Regarding the credit of reality: images and transfigurations by Antoni Miró
Joan F. Mira
Only Antoni Miró’s gentle insistence has been able to overcome the reservations that so often make me doubt the opportuneness of writing on subjects in which my competence is slight, such as on painting and painters, as it is now the case. Yet this painter’s will -the will of making me discuss painting, his painting in particular- has finally proved to be more powerful than my doubts. It is also true that those of us who practice with more or less frequency the uncertain art, or the bad habit, of the essay -that risky “literature of ideas”- must now and again discuss matters in which we are by no means experts; otherwise we would not devote ourselves to the essay, which is by definition an attempt or a trial, and in its place we would simply produce scholarly work or research and academic prose. Be that as it may, I have referred to my “slight competence” on the art of painting, and I didn’t mean by it perfect ignorance or complete darkness; in short, as many others, I have tried to live through the years with open eyes, a touch of universal curiosity and an open mind concerning the things that take place around me, especially in that immense and undefined sphere we call “culture”. Also as many others, I have been a frequent visitor of the museums one has to visit, and I either own or am acquainted with some of the books -on or about art, on painters and painting- that one should supposedly be familiar with, and store in the home library. Therefore the comments on, or with regard to, Antoni Miró’s most recent work will only be founded on the small margin that separates the condition of not being actually a specialist, and that of someone able to provide reflections born out of curiosity and interest, rather than out of the authority of a scholar.
As I write this text I am facing, as it were, some examples of my very modest painting collection (to a greater extent composed of graphic work than of originals, and too small th at to speak of a real “collection”), hanging on the walls th at are not filled with books. In a work by Ràfols Casamada, a black rectangle forms the frame of an irregular blue background, on top of which thick black lines reproduce two right angles, large and small, a triangle, an acute angle and two other small shapes, nothing else. In another work by the same artist, frames have been drawn that are reminiscent of a guillotine window (at least they remind me of a guillotine window, I’m not sure whether that is their intention), and here one half of the background is whitish yellow, the other half is striped in blue or grey. In a print by Tàpies, a large “X” and a short horizontal sign stand out, as well as the arithmetical minus sign, on either side of ochre shading, a mesh of lines and the figures “2” and “3”. In a picture by Salvador Soria one can guess the shape of a frame, and perhaps that of a guitar or a similar instrument, in dry brown tones. In one work by Alfaro there are traces of the pure geometries of the type that appear in his “generative” sculptures, yet in another we find very neat drawings of feminine nudes, under the title Les dones de Pablo (P ablo’s Women), forming the sole of the foot of a figure. Hernández Mompó fills a large white sheet of paper w ith lively-coloured signs, among which we come across free-flowing letters forming words: campo, perfil, color, rezando, diferente, todos, ríen... (Field, profile, colour, praying, everyone, laughing...). In a print by Pilar Dolç -I wonder whether anyone else makes more perfect prints- a fence or a wall is made up of minutely detailed stones, including moss and lichen stains. In a work by Valdes, a face made up by different planes -as in certain Cubist pictures by Braque or Picasso- includes a newspaper clipping, a true papier collé. Similarly, another image that hangs alongside the Valdés, a portrait in blue of the Count Duke of Olivares, also presents a piece of newspaper on the subject of sport; the reader will recognise, in this last example, the hand of Antoni Miró. In case the reference should not be clear, the words Comte-Duc. Pinteu Pintura (Count Duke. Paint Painting) appear at the bottom. Suffice explanations, or I shall be too prolix. Less than a dozen works by contemporary domestic artists, gathered randomly on the same wall, are enough to confirm what seems to be most important —that the art of our times enjoys, thank God, a freedom unheard of in history. Freedom, above all, to refer or not refer to “reality”, to ignore it, remake it, interpret it, build it о distort it. Freedom to create only groups of lines and colours, to combine signs and graphic images, or to present faithful portraits of famous characters or precise stones out of a rough wall. To dispense with words and explicit references, or to introduce them, either within or at the foot of the picture.
