Even if they don’t peak at an early age, most artists tend to do their best work sooner rather than later. But Spanish Catalan painter/sculptor Joan Miró was the rare exception, as shown by “Miró: The Experience of Seeing,” on display at Duke University’s Nasher Museum of Art.
Subtitled “Late Works, 1963-1981,” the show draws from the final two decades of the artist’s career. And Miró, who continued working right up until his death at age 90 in 1983, showed just as much spark at the end as at the beginning – the 1930s and ’40s, when he was closely aligned with the surrealist painters in Paris.
“The revelation of this show is just how creative and prolific Miró stayed over those last 20 years,” said Marshall Price, the Nasher’s coordinating curator. “Most artists who achieve international renown get a thing and stay with it. Their more mature work might not be their best. But even late in life, Miró was pushing boundaries and not resting on laurels.”
“The Experience of Seeing” first showed in Seattle with 51 works drawn from Madrid’s Museo Reina Sofia. After closing at the Nasher in February, it will be displayed at museums in Denver and San Antonio before the works go back to the Miró collection at Sofia, Spain’s national museum of 20th-century art.
“Miró is one of the 20th century’s greatest artists,” said T.J. Hines, a retired Kent State University professor of comparative literature whose 1991 book “Collaborative Form” includes a chapter on Miró. “With Spanish artists, everybody talks about Pablo Picasso. But I never wrote on Picasso because everyone else did. I’m a Miró aficionado, and this exhibit is very fine. These are all late works, some of them true masterworks. That’s rare.”
Inspiration from the land
The work in this particular chapter of Miró’s career grew out of his 1956 move into a new custom-built studio in Mallorca, a Mediterranean island off Spain’s east coast. The artist took inspiration from his new outdoor surroundings, taking daily walks to collect whatever items caught his eye.
“No objects were out of bounds, even if he didn’t always use them right away,” Price said. “He would let objects speak to him. A peer of his once said, ‘When I pick up a stone, it’s a stone. When Miró picks up a stone, it’s a Miró.’ ”
Eventually, these objects would find their way into sculptures that Miró cast in bronze using a process called “Lost Wax.” The artist would assemble these scraps of stone, wood, metal and other objects into figures; make wax molds that he also drew or carved into; and then cast the whole thing in bronze – at which point the wax evaporated, leaving only the bronze renderings.
Miró’s humanoid sculptures were a creation of what Price calls “the phantasmagoric world of the living monster,” and a lot of the ones with horns look like something out of Maurice Sendak’s 1963 classic children’s book “Where the Wild Things Are.” They have playful touches, too, like 1969’s generically titled “Figure,” in which a gourd festooned with fondue forks serves as a chapeau that might even be a crown.
But these works aren’t meant to be abstract.
“Miró was not an abstract artist and was adamant about not being called that,” Price said. “His art isn’t abstract but abstracted, and rooted in reality. One reason he gave so many of his works the generic titles he did, like ‘Figure’ or ‘Sun Woman,’ was to reiterate that they were rooted in the real world. He always said, ‘Your feet must be firmly on the ground before you can jump high in the sky.’ ”
Crescents, teardrops, stars
Miró also took inspiration from the prehistoric cave paintings in Altamira (on the coast of northern Spain, which he visited around the same time he moved into the Mallorca studio), and their depiction of abstract shapes as well as animals. Both the paintings and sculptures in “The Experience of Seeing” have many of the same visual symbols repeated from work to work – crescents, teardrops, stars.
These create a narrative vocabulary of sorts, best shown in the iconic 1966 painting “Woman, Bird and Star (Homage to Picasso).” This tribute to Miró’s better-known peer has all his “greatest hits” of recurrent images, rendered in bright colors on a textured background.
“Looking at Miró’s paintings, you’ve got to stand in front of them for a while and use your imagination to take it all in,” Hines said. “I don’t think you can read his painterly language right away. He used color as well as figures, all these little swirly things that were like a sign alphabet; Egyptian hieroglyphs or Chinese characters. And he did this over 30 or 40 years.”