20th Century Art
There is a thin line between powerful, yet simplistic paintings, and sloppy, poorly-rendered works. Artists enjoy pushing the boundaries as far as they can, and in the case of Joán Miró, I find some of his works breathtaking, while others do not receive a second glance. It is painfully evident in his early works that he is experimenting with others’ styles, as in “Prades, the Village,” but it is interesting to see in these less successful works hints of what is to come when Miró forges his own style. When he begins painting surrealist and abstract works, Miró demonstrates a great sense of play, with a winning combination of line, color, and form that results in beautiful paintings that have character even while composed of only a few, simple lines and shapes. It is amusing how closely he leans to drawings that little children make, but his work is certainly deliberate and meaningful. In fact, it is the duality of simple and complex in each painting that really propels his work into the category of “high art.”
A painting by Miró that I enjoy immensely is “People and Dog in Front of the Sun,” or “Upside Down Figures.” Although at first glance it may seem quite child-like and superficial, I find it fascinating and complex. The simplicity of the piece makes it easy to look at; it has blocks of bright color, black lines, and the background is a wash of a contrasting color. The subject matter is not unique to this painting; the sun and the star are common symbols in Miró’s works. There is a doodley aspect to the lines, with whimsical hairs and curlicues. The shapes are organic as opposed to geometric, giving a homemade, comfortable feel. Since there is no horizon, the space is flat, adding to the child-like nature, as if it is from a coloring book.
However, there is more to the painting beyond these preliminary observations. For example, to most people it looks like two people, one of whom is upside-down, walking a little tuft of a dog that occupies the lower left-hand corner. The way I prefer to interpret the piece, though, is that the small head belongs to a person, and the large head belongs to a dog with bean-shaped ears who stands right-side up. I choose to explain the rest of the shapes as just that: shapes. The larger black area with umbrella handle-like shapes in the upper right is somewhat balanced by the triangles to the left of the dog’s head, and the left umbrella handle arches nicely over the person’s head. One reason why I stay a loyal fan to Miró is that I feel I can take liberties with my interpretations of his work. I have a strong emotional response to my favorite paintings; they seem to emote serenity, and I enjoy getting caught up in their simplicity because there is room for my imagination to run free.
Thus, as I interpret “Upside Down Figures,” I recognize that my ideas may not correspond with Miró’s original intent. However, the fact that I am completely convinced of another way to understand the piece, and that I can analyze it in detail should add weight to my argument that Miró’s paintings are much more than what any five-year-old could do, and were not done haphazardly, but with thought and purpose.
For example, the figures are stick-like, but they have character. The “person” tilts its head toward the sun, and the black overlap between the circle of its head and the circle of the sun give both the feeling of warmth on its cheek from the radiating heat, and, contrastingly, the impression of softness as if it were pressing its cheek against a satiny orb. The dog has a “nose” which, in comparison to the person’s nose, seems to be pointing upward, indicating that the dog looks up at the sun as well. Miró paints their eyes as black dots, just as he does for hands, feet, and paws. Without the line of the nose, these expressionless dots would lack the intensity and emotive qualities of eyes.
The direction in which the dog and the person gaze invites reinterpretations of the initially flat-seeming space. First of all, the sheer size of the dog’s head brings the entire dog to the foreground, and the person’s tiny head pushes its whole body against the background. However, cutting the person’s head out of the picture, the checkerboard handling of the dog and person overlapping makes it impossible to decipher who is in front of whom. Now taking into consideration where each one is looking, the issue becomes even more complicated. If the person is “leaning” (I use this word loosely) its cheek against the sun, then the sun is behind the person’s head, and the person is behind the dog (if we assume that the person’s body occupies the same plane as its head). Or, if the person is looking at the sun, then the person is standing in the background and the sun is somewhere closer to the viewer, but still behind the dog. Glancing down at the dog’s face, though, its eyes reveal that the sun is just above, impossibly in front of the dog. I cannot help but recall Cézanne’s use of perspectives with his impossible table in The Basket of Apples from 1895. The effect of Cézanne’s technique documents the passage of time. The two ends of the table could not have been viewed in the same instant; a twentieth century person could achieve the same visual effect by taking a photograph of each end and pasting them together, presenting two separate moments in time in the same context. This style is very objective, and of course it provided inspiration for the artists who started Cubism. In contrast, Miró has often been associated with the Surrealist and Abstract movements, but that is why it is exciting to consider the effect of such a similar technique in a very different style. As in Cézanne’s painting, Miró’s depicts the passage of time, but it also explores two beings’ different sensory perspectives of the same thing, the sun. It is a more subjective and playful effect, and gives the painting movement. The viewer realizes that two companions who are side by side cannot be stationary if each is to see the sun at a different point in the sky.