And all this, if everything is weighed up, had never happened before. It has been possible during this terrible, endless twentieth century —during the last one hundred years, not before. I’m not sure whether it began to be possible following Monet’s views of the Cathedral of Rouen, and Cézanne’s apples and bathers, or only after Matisse, Picasso and Kandinsky, but certainly before all this, such a form of freedom did not exist. I mean the freedom to paint near or far from, inside or outside, above or below, reality. So much so that, somehow (or at least in the opinion of someone like myself, with such little expertise) the substantial dividing line of the art of our century is this relationship with “external” reality, or with its image and its shape — at one end, an non-existent relationship and one which is totally strict at the other. The most rigorous concrete, or the absolute ab stract. And in between, with infinite variations, any possible distance or proximity. There is no need to be a specialist, I insist — everybody understands that Andy Warhol or Antonio López, so different from one another, are on the same end, and Pollock or Eusebi Sempere, so “antagonistic”, are on the opposite. It is merely an issue of general culture (or it should be, if these bits of “culture” were truly general), the same as the fact that one extreme and the other, as well as everything “in between”, are equally modern. Funnily enough, there is a certain popular perception according to which “modern art” is that which is not realist, th at which does not depict or represent “things as they are”, that which is not concrete and not “easy to understand”. Even worse — modern art, precisely because it is modern, should be incomprehensible, ugly (ugly means “not pretty”), or both. And if it is comprehensible to the layman, if it is pleasant to the eyes and if it presents clearly identifiable shapes and referents, it is no longer regarded modern but classical, or even “ancient” and out-dated. Given this state of affairs, which unfortunately happens to be widely-held, a rarefied and distant relationship has been created between contemporary art and the audience and beneficiaries it addresses, who should be an increasingly larger part of society. As to the relationship between artists, dealers, critics and buyers, this is altogether another matter -conceptual or monetary- at times even more inscrutable.
In 1955 a still very young Joan Fuster published a small book, short yet intense, with a very thought-provoking title — El descrèdit de la realitat (The Discredit of Reality). With an intelligence and almost miraculous variety of knowledge to be held in the País Valenciano of the period, the book presented a view of European art, from Giotto to the mid-twentieth century, centred precisely on this subtle and crucial line connecting the artist to the reality he represents. Until actually he stops representing it, and the line begins to twist and become vague, or even completely breaks. This process could have perhaps begun in the Baroque period — how real or “realistic” is a great deal of Velázquez’ or Rembrandt’s painting when viewed at short distance? In other words, when viewed strictly as painting, as a sumand combination of brushstrokes of colour? If the “discredit” begins here, subsequently continues with Goya and deepens with the Impressionists and with Cezanne, it reaches its peak in the different lines of non-representational or abstract art, which in Fuster’s eyes culminate in Kandinsky, Mondrian and Klee. Fuster is completely indifferent to geometric abstraction, by the way, and he even allows himself to congenially reproduce the opinion according to which non-representational art is little more than mere ornamentation: “Abstract art” -he writes- “is condemned, by its own principles, to say nothing, and it is precisely what it does say, what it communicates, what makes art useful. Abstract art, silent, only proves to be beautiful — and a work of man that is exclusively beautiful, has a specific qualifier: it is decorative.” Such a statement is probably quite unfair and limiting, yet at all events it gives us a motive to pose other additional or complementary issues, such as the relationship between the work of art and the beauty it comprises (Tautology? Can there be an art that does not comprise some form of beauty? And many other questions), and its relationship with the “message” it transmits, communicates or transports (Can a work of art say nothing?). However we will deal with all this, and above all with what Antoni Miró’s paintings say, later on.
