Fin de siècle —the end of the century— is a term entered firmly in the lexicon of European culture; it refers to happenings in the last years of the 19th century and was given various names in different countries, like Modern, Secession, Modernism, Art Nouveau, Jugendstil, and Liberty. The late 20th century is also rich in terms like neofigurativism, neo-expressionism, transavantgarde, and social art, which indicate the general artistic search in reproducing complex socio-historical phenomena. Emphasis, however, has been somewhat displaced on the map of European art. If in the late 1800s in Catalonia, apart from Antonio Gaudi with his striking architectural constructions, representatives of modernism in painting were few, the later Catalan influence on modern trends in European fine arts became and have remained more pronounced and significant. Among the many names of Catalan artists of the late 20th century the name of a Valencian painter from the city of Alcoi stands out prominently —Antoni Miró.
The notion that a talent is a calling multiplied by labour is valid for both the individual and an entire nation, and the significance and glory of Catalonia, an autonomous region in Spain, can be determined on the basis of these factors. Catalonia’s uniqueness in a historical and cultural sense is a result of its Mediterranean position, its presence in the orbit of the general culture that most profoundly influenced the life of Europe and its own original contributions to various spheres of human activity. The peculiarity of Catalonia, or Catalan countries, lies also in the Iberian roots which go back to the Palaeolithic era; caves with remnants of primitive culture have been found, with inscriptions made in a script reminiscent of Greek-Cyrillic characters The names of towns —Ibi, Tibi— also point to this ancient connection At the same time other names like Cetabis (Xàtiva), Valentia (València), and Alcoi testify to the Roman-Arabian influence. A special holiday has also come down to the present from the Middle Ages, based on events of the 13th century, when the Christians won a victory over the Moors thanks to the assistance of St. George. St. George’s Day is celebrated in many Catalan towns whose patron is that saint, in particular, in Alcoi. In the local museum of St. George, along with other exhibits, stand mannequins in traditional costumes made for theatrical performances at various times. Costumes by Miró are also exhibited there. Catalan diligence was proved not only by seafarers, merchants and fishermen in this region, but also by peasants who, in their mountain our terrain, developed the agriculture famous for its products throughout the entire country. There were also numerous craftspeople and jewellers. Catalan talent was demonstrated as well by well-known philosophers (Raymon Lully), writers (J. Martorell and J. de Galba), and artists (Jose Ribera). But, like any talented nation in a convenient geographical location, at the crossing of historic-economic and cultural roads, Catalans had to defend their freedom and traditions throughout their history. Looking into the not-so-distant past we should note that for more than two and a half centuries Catalonia was practically deprived of national independence when it was seized by the Castilian King, Philip V in 1707, a date which is deep in the memory of Catalans. Philip V was also the author of the notorious decree Nueva Planta which prohibited use of the Catalan language. The ban was in fact implemented until the late 1970s, when Catalonia attained autonomous status and a law on the national language was adopted. It is quite clear that Philip V fell into disrepute with Catalans, and so after the region achieved autonomy the art museum in the town of Xàtiva (Jose Ribera’s birthplace) began to exhibit the portrait of the monarch upside down. It also explains Antoni Miró’s painting Feli-Felip, (i. e. Feli-Philip): the title of the painting consists of two parts — Felt from the Latin Felidae, i. e. of the cat family (visually, it is the tiger in the upper part), and the name of the King whose upside down representation is accompanied by a mirror reflected call a la gerra! where “gerra” (in Catalan) means “pot” instead of “guerra” (“war”). The spirit of national identity inherent in many Catalan intellectuals is explained not only by historical memory but by their own experience, consisting in many cases of humiliation and insults. Thus, Antoni Miró remembers that when he went to school he knew Castilian badly because he spoke only Catalan at home. But the teacher forbade him to use this “vulgar tongue” while others called it “a dog’s barking.”
Antoni Miró was born in 1944 in Alcoi, an old Valencian city famed for its craftspeople: paper-makers and textile workers. Labour was highly valued in the family of the future artist: his father founded a metalworking shop, the first in the city, and his mother was a milliner. Antoni Miró learned diligence and acquired his capacity for work at an early age. He works 12-14 hours a day, sometimes more. The artist felt his vocation early in his childhood and devoted all his leisure time to his favourite pursuit — painting. Work in his father’s shop helped him learn the nature of many modern materials and the properties of paints. He received his art education from his only teacher — the local painter Vicente Moya, under whose guidance Antoni Miró mastered “the school” of the traditional genres of portrait, landscape and still life. His early works, with their evident touch of studious academism, he entered in a drawing, painting and sculpture contest in Alcoi in 1960. He won first prize but it was the end of his preparatory period, because diligent adherence to canons, vigorous academic conservatism and emphasized salon character were alien to the young artist.
