Miró, Joan: 'The Hunter, Catalan Landscape' (1923-4)

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The pure stick figure is quite a specialised and sophisticated form of notation, used in signs and diagrams. So far as child development goes, it's by no means primitive. Kids usually start drawing the human figure as a cephalopod, a kind of tadpole. There's an outlined blob, a rough round, with two single lines coming down from it. The blob represents the head, the two lines are legs. There are no arms. As for the torso, when asked to show where the tummy is, some children locate it within the head-blob, others just under the blob between the leg-lines.

These early child drawings already use two types of line: outline, marking the edge of a shape, and stick-line, standing for something long. Developed realistic drawing uses outline, of course, and many other types of line " lines that mean creases, ridges, surface markings, shading etc. It uses hair-lines too, single lines that depict things that are very thin, such as hairs, twigs, wires, strings, insect legs. But stick-lines proper, single lines that stand for relatively thick items, like a limb or a torso, aren't permitted in realistic drawings. Such items should be depicted with outlines. If you start introducing stick figures into realistic drawing, the effect will be weird.

Sometimes it is done, though, deliberately. For instance, in Struwwelpeter, the book of hair-raising cautionary rhymes created by Heinrich Hoffmann in the middle of the 19th century, you find the tale of 'Augustus, who would not eat his soup'. By day three of his food-strike he is totally skeletal, or indeed something worse. The illustration shows he has become a stick figure. It's a disturbing device. Within the style, these lines can only be hair-lines, meaning Augustus has now become unbelievably thin, as thin as a spider's leg. But it could be that, in response to his extreme emaciation, the image has just jumped style, into a form of drawing that carries no shape information at all. Augustus is beyond thin, not really a body at all, just lines in the air. It's actually a relief when he's safely in his grave.

In Modern art, this practice can go wilder. In Joan Miró's The Hunter, Catalan Landscape you find it happening everywhere. True, there are some orientation points is this weightless, linear scene. It has a landscape structure: a stretch of pinkish foreground, with beyond it a yellow sea coming to a horizon, and above that sky, also yellow. On the left stands the hunter with a black, conical, gun beside him. At the front there's a whiskered creature, which can be seen as a sardine or a rabbit. There are outbreaks of waves and seagulls on the right. But the round blob with the eye and the clock-hand " what's that?

The image takes legibility to the limit. It is a miscellany of almost every possible way a line can be used. You find line-types from realistic drawing, child drawing, cartoons, diagrams, and geometry. There are lines that mean rays of light and trajectory paths and radiations. There are full lines and dotted lines. But it's not quite a complete anthology of line. I can't find any shudder lines (as from a cartoon fight) or heat or odour lines (as from a cartoon pie or smelly sock). But there are a couple of turds on the ground with flame-like emanations, representing their smell " and these smell shapes echo the rabbit's red tongue and various other things. There are lots of visual puns.

It's an anarchic, pluralistic, playful scene. Its miscegenation is exuberant. Individual entities are built from a multitude of mutually exclusive styles. The hunter himself is mainly a stick figure, but he has a triangle head, and black tufts of beard hanging from its bottom line as if from a washing line, and a quite realistic burning pipe, and a little flaming grenade of a heart, floating in the air where his non-existent breast should be. The wavy stick-line that means his arms is easily confused with the outlines that mean land-edge and sea-horizon. The scale of things is all over the place.

But if the play was only about what means what, it wouldn't be so piquant. As in 'Augustus', there's also a play of sensation. Miró wrote of making 'a line or a point, just by itself, into something you can feel.' Here outlines and hair-lines and stick-lines get muddled up and lose their identities. The feeling of the world becomes unstable. Bodies shift, disintegrate, go solid and threadbare and totally unsubstantial. It's a picture you can sense between your fingers. Miró-world may be a light, jolly, playful place, but " like Struwwelpeter " it has a cruel turn.

THE ARTIST

Joan Miró (1893-1983) was a maker of worlds. The Catalan painter became a modern art version of the old visionary Hieronymus Bosch. He took a hint from the play of styles in Picasso's Cubism, and let it breed. The Miró cosmos is a half-loony phantasmagoria, a swarming suspension of insects, eyes, blobs, body parts, turds, letters, stars. There's a sophisticated pursuit of weirdness " and a farm-boy's sense of the ungraspable multiplicity of the natural world. In the 1920s, his creativity moves at an incredible pace. From 1940, the trademark style is set, and endlessly, repeated for decades.

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