All this is very elementary, and if I have begun with this small digression, showing my scarce scholarly knowledge, I have done so in order to show the reader of the present volume, or the visitor of this exhibition, how I believe Antoni Miró’s oeuvre should be approached, within the multiplicity of versions, lines and trends of twentieth-century art, and in order that we should bear in mind that the adherence to reality -even the strictest adherence- is also, and very radically, one of such versions of modernism or of “contemporaneity”. Not in vain is photography, and painting executed about or “in the style of’ photography, one of the most representative forms of such contemporary art. This has been very well expressed, in an infinitely m ore au thorised way, by Professor Romà de la Calle in another introductory text to the same works, entitled Antoni Miró: imatges de les imatges (Antoni Miró: Images of Images). He states, for instance: “ ...it has been suggested at times that Antoni Miró’s images are capable of both attaining the possible coolness, hardness, distance and cruelty of photography, and of emphasising, contrarily, the descriptively vital contact with the referent.” This remark contains certain concepts I would like to comment upon —photography, he says, captures the object in a hard, cold, cruel and distanced way, therefore supposedly the more “photographic” -i.e., the more exact and “objective”- the painter’s presentation of reality is, the closer he will get to presenting it with this set of attributes or qualities. Nevertheless, these attributes -the qualities of coldness or hardness under which the referent appears - can be offset or completed by a “descriptively vital contact”, in other words, by the lively warm approach, tender and full of meaning, that the painter practices and expresses in the act of presenting the object -the referent itself, the reproduced, interpreted or created reality- in this particular way, with these specific ideological and emotional connotations.
With this practice, reality once again recovers all the “credit” that Fuster thought -and feared- it had progressively lost. I’m unsure whether it is correct to state that “reality” attains its maximum discredit with geometric abstraction or with the different variants of Informalism; in short, in this case it is a question of producing another version or dimension in the infinite field of possible realities, not restricted to those that come “from without” but comprising also those that come “from within”. In any event, Fuster’s fears (that even led him to think that we could he facing the final collapse of European art as it has been understood since Giotto began to paint sheep “from life”) were totally unfounded: reality, i.e., “Realism” and even the most extreme of realisms, has a guaranteed place, without any risk or danger, in the art of our times, however this Realism is practised, expressed and understood. In Monet and in Pissarro, reality was broken up and dissolved, to the point of being defined as merely an uncertain and fleeting “impression”, one that has faded away, one that is unreal — so unreal that its truth consisted precisely of such vagueness and transitoriness. Yet at the same time, from Braque’s collages or Duchamp’s artefacts to the most recent Pop Art or Hyper-realism, it has maintained in the most various manners its credit, its consistency and the solidity of permanent defined forms — not an impression, but a state or condition; not a transitory truth, but a firm perennial one. It is quite obvious that here, in this credit of reality - which had never been lost and which has been renewing and expressing itself in so many ways - is where Antoni Miró’s oeuvre is consciously and vitally established.
This also implies that Antoni Miró has positioned himself, fully and consciously, within an illustrious accredited tradition, and therefore it is neither gratuitous nor fortuitous that so many of his works should enable us to illustrate a kind of “return to the sources”, as if we should thus be able to gather an anthology of distinguished precedents. Some say that the avant-garde trends of the first third of the century -or even of the first quarter- invented or reinvented all possible art, and that from then on all that follow are comments, unease, repetitions and very often ephemeral trivialities, devoid of all substance and interest. I don’t know whether this is true to a large or small degree, yet I do know that a significant proportion of the art of this extreme end of the century is a tribute (directly or indirectly, via an approximation or a will of distancing) to the masters of the years in which the century was still young. It would be better therefore, that the tribute be a conscious and grateful one, such as those that Antoni Miró repeatedly devotes to Magritte and to Picasso, or to the Quatre Gats1 on a bicycle, and if I am not mistaken, to the fruits and bottles by Juan Gris, which remind me of father Cézanne, the grandfather of them all. In any event, the observer can confidently make his own choice of references, “quotations” or remembered images. One can evoke, for instance, Braque’s collages with chair bases, violins, glasses or newspapers. One can recall Duchamp’s bicycle wheel (as early as 1913!), or his famous urinal Fountain, alongside these more or less ready-made bicycles - Вісі de passeig, Вісі plegada, Вісі dinàmica (Outing Bike; Folded Bike; Dynamic Bike) -or the chilling porcelain lavatory pan Cel о nosa (Sky or Nuisance). One can imagine Picabia’s pieces of fantastic precise machinery, with thought-provoking titles such as Parade amoureuse or Voilà la fille née sans mère, after contemplating these machines by Toni Miró that seem to have emerged from an industrial catalogue, yet are entitled Enginy de guerra (War machine) or Costa Blanca, and do not suggest metallic loves but destructions.
