canvases, which sounds silly though looks exhilarating.
It isn’t clear whether Miro was leading or following younger artists such as Cy Twombly. Still, you leave the show wondering whether he might have been his most audacious at the age of 80.
“Joan Miro: The Ladder of Escape” is at Tate Modern, London, through Sept. 11, supported by the Institut Ramon Llull, sponsored by British Land Co., Finsbury Ltd. and Goldman Sachs Group Inc. The exhibition will travel to the Fundacio Joan Miro, Barcelona, in October 2011, and to the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C., in May 2012. Information: http://www.tate.org.uk/modern.
(Martin Gayford is chief art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)