After getting to know Miró’s more famous style, it is jarring to discover his early work, in which he experimented with several styles of painting. Two examples are “Prades, the Village,” from 1917, which he deemed to be Fauvist, and “ Nude with Mirror,” from 1919, which was an attempt at Cubism. Both seem too busy, stuffed with pattern and color, and not especially remarkable. “Prades, the Village” in particular, focuses on color, form, and line so intensely that one does not dominate and let the others enhance it, nor is there a harmonious blend of all three. Geometric forms, including pointy shapes, curves, and squiggles, are piled atop one another. The style for which Miró is famous is so successful that it seems ludicrous that he ever tried anything else. The painting feels stiff and forced; the colors are bright, but not carefully chosen. The pinks, yellows, and light blues contrast strangely with the more subdued sky, and the application of color seems random. Some areas are carefully filled in, while others have highlights or splotches. The row of buildings in the background are rather realistic shapes, but covered in various color like patchwork. There is a triangular section in the middle ground (the base along the buildings and the point extending into the large tree-like form) which seems to fit in the style of the buildings, but that seems to be all that is coordinated. The wavy lines to the right suddenly introduce soft pastel pinks and blues that float in the yellow field, and these are the only forms without contour lines to enclose them. On the far left, the stacked lines appear out of place because they flatten the painting in only that spot. The bright rows of color in the lower left-hand corner are their only connection to the rest of the piece. At last, Miró goes a step further and introduces jagged lightning bolts and scallops on the lower right-hand side. Perhaps the jagged forms are meant to repeat the shape of the pointy greenery, but the shape itself is very vibrant, and becomes overwhelming repeated in different colors. Furthermore, there are other tree-like forms that are gentler, like grains of rice, scattered across the middle of the painting, and then some shapeless green below the yellow field on the right. It is as if there are four or five paintings squashed together into a sampler platter with clashing colors, styles, and shapes.
There is too much going on; the viewer looks at everything at once, without focusing on any one point. Ironically, I wonder if his more successful works, though refined, have not left either “Nude with Mirror” or “Prades, the Village” too far behind. Although Miró did not continue painting in any sort of Analytic Cubist style, he certainly kept the Cubist idea of denying recession into depth. The similarities between Miró’s “Prades, the Village” and his later works, however, are not so obvious. Yet, in the former, he paints a busy landscape against a subdued sky, the focus being the landscape. Then, in a painting from the Constellation series of the 1940s, “Poetess,” he paints a busy arrangement of shapes against a subdued sky. Of course, major differences between these two works include a simplified palette and a narrowed choice of forms. “Poetess” has only four colors besides white and black, as opposed to more than fifteen in “Prades, the Village,” and it is composed mainly of circles. The viewer still may find his or her eyes darting around, trying to take in everything at once, but it is because the subject of the work is a constellation. Like “Prades, the Village,” it is a busy scene; however, in “Poetess” some of the busyness comes from the black lines and smaller black shapes that do not forcefully hold the viewer’s attention. Although “Prades, the Village” is in many ways completely unlike “Poetess,” it is interesting to note that this key idea does not seem to have changed drastically.
In fact, it may be seen in “Upside Down Figures” as well. If Miró had forgotten to paint the eyes and noses, this painting would have one abstract, complicated figure with an asterisk beside it. He has developed a recognizable style of organic shapes and few, bold colors, which is a far cry from “Prades, the Village.” Yet, maybe it is possible to imagine that this work is still a busy image in front of a washed-out background.
Miró is an amazing artist who has come a long way from his early attempts at painting. He finally developed the unique style that I love, of combining carefully-chosen bright colors with smooth, simple shapes to produce child-like compositions. However, his work is not superficial or juvenile; rather, it is deliberately executed so that the result is easily and immediately enjoyable. In addition, continued viewing may reveal deeper meanings or multiple interpretations. I am filled with contentment when I study my favorite paintings of his – of which there are many – but there are also plenty that I would rather not spend time with. For instance, even though I profited intellectually from “Prades, the Village,” by recognizing a connection between that and later works, I did not enjoy all of the time I spent studying it. It is difficult to make a painting that is simple enough to make the viewer feel free, yet successful enough that it is miles above a child’s scrawl, and when Miró accomplishes this, it is magical.