The observer can equally think, with the same confidence, that in most of these images and combinations of images by Antoni Miró there is a subtle touch -or a reference- of Surrealism, understood as the intention of making the real or realistic representation appear as an element of an illusion, a dream or a suggestion referring us to a world of inexpressible possibilities: a Bici d’aiguamoll (Marsh Bike), the unwonted bicycle that says “Volem l’impossible” (We want the impossible), Magritte’s pipes that are pipes (or maybe not), or a disturbing drawing in which some zebras are crossing the shiny paving of an Urban jungle -Selva urbana- that is not a jungle and that possesses a ghostly calm. By the way, we should bear in mind that if Dali endeavoured, as he himself wrote, “to contribute to the total discredit of the world of reality”, the impression is that the result is quite the opposite —reality, being sub-really or super-really interpreted, gains new credit and a new dimension. (Equally by the way, I recall few pictures as rigorously “Surrealist” as El ladrón de Bagdad (The Thief of Baghdad)... the creator or creators of which presented them selves under the well- known programmatical name of Equipo Realidad!). The watcher, upon seeing the numerous Coca-Cola cans by Antoni Miró can also recall Warhol’s tins of Campbell’s soup, or wonder whether the Gran boca (Large Mouth) that opens on to the chimney of a nuclear power plant is not also the m ore than famous red mouth of Marilyn Monroe. And, if we come across closer and more direct reverberations on this path, such as those of Equip Crònica, we are once again on home land. For if anyone among us has provided a new value and dimension to “Realism”, certainly Genovés and those who proposed the “Crònica de la realitat” (Chronicle of Reality) have; a chronicle that Antoni Miró, in his own personal way, has also attempted to “write” throughout the successive chapters of his book of images. And so, we would also come back to the “utility” of this art, to ideology, the critical charge and the “message” it attempts to transmit. A “Count-Duke” by Equip Crònica and one by Antoni Miró - despite the different “national framework” from where they are conceived, Spanish in one case, Valencian and Catalan in the other - transmit the same idea: power is arrogant and grotesque, and we can face up to it by associating its image with the elements that em phasise banality, such as a piece of old new spaper or a ridiculous pair of scissors cutting a ribbon.
I alluded earlier on to the freedom of associating, or not associating painting (painting or sculpture, “plastic” works) with words, which amounts to the possibility of including, or not including an explicit relationship, with words and thus with concepts, between the image and the “message”. At least this is how a spectator such as myself, more or less innocent, understands it when, visiting a museum or an exhibition, inevitably approaches the wall in order to read the card or label accompanying the work contemplated. The viewer then becomes a reader — a read er of one single word perhaps, yet enough to imagine, also inevitably, that the image he contemplates is in one way or another an “illustration” of the text th at comes with it, or that the text - the title - is an “explanation” of the image. This is sow hether this relationship is perceived at first sight as being direct and very clear, or else as being veiled, ambiguous, intriguing or incomprehensible. This necessary association between image and word is proved by the fact that when the work is accompanied by the label “Untitled”, the naive spectator, again inevitably, finds himself either perplexed or anxious to discover for himself the missing verbal referent. When this form of concretion -the title- is associated with the Informel or abstract work, the looker’s perplexity is able to acquire a completely different character — Why, will he wonder on more than one occasion, is it “called” this, and not something else? When the word is associated with images that refer us to “concrete” or known “realities”, the title can be understood as a mere label that is no more than an obvious remark, like an “explanation” of the work, an allusion, a suggestion, a riddle, an ideological statement, an irony, a trick or a resort of the artist, either to disconcert us or to insure we transcend the “first impression” and continue searching and thinking. I say all this because I feel that in many of the works in the present Vivace series by Antoni Miró - probably also in previous series - I find it difficult to view the images totally independent of the words I am able to read as titles, insofar as the titles themselves -the words- may be the link to a referred “reality” -the concept, the “intention”- towards which the image should lead us, according to the designs of the artist. What I wish to express is very simple: if a picture such as Mar sinuosa (Sinuous Sea) were to bear another title, such as “Venus Emerging from the Waves”, would we see it in exactly the same way? Wouldn’t the mythological reference, for instance, lead us to associate the act of viewing with certain connotations that are perhaps remote from this physical sinuosity of the fragments of body over the wavy sea?
