Joan Miro: The Ladder of Escape

Miro: The Ladder Of Escape is an Aladdin’s cave of mind states. It takes you through Miro the artist, the thinker, the political activist, the Spaniard, the curious; deciphering exactly where, why and to what extent these aspects cropped up in his work.

The curators are eager to highlight their move away from ‘Miro the surrealist’ – a tag that underlines some of his work, but without which frees the rest to take on a variety of connotations.

The as yet slightly blinkered view of Miro’s work can be somewhat forgiven: termed “the most surrealist of us all” by Andre Breton, Miro’s work was seminal in the offsetting of the movement, and given its weight in history, you can’t disregard his involvement. However, and this is what the Tate have so closely honed in on, though his influence on the movement is key, the influence of the movement on his work is less prominent.

Surrealism is not shied away from: the bursting in of surrealist elements to his work is indeed a breakthrough in terms of expression, and the Dadaist influences on his work cater well to his means of expressing the political. But it is slotted into the grand scheme of his imaginative wanderings, presented more as a particular pair of glasses tried on over his political and imaginative outlook – how does this approach work as a filter for what he wanted to express? Perhaps, for Breton, this does make him ‘the most surrealistic’ of the surrealists in one form: his was a fragmented view through a surrealist lens, rather than a polished package dedicated to the art of the surreal.

For some, shaking the label hasn’t quite worked. Alastair Sooke in The Telegraph has contested that “while Miró began as a Fauve, painting finicky pictures of his beloved Catalan countryside, he came of age as a Surrealist.” For Sooke, the term ‘Ladder of Escape’ in fact enhances the surrealist position: “surely its message is that art can offer refuge from reality.”

For me it was with this exhibition that Miro is demonstrated to be the exact opposite, with his Ladder of Escape connecting reality with the heavens of imagination rather than finding his comfort spot of expression. It depicts a much more interactive relationship between reality and creative expression than the “refuge” Sooke suggests.

Whether you bit the bullet and picked up one of those headphone packs or not (I didn’t) you’re guided synonymously through his parallel timelines as a civilian and an artist like the two sides of a ladder. Each room acts as a new rung on the ladder as you stop to pause and reassess his new perspective and how he reacted to it. With Miro’s retrospective opinions on certain paintings written beside them you’re even given his opinion on the whole show. This is particularly striking with Still Life with Old Shoe, arguably one of his most successful works, which uses quite uncharacteristically psychedelic colours and contours, something Miro only recognizes himself years later looking back.

Making a clear cross-reference between his earlier work in the first rooms and his initial ventures into surrealism, they demonstrate the working progress of Miro’s artistic approach.

Of course, the focus of spectators and press has been the two newly built octagonal rooms to display, for the first time, four of Miro’s five large-scale triptychs, with the final one united on a single wall in the last room. The effect is powerful, and once you’re there it seems like these vast octagonal hubs are the only way they could have possibly been presented. The exhibition’s co-curator Marko Daniel said: “The triptych was a traditional format which tended to have religious overtones. In the 20th Century its format was rediscovered by contemporary artists … They allow the viewer to engage with a very physical space. That’s particularly important to Miro. They have a really monumental presence. The viewer is quite strongly and physically affected by it. It’s a marvellous experience.” Indeed, it did appear to have that effect on people, with some circling speedily, some right up close, some lying on the bench in the middle to get a view of it all.

Unfortunately toeing the line, for me, was the presentation of his sculptures, presented in the middle of big statement pieces. Although it aesthetically appears logical to group this different artistic venture under a header of ‘spectacular’, the mass of work together detracts from the individual strength of each piece. It looks like they could almost have attributed a whole new exhibition to Miro’s ceramics. But better included than not, making the entire display a holistic representation of Miro’s artistic adventures.

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