Antoni Miró: reality transcended into images
José María Iglesias
With its specific characteristics, Antoni Miró’s work plays a leading role within a specific tradition in contemporary art, called “a Chronicle of Reality”which is deeply rooted in the Valencian Country, as defined by Vicente Aguilera Cerni1. In my opinion, this tradition can be attributed to the Fallas -a sort of local pop-art before the “official” American canon-. The way I see it, the power of the Fallas to communicate, the immediacy of their allegories and their sharp criticism make them an important reference for this “Chronicle of Reality”. As happens with the lyrics sang by the bands in Cadis Carnivals, each yearly presentation is a rich, ferocious critique of the events of the previous year. In fact, the Chronicle of Reality shows a number o f coincidences with “Social Realism”, although it is based on a different, more elaborate type of connotations; there is much less affinity, if any, with the “Socialist Realism” which was so rightly criticized by Adorno2.
A number of antecedents come to my mind, which created the background in which Antoni Miró entered the world of arts. It might be worth mentioning the exhibition “Three Painters and a Subject”, at the Alfil Gallery (Madrid, 1956). The painters were José Ruiz Pemias, José Ortega and Pascual Palacios Tárdez. The subject, as described by the latter: “an account of the miserable life led by the inhabitants of the countless slums in the surroundings of the capital”3. The exhibition was greatly attended and had great repercussions, especially in university circles. The exhibition was restaged at the Ximénez de Cisneros College, supplemented by lectures and debates on the subject. Everything, of course, under the watchful eye of the police, satisfied with opening a file on the three artists... With the exception of Ruiz Pernias, who had moved to Paris, such was the idea and the state of affairs leading to La Estampa Popular [The People’s Picture], which as early as 1960 held its first exhibition, incorporating other artists sharing the same goals: Ricardo Zamorano from Valencia, Antonio R. Valdivieso from Granada, Javier Clavo, Ortiz Valiente, Luis Garrido, and Dimitri Papageorgiu, a Greek painter already living in Spain (where he still resides). A short time later more artists joined in. They chose engraving as the medium, for the lower price allowed a wider distribution, and xylography and linoleum as techniques, as they valued highly the strength and austerity they gave to the message those painters aimed to put through, which was no other than denouncing the oppression and defending the oppressed. A great number of exhibitions were held all over Spain, leading to the upsurge of groups with the same name, albeit with their own autonomy, in Andalusia (1960), Catalonia and the Basque Country (1962), Valencia and Galicia in 1964.
The early sixties saw the onset of Pop-Art influence. Initially it was felt in the sphere of painting, in images rather than in objects. During those years and immediately after, a number of artists applied images from the pop methodology to the “Chronicle of Reality”; for some of them it was a stage in their development, whereas others stayed within that trend. A few names that come to my mind -and I do not mean to list all of them, nor to establish an order of preferences- are those of Genovés, Canogar, Somoza, Mensa, Jardiel, Anzo and his “isolations”, Dario Villalba, Felipe Vallejo... Each creator has his own world, and we might establish different metaphysical, ontological, sociological and political influences, in addition, of course, to varying degrees of attention and aesthetic quality. Also, there was an upsurge of groups, especially in the Valencian Country: in 1964 the Equipo Crónica [Crónica Group] was created, whose universally recognized contribution continued as far as 1981, when the death of Rafael Solbes left Manuel Valdés on his own and marked the beginning of the latter’s successful career. In 1966 the Equipo Realidad [Reality Group] was founded, which lasted as far as 1976, when its members, Jordi Ballester and Joan Cardells, decided that the project had accomplished its goals. However, it is now time to deal with Antoni Miró, who also played a relevant role in this kind of groups.
The early steps of Antoni Miró are somewhat similar to those of all artists who have something to say, to state, to innovate. He was born in Alcoy in 1944; in 1960, at the age of sixteen, he was awarded the First Prize of Painting by the Alcoy City Council. His youth work can be classified within figurative expressionism: figures, still natures... everything was made explicit with great formal strength, in wide strokes, with dense matter. Those were the years after the crisis of informalism, when there was a search for a new figurativeness, building on informalism and its material, spatial and gestural findings. He experiments with different techniques on different supports: oil, canvas, wood, hardboard, synthetic and industrial paints, latex, acrylics, wax crayons, paper of different sorts, carton, polyester...
