Birth of the World
an exhibition at MoMA, New York City, February 24–June 15, 2019
Guide to the exhibition by Carolyn Lanchner (2008), 46 pp., $9.95 (paper) (distributed by the Museum of Modern Art)
There’s anecdote that’s now available to posterity wherein Ernest Hemingway went to great lengths, as it were, to obtain his friend Joan Miró’s assiduous masterpiece, The Farm (1921 — 22). After reportedly doing everything from shooting dice to giving boxing lessons to (more likely) selling vegetables part time to get it into his possession, Hemingway and Jon Dos Passos in 1925, he later recalled, were at long last able to spirit into a cab (“the wind caught the big canvass as though it were a sail, and we made the taxi crawl along”) The Farm, which he said, essentially contained all of Spain — both a nice place to live and visit according to the American master of minimalism.
Adoration for it from the author of A Farewell to Arms aside, this early gem by the Spanish iconoclast, when contrasted (as Carolyn Lanchner, a former curator at the Museum does in MoMA’s insightful publication on Miró) with his later Still Life with Old Shoe (1937), which is dreamy and proto-psychedelic and contains all of proletarian Catalonia in the direct wake of the Spanish Civil War proves informative in that it speaks to a sticky unreality that he (and his surrealist associates) saw some fifteen years later as symptomatic of the new chaotic age.
Surrealists, as everyone knows were interested in dreams and the unconscious (collective or otherwise); what does so-called dream logic tell us about our postmodern condition today? Birth of the World, which is currently running at MoMA through June and features Still Life with Old Shoe along with some sixty-odd works feels more crucial than ever in its reintroduction of Miró as a peerless interrogator of the absurd for our era, typified as it is by irreverence and distraction, where up is down and left is right.
Carl Jung, in The Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche (1969) writes that the “combination of ideas in dreams is essentially fantastic; they are linked together in a sequence which is as a rule quite foreign to our ‘reality thinking,’ and in striking contrast to the logical sequence of ideas which we consider to be a special characteristic of one’s conscious mental processes.” In short, it is “characteristic that dreams owe the vulgar epithet ‘meaningless.’” And one can certainly draw parallels between that and today’s insane political reality and, naturally, Miró’s 1930s milieu, though he, refreshingly sprinkles some doses of humor into his hypnagogic paintings.
Look no further than “Hirondelle Amour,” from 1933 — 34, where on a breathtaking mural-like, 6' 6 1/2" x 8' 1 1/2" canvass (on display at MoMA) Miró invokes boundaryless abandon with a gaggle of flashy hands and feet (one foot in particular is tickling a libidinal human figure that, to a contemporary viewer looks like a smirking helicopter) the color of Life Savers candy suspended in a blue horizonless sky the color of mid-wash Levi’s. From the pupil of a gaping bird unfolds in cursive the “hirondelle” of the title above “amour,” which bisects an upstretched hand while skimming a set of toes, translating to “swallow love.” Perhaps an artist’s assertion of his untrammeled individualism has never been this, well, surefooted.
Freedom, namely that which is implied by one’s laying it all on the line is something that was emphasized by Miró’s friend Michel Leiris, who the former said inspired and “improved my understanding of many things.” In fact, in her review of Leiris’s book Manhood, Susan Sontag highlighted his conception of the writer as bullfighter (“Leiris must feel, as he writes, the equivalent of the bullfighter’s knowledge that he risks being gored”), mentioning, rather agitatedly, Norman Mailer, who was obviously a poor Man’s Hemingway. That more time-honored novelist may have inspired Miró’s pugnacious penchant for slaying sacred cows.
Indeed he does so with Dutch Interior, I (1928), which gleefully deconstructs Hendrick Maertensz Sorgh’s 1661 oil, The Lutenist, with a distinct aim to “making my victims die cleanly, without nerve shivers in their agony, a dry blow like lightning,” Miró wrote to a friend from his farm in Montroig in the years before the war.
My first impression upon taking in Dutch Interior, I amid the crush of viewers who were snapping pictures with their iPhones was the closer I homed in on it, what came to my mind, paradoxically, was the obverse of the phrase “objects in mirror are closer than they appear.” And that whereas Sorgh in his elaborate original was reveling in a wealth of detail, Miró, by contrast is taking things away with — stunningly — an overall effect not unlike that of watching a great film on a smartphone.
The bright composite juxtapositions of mostly browns and greens in the domestic interior are thrown into sharp electric relief by an open window awash in blue and yellow outlining the grass, a bush, and some birds congregating around an ambiguous building. The lutanist’s body, which is also apparently a tablecloth is a ghostly white with a Dalí-like flourish of a moustache perched curiously beneath a furious red balloon of a face hovering over the figure’s hands attached to his room-dominating lute.
The dimensions of the spaceless interior are marked and defined by a different expertly proportioned hue, and in the lefthand corner sits an anxious cartoon dog, his left eye an overstimulated green stoplight; his right an exasperated yellow. And as for his “victims” dying “cleanly,” what’s more tidy than making a seventeenth-century master do so on the hill Miró hurdles over, so to speak, in subverting Sorgh for this rapt audience in the thralls of late capitalism, with its omnipresent screens aglow, witnessing itself bearing witness?
As if preempting preoccupation, the subject of 1926’s Person Throwing a Stone at a Bird is practically televisual; Miró’s otherworldly human could be a Rorschach conjugation of a one-eyed giant from Westeros. And it’s nearly impossible to not become completely absorbed in the immense green sky accentuated by small, robust brushstrokes — above a neatly tapered horizon line dividing the black of the water from the yellow of the shore with its subtle red-tipped peaks — all of which achieve the combined tricolor brilliance of a fashionably crumpled German flag. In this fanciful study, whose striking color palette anticipates the “multiforms” of Mark Rothko, the bird looks none too afraid of the stone hurled at it by the limbless big-footed humanoid, the thought of which seems a bit silly and scatterbrained (like us more and more nowadays), as is, actually this whole nonsensical painting, which, nonetheless rewards concentration.
The primacy of the fantastic — unobstructed (apparently like justice in our reality) by the causal rhythms of waking life — as it relates to both the creative process and to the genesis of the corporeal world as we know it is stressed in the painting for which this beguiling exhibition, put together by the Blanchette Hooker Rockefeller Senior Curator, Anne Ulmand is named.
Is that a disembodied figure squatting to cross a starting line in the rain, with its knee pressing down on the string attached to a balloon? Or is the latter, as Lanchner proposes in her essay, a spermatozoa? Miró, who in reference to these, his so-called “dream” paintings said, “This is hardly painting, but I don’t give a damn,” suggests in this, his most cryptic, the cliché but no less resonant insight that life is but a dream. And that it doesn’t stop just because it might not always be making sense. When it comes to some dreams we should, as Sontag reminds us, be decidedly against interpretation.