However, I have also stated that the connotation may be purely denotative or descriptive, such as Tors antropomorf acèfal (Headless A nthropom orphic Torso), presenting a touch of irony in its superfluous explanation; ideological, such as the towers of the nuclear power station Sense futur (No Future), or a mouth sealed by the Mala sort (Bad Luck) of being black and probably poor; or strictly literary, such as the titles of a distinctly Ausiàs March style of La mar se plany (The Sea Complains) or Essent Absent (Being Absent). By the way: Who is absent from this small sea of thighs drawn in grey and black, and of white bottoms triangulated by the sun, or who would want to be present? How much literature can be made taking this drawing as a point of departure? And so we could go on, playing along with the images, words, allusions and suggestions, while trying to follow the artist’s intention -who in the long run is the inventor of the game- without losing sight of the fact that, very often, this is precisely the intention — to play, to either wink at us or lead us to the trick, the ambiguity and the contradiction. As in the drawing Mon cor (My Heart), where the gaze ranges from the “sentimental” reference of the title, to the face of a serious worried young girl, and finally to that unexpected spot - not exactly the heart! - Between the thighs, either chaste or im modest, full of innocence or of naughtiness. That very same treacherous spot - the same trick, in this case a minimum white triangle - where the spectator’s glance may stray while he contemplates A joc de daus (To A Game of Dice) and wonders what on earth is meant by this provocative feminine image superimposed on such a harsh fragment of Picasso’s Guernica; “to a game of die I will compare you” says the line by Ausiàs March, and the spectator is left uneasy, at a loss to find a comparison. Or full of the perplexity caused by another of the many tricks the painter has prepared for us — the woman in Μà і gairell (Hand and Oblique) is a solid compact body, slanted, veering, confidently resting one hand on the impossible support of a pillar made of geometric lines instead of stone or of any other matter; yet the immaterial non-existent pillar projects a compact shadow over the thigh, and then we no longer know what to think, and it is precisely the “knack” or trick what opens up a whole field of suggestions that would otherw ise not exist.
As a writer, not a painter or an art eritic, I am particularly attracted to this universe of possibilities that opens up with the play of images -and the way in which the artist offers these images- the referents of the images, the words accompanying them, the clear or ambiguous allusions, the dream or emotion, the irony, the ideology, the history of art and the world in which we live. Yet I will try to curb my literary instinct, and restrict myself to observing that the world in which we live is made up of these very “realities”, accredited or discredited, painted, cut out, gathered or presented here by Antoni Miró, like a small anthology of natural history transformed into contemporary history. Initially, as in the first days of creation, there are the air and water, the clouds, the sea and marshes, the earth, the plants and trees. And animals. It could be a world which is still innocent, yet mostly it isn’t — the human presence, or that of man-made human or inhuman artefacts, is an impediment. At other times, this original world does retain its purity and the primitive force of pacific clouds or stormy seas, or its innocence in white and blue, reinforced by an equally innocent gaze — Ausiàs al capvespre (Ausiàs at Nightfall) observing the line of the horizon, as on the day on which Jehovah separated the waters of the sky from the waters of the earth.
Yet much more often this human presence adopts the form of a disconcerting interference (What kind of company, or what sort of a contradiction do the bicycles over the sea or over the marshes, for instance, attempt to imply?), or even the form of a violent aggression. When a Bici-bou-blau (Bike-Bull-Blue) appears over the profile of a powerful tree, delicately shaded in, we are not sure whether “humanity” is in the machine - which is the work of men but that can charge with very sharp steel horns - or whether we have to search for it in the weak innocent tree. Yet when this very tree - and all its brother trees, equally ghostly - appears threatened by the metallic precision of an axe or of a digging machine, we do know with whom we should feel unreservedly identified: with the victim. Violence here, as in so much of Antoni Miro’s oeuvre, is an expression of evil, and this evil -an “ontological evil” even, if you will- is not only the aggression of certain men against others, but that of men against the very natural world they belong to. A world endlessly threatened, in which animals that are Condemnats (Condemned) either pile up in an inexpressive heap, like the blue and mauve turkey, or try to escape without knowing what they are escaping from, like the Zebres escàpols (Runaway Zebras), or look into our eyes, showing their ancient power and sovereignty, with the infinite sadness of the eagle (the stuffed eagle!), the tiger or the lion. For the jungle filled with dark threats is no longer the space where animals live or once lived, but the urban jungle of human beings; there is no place less inhabitable than this residue of a grey emaciated periphery, where these free animals that used to run innocently under the blue sky have ended up absurdly creating or staging a “zebra crossing”. In the most absurd of extremes, if we do not remedy it, the end product of this great urban artifice which is the “industrial civilisation” could be an immense Parc natural (Natural Park) made up of waste material, plastics, tins, bottles and drums, containing a hidden trick, as one other residue — a bare human skull which, who knows, is also perhaps plastified.