We shall soon see him entering a group sharing the ideas of the “Chronicle of Reality”, one of the many of this kind within the Valencian region; such group was the “Grup Alcoiart”, which had very specific characteristics. It had no fixed components, its members changed over time, there was no team work and each artist retained his independence; the only link was the desire to denounce the social situation, and their work spanned from 1965 to 1972. In Italy he also joined a similar group, “Gruppo Denunzia”, alongside the Spaniard Julián Pacheco and the Italians Rinaldi, Comenzini and the critic Floriano de Santi.
Antoni Miró carried out a great activity, not only as an artist, but also as the organizer of exhibitions and cultural events.
His work has concentrated mainly on painting, but he also contributed greatly to drawing, engraving, sculpture, photo collage and mixed techniques. Like other artists of our time, he is tirelessly experimenting, always searching for new expressive elements for his art. Antoni Miró’s work has been widely studied in depth by many famous scholars: Romà de la Calle, Wences Rambla, Raúl Guerra Garrido, Manuel Rodríguez Díaz, José Corredor Matheos, Alfredo Torres, Gonçal Castelló, Isabel-Clara Simó, Klaus Groh, C. Peter, Alexander Zhurba, Joan F. Mira, Josep Lluís Peris, Juan Ángel Blasco Carrascosa, Peter Küstermann, Jadwiga Najdowa, Valentina Plokadova, amongst others who have devoted books or long texts in catalogues to his work. I do not think, therefore, that I can say anything which has been left unsaid, nor find in his work the smallest issue that has been left scrutinized searching for keys to profound meanings. Maybe my opinion might yield some interest as a painter aesthetically apart -at least at first sight- from the ideas and goals of Antoni Miró.
I have followed Antoni Miró’s work occasionally, through the presence of his works in Madrid, or through publications (journals, catalogues, and so forth) that I have received. I must point out that the delicacy of his work always caught my attention, above all in his last exhibition in Madrid (October, 1998), where the beauty of his works excluded any other consideration and drew our attention towards the content. In this kind of art of “denunciation” and “commitment”, frequently all the artist’s effort concentrates on the subject, whereas the execution is rather left aside, or even openly transformed into a sort of bad taste caricaturization. However, this is never the case with Antoni Miró; when he takes an image from any resource, he reinforces it pictorially; he does so without depriving it of its character, without hiding its origin, which is also its reference, the authentication of the artist’s intention. The work attracts me because of its artistic content, which is what leads us to take our time watching it, within that highly valued aesthetic process by which we make it ours. It is then when the message becomes efficient, when we see the oppression, the degradation, the submission, the brutality and the violence, to sum up, the lack of freedom denounced by the artist.
If there is something the “Chronicle of Reality” needs, such is reality itself. The artist refers to it by extracting it from daily life. How? From the media; newspapers and TV are the main sources of images, due to the immediacy of the news. Cinema, for instance, is of no use, for it is an art which has already processed information, turning it into artistic images. Its intention may be the same as that of the painter, but the way is different. In the case of Antoni Miró, reference has been made to the importance of collage in his work4. We must say, first of all, that Antoni Miró is not a collagist, although photo collages can be found in his work; what he does is extract from reality and the news of reality the subject for his painting. I remember a conversation I had long ago with the Italian painter Arturo Peyrot, who lived in Spain and died recently. We were in the early sixties, and we were talking about collage. Peyrot did not deny at all the validity and the possibilities of collage, but he pointed out that it seemed to him a good model which could be then painted... This point of view is not only a respectable one, typical of a painter, and worthy of consideration, in fact, something similar is what Antoni Miró does in many of his best works. I do not think he creates a collage to paint and enlarge, but rather creates his work with the collage in mind, with images extracted from a documented reality. He then gives us an image, an expression, often terrible in their truthfulness but of with an undeniable artistic beauty. He selects the images and presents them to us in their best definition, manipulated, perhaps, as it is taken away from its context, but also reinforcing both the denouncing power of their content and, more importantly, their formal quality, in sum, as a work of art. He has also extracted images from famous works in the history of art, which he has decontextualized and manipulated, playing with them and the reputation of such images, adapting them to his purposes, as he did in the long series “Pinteu Pintura” (1980-1991) and “El dòlar” (1973-1980). It could almost be said that the images from a different past, very popular works of art, are part o f the collective cultural unconscious, and hence the efficiency of their ironic, even at times sarcastic, usage. I now remember, from this last series, a folder consisting of four serigraphies by Antoni Miró and a handwritten poem, also a serigraphy, by Rafael Alberti, in 1975, where the sequence of the titles of each serigraphy is almost another poem: 1. Dòlar dolor. [Dollar in pain] 2. Dòlar plegat. [Folded dollar] 3. Dólar format. [Submitted dollar] 4. Dólar Soldat, [Soldier Dollar] This last one, closing the series, shows an impressive soldier, armed to the teeth, wearing a helmet and a gas mask, who will not let go of the dollar he is grasping in his right hand. I also recall the now distant series “Amèrica Negra” [Black America] (1972), where the suffering expression of Black Americans (the politically correct term now being “Afroamerican”- they have achieved something...) contrasts with the perforated bands from the computer, as a sign of a progress which does not reach everyone and only serves to make exploitation more methodical.
