The work of the Catalan artist Joan Miró (1893-1983) appears to be quite familiar, so popular are the artist's hallucinatory paintings. The most recognisable of these, made around the middle of the 20th century, feature a dream-like mishmash of abstract and figurative elements, shapes, colours and creatures that swim in absorbing fields of colour. Reds, greys, blues and blacks feature prominently. Tate Modern, however, where the first retrospective of Miró in London for nearly 50 years has just opened, wants to convince us that, actually, we don't know Miró at all, and that, behind those easy-to-appreciate paintings is an artist committed to both painting, politics and the power of art.
Though born in Barcelona and raised in Spain, Miró was, for a time, part of a Parisian intellectual circle exploring Surrealism, including André Breton, who called him 'the most surreal of us all'. However, though some of Miró's paintings from the 1920s such as The Tilled Field (1923-24) have some of the qualities reminiscent of Surrealist paintings (floating eyes and ears, hybrid animals, dark shading on objects that gives them a sinister, unreal quality), Miró was, in essence, somewhat distant from the Surrealist movement. He was particularly unsure of its tying of art to radical Communist politics, believing it was naïve to think artists could intervene directly in history.
While this has led to an interpretation of Miró that unhooks him, like one of his floating apparitions, from the turbulent politics of the day, the curators of Tate Modern's exhibition, Marko Daniel and Matthew Gale, have created an exhibition that repositions Miró as an artist who created work that indirectly, but nonetheless persuasively, took account of social realities and struggles. Indeed, in Miró's words, an artist who "uses his voice to say something, and who has the obligation that this thing not be useless but something that offers a service to man".
We are reintroduced to Miró, in this forceful new appraisal, by way of his parents' home in Mont-roig del Camp, Catalonia, which roots us in a small crop of farm buildings, a village and landscape of tilled fields populated by a few animals. These elements feature in the paintings at the start of the exhibition, all of which were made by the young artist between 1917 and 1923.
These paintings, though they depict the same landscape, show Miró experimenting with a great array of atmospheres and styles. The Rut (1918), for example, is a painting of a soft track surrounded by springy, blossoming foliage – not earth or mud as we know it, but a gentle, mallowy ground populated by the spindly fronds of weeds. In other paintings, the farm buildings and animals are depicted in heavy graphic lines and sun-blown colours, before we see, in works such as Catalan Landscape (The Hunter) (1923-4), the world stripped back – a vast watermelon-coloured landscape in a Chartreuse sky, populated by the style of shapes that we associate with Miró – abstract ovoids and rectangles that might be animals or buildings or even symbolic depictions of emotions, that are connected by spindly black lines.
What follows is an extraordinary journey that allows us to appreciate the artist's development through his own work and the politics of his time, marked by the dictatorships of Primo de Rivera and General Franco, whose regime Miró described as a 'struggle against everything that represents the pure value of the spirit'. But it's this very quality of spirit that Miró's work so powerfully communicates, throughout every painful turn in these violent decades, in Spain and beyond.
The painting, Flight of a Bird over the Plain (1939), for example, communi
cates a heady mix of fear, desperation and hope. Though the canvases are mainly painted in a muddy brown, as if depicting the inside of a dark hole, soft areas of pastel-coloured paint occasionally light up floating figures. Though the 'birds' in the paintings are meant to be a cross between birds and the bomber planes that were decimating Europe, each is surrounded by a calming glow.
Soon after come Miró's Constellations – small, densely packed paintings on paper, made around 1940 as Europe went to war – that are densely confusing, where shapes and colours swim on a wash of half-lit greys, greens and pinks. Among these is the beautiful The Morning Star, a painting, paler in hue than the rest of the series and featuring pale pinks, yellows and blues, but which nevertheless contains an alarming face with five eyes, wailing in painful anxiety. He reserved this painting for his wife, Pilar.
In the post-war period, the artist began experimenting with his painting and the work of American artists such as Jackson Pollock (who acknowledged in the 1940s that he was an admirer of Miró's). Heused larger canvases of intense colour, while employing some of the techniques he had used early on in his career, such as the use of a thin cross near the centre of an abstract painting that acts as an anchor, preventing the viewer from drowning in a chromatic sea.
These later works are all but divested of any particularly surreal qualities, and appear to tackle subjects and situations in the abstract. Having said as a young man that he wanted to "assassinate painting", 40 years later he began doing just that, with his "burnt canvases" – bright paintings that are part destroyed, revealing the charred wooden frames and supports but still managing to sing with primary colour. There's beauty among the ruins. These workssuggest there is something to fight for, to cherish: a spark, a flash of light.
The image of a fragile ladder features again and again in Miró's paintings. This is much more than a motif; it's a way of thinking about hope. Nowhere is this clearer than in the exhibition's revelatory moment: Miró's sets of huge triptych paintings. Four of these are exhibited in specially constructed "chapels", based on the artist's wishes. While the first room features deliriously colourful paintings to set your heart alight (a set of three blue paintings, and a red, orange and green), the second, featuring six sombre white paintings, is painful enough to make your heart stop. In here, The Hope of a Condemned Man (1974) series is made up of three white paintings, a blank space save for pale green and black splashes near the bottom edges creating the faint echo of a landscape.
Those visitors attracted to the moody, baleful, suicidal thrum of the works in the Rothko room at the Tate Modern, should visit these two chapel-like spaces, as their message is so utterly different. "My nature is actually pessimistic," Miró once said. "When I work, I want to escape this pessimism". He does, and he takes us with him, beautifully.
Joan Miró: The Ladder of Escape, Tate Modern, SE1 (020 7887 8888) 14 April to 11 SeptemberReuse content