And it is in this world inevitably more and more urban, along with little architecture and a lot of history, by machines and various baubles -including artistic baubles- where human beings live, i. e., their bodies that transport the only life of the spirit on this earth. Bodies more or less clothed and, above all, nude bodies, and more female than male bodies, as if the female anatomy possessed a higher degree of a particular expressive capacity. (Or is it that the painter is a man and not a woman? Does the woman painter regard the male body as being equally expressive? I simply don’t know.) A Poema d’amor (Love Poem), therefore, could be a bottom covered with classical pink panties; a city street -America street, including the Coca-Cola can- is occupied or defined by a body without arms or a head; the Porta del cel (Door to Heaven) has as its solemn access Bernini’s colonnade from Saint Peter’s Square in the Vatican, and as its threshold a very soft velvety back and bottom, the same ones that divide in two, or multiply by two, another Colonnade, this one made of paper, concretely of newspaper cuttings - Columnata de paper. We do not know whether these backs and bottoms belong to the same woman Despullant-se (Undressing) impressively, like an autonomous monument floating in the void (yet this is not “real” either, it conceals a trick: no woman undresses like this, in such a monumental way), or whether, dressed and transformed into an “object-painting”, she could be Sappho, Aphrodite or Penelope. Or if she has lead an Afflicted Life - Vida atribolada - like the loyal, weary young girl that looks into our eyes, seated on a bar stool after having worked hard in the world of reality or in that of fiction. We also ignore the story of La noia amb el cànter (The Girl with Earthenw are Jug), the owner of another remarkable bottom (or of the same one — it appears to he an archetype). Yet, who would go to a desolate marsh or to a lagoon, instead of a fountain, in search of water with an earthenware jug? Nor are we aware of what Persona aquella (That Person) awaits, kneeling down and seemingly offering herself from behind, so elegantly, to a poor black man against the wall of misery. It goes without saying that human bodies can be as full of mystery as the sky and the sea.
And finally, among many other things, the world is full not only of bicycles but of shoes. Humble, ordinary, all too human shoes —the most autonomous, consistent and serious artefact of our dress and the one being closer to the ground and insulating us from contact with the earth. The shoe is another mystery, more so even than a pair of trousers, a hat or a blouse— nothing expresses in a better fashion the different moments of our uncertain path through life. Nothing partakes so directly of dust or of mud, of the rough or smooth condition of all paths; the path transforms the shoe, just as it transforms he who travels along it. And it is clear that a shoe is a shoe, however much Antoni Miró may persist in telling us the opposite, like Magritte’s pipe that didn’t want to be a pipe. These shoes do not act as shoes, they are painted in colours that are not shoe colours, their purpose is neither to protect nor to embellish feet as shoes do; they want to be “objects” transformed into works of art or something similar, poor little devils— yet they are shoes and they can’t help it.
Transfigured shoes, of course, and this is what sums the matter up, for the transfiguration of reality -even a reality as real as a true bicycle or shoe, not an image of a shoe or of a bicycle- is one of the secrets of the art of Antoni Miró. The transfiguration of reality in order to make its hidden dimensions -often concealed from us- visible, with the intention of re-establishing its credit, so often forgotten or lost. Such a feat, besides being a paradoxically clamorous secret, is truly an art in the full sense of the word, a fact that given the times we are living in, we must say is no slight achievement.