There are many different subjects inspiring Antoni Miró’s work, with a wide range of issues about which he has expressed his denunciation and his protest, his pain in the face of oppression and his solidarity with the oppressed, with those attacked by bastard interests, who can be any of us at any stage. There are traces, works, within his wide and manifold production, of the systematic violation of human rights, of the condemnation to poverty and extreme misery of large sectors of mankind, of all kinds of brutality and violence, of the lack of humanity of a supposedly human being (perhaps it must be recognized that inhumanity is human, and perhaps too human...), of interested manipulation, of racism and xenophobia... the list is endless. By merely listing his series we may glimpse at his most salient concerns at each stage. After the initial expressionism, which I have already referred to, his plastic experimentation led him toward a neofigurativism which soon became filled with criticism; he became a denouncing witness, and through the use of images from the linguistic codes of the media he started his criticism of daily events. His main series are “Les Nues” (The Naked, 1964), “La Fam” (Hunger, 1966), “Els Bojos” (The Insane, 1967), “Experimentacions” (Experimentations, 1968), “Vietnam” (1968), “L’Home” (Man, 1970), “Amèrica Negra” (Black America, 1972), “L’Home Avui” (Man Today, 1973), “El Dólar” (The Dollar, 1973-80), “Pinteu Pintura” (Paint Painting, 1980-90), and “Vivace”, since 1991. Works from this last series were exhibited in Madrid, and they are the ones leading to this retrospective overlook of the work by Antoni Miró. In this “Vivace” series we can admire perhaps the highest expression of the painter’s artistic conception. It seems as if the message now required a higher degree of beauty. There is also an irony in the relationship between the work and the title, which sometimes is of great importance. Environmental crimes are denounced: we can see in “Parc Natural” (Nature Park) a garbage dump full of large containers, which in turn are filled with dented tins, plastic bottles, a few books, a few skulls...; in “Llibertat condicional” (Freedom on Parole), a tiger which seems to have lost his ferocity casts a melancholic look at us from the habitat of a nature park; “Àguila Dissecada” (Stuffed Eagle) is the former head of an eagle, stuffed, now a mere symbol, like “1-Octubre 1963, a Ché Guevara” (October 1, 1963, to Ché Guevara), where the face of the hero appears with his eternal cigar in his mouth, with a shadow of a smile... no less stuffed than the eagle. This work features mainly grey tones, as if reflecting the nostalgia of his adventure. However, there is a paradisiac view of aerodynamic bicycles on clean beaches, under beautiful skies, which make us think of a utopian world with no pollution.
From classical antiquity Antoni Miró has drawn the “Sèrie Eròtica” (Erotic Series), whose engravings and photo collages recreate scenes from Greek vases, and which at times is moved to the present world. In the exhibition I have mentioned, an important feature was the presence of a set of sculptures in which life size figures, sculpted separately and thus likely to be placed in different sites, performed in wood, showed us present versions of gods and characters from ancient times. Thus, a relaxed “Heracles”, sure of his legendary strength and supernatural bravery; the attractive “Penelope”, unreachable in her loyalty to Ulysses; “Zeus”, wearing sunglasses, very comfortable in his role of supreme deity; “Atena”, whose progressive wisdom can be seen reading with interest a golf magazine; “Afrodita”, the goddess of beauty and sensuous love, whose attributes here can only confirm it; “Ares”, the god of devastating war, who can be seen here as a killing scientist with the product of his intelligence, and “Safo”, an up-to-date reincarnation of the Greek poetess, born in Lesbos, a place which has originated the name of lesbianism for female homosexuality, instead of “sapphism”, which I have read somewhere, as a tribute to the woman rather than to her birthplace. We could continue and trace origins and ideas from which Antoni Miró has progressively built and explained his world, from which he presents one of the most consistent and meaningful works in the present art’s world.