Miró devoted the next years to working out a laconic, almost stylized, extraordinarily expressive line, a drawing capable of generalization, and to experiments with colour, and he won prizes in competitions in Alicante, Madrid, and Valencia. At the same time he executed his first series, Nudes (1964), for his first one-man show in 1965 and became a founder of the Alcoi-Art group of local artists (S. Masiá, M. Mataix, A. Miró, later V. Vidal and Alexandre). These two steps are important for a general understanding of Miró’s creative work. His first series included paintings (executed in the traditional means — oil on canvas), drawings (not the initial sketches for paintings) and engravings (classical etchings with deeply etched lines), united by a common idea and theme. Such a tendency to self-realization in different genres and kinds of fine arts is common to many artists of the 20th century; in particular, representatives of Spanish avant-garde like Picasso, Dali and others. However, their universality demonstrates, as a rule, the versatility and creative potential of the artist’s nature, rather than that expressive diversity of forms of the same theme or idea, as is developed in series by Miró1.
Pioneers of the Art-Nouveau style in the late 19th century strove for the ideal synthesis of various kinds of art, searching for correspondence of sounds to colours, and so on. Miró tries to realize their dream of “uniting works of different arts into a single whole” (called Gesamtkunstwerk by Richard Wagner)2 in his own way, adding to subsequent series works of ceramics, sculpture, monumental size, and object painting. The idea of the conceptual combination of various artistic manners and various kinds of art (painting and sculpture) underlay to a great extent the formation of the Alcoi-Art group which existed up to 1972, and which began its activities namely with Miró’s first one-man show. The propensity for synthesis was manifested also in the indirect drawing to this idea of many contemporary masters from other kinds of art, such as poetry and music. Catalogues were prepared containing works of visual art accompanied by the writings of famous poets (R. Alberti, S. Espríu, P. Serrano, J. Fuster) and actors (A. Gades, O. Montllor), written according to the influence of the visual images.
At the end of 1965 Miró’s one-man show was held in Montmartre in Paris. Since then works by the artist (including one-man shows and numerous collective exhibitions) have been shown several times a year in Spain and many foreign countries. At the end of 1990 Ukrainian art lovers saw for the first time graphics and posters by Antoni Miró; the exhibition was opened in Kiev and then in 1991 was shown in Ivano-Frankivsk and Lviv. In the same year the artist visited Ukraine as a member of the international judging committee of the 2nd biennial exhibition Impresa-91 in Ivano-Frankivsk.
In the latter half of the 1960s Miró created his series Famine (1966), Madmen (1967), Vietnam and Death (1968-1969). Art critics define this period as the transition “from expressionism to social neofigurativism”3. Miró’s expressionism also tends to synthesis, in this case to uniting various epochs. The grotesque accentuating of outward deformities which conceal mental derangements (Bosch, Brueghel), the interest in conflict scenes which disfigure the outward appearance of a man (Adriaen Brau wer, in particular his canvases on the theme of various fights), the analysis of the nature of the abominable (Jose Ribera, later Miró more than once turns to one of Ribera’s images — Head of a Cripple, 1622, the half-length portrait of an ugly old man); the representation of the horrors of the time (Francisco Goya, Los Caprichos); the cry of despair (The Cry by Edvard Munch, works by Emil Nolde) —all show through the “relief” brushstrokes of the Madmen series. The artist tries to convey his inner emotions through visual material, his images acquire exaggerated, allegorical features, and later (The Visual Reliefs series, 1968—1970) they disappear completely, leaving only the pulsating colours, tense texture, and code designations of an emotional state. In sculpture, Miró works with bronze, aluminium, and iron, imparting to the material an expressive plasticity and arranging the space in such a manner that all the convexities and concavities make a single synthetic image, as if the object is turned inside out. In this respect the artist’s searches echo those of Raymond Duchamp-Villon, Alexander Archipenko and Henri-Georges Adam. But these conventional and mastered means and traditional media no longer satisfy the Alcoi artist, whose distinctive feature is constant search, development and motion. In painting, Miró almost completely rejects oils, turning to acrylic paints devised in the 1940s and a new technique called aerography. In graphics, he turns to metallographies. In sculpture, Miró uses new media (polyester, synthetic materials), blends sculpture and painting into object works and create mobiles.
These modern technologies naturally influence the artist’s creative manner. The intensity of colours and emotional sincerity of abstract painting could no longer satisfy Miró. Feeling concretely the injustice of the world we inhabit, he wants to draw the viewer into his emotional experience. Miró’s series of the late 1960s and 1970s present a deliberate turn to emphasized figurativism, since the blending of the sensual and the mental can be achieved namely through a real image. Critics justifiably defined these works by Miró as “social realism” and wrote in particular: “Antoni Miró does not simply depict reality but simultaneously expresses his desire to change this reality.”4 The artist’s social stance rested upon the artistic views of the 1940s—1950s, the so-called position of the “angry young men” and nonconformist convictions, all that permeated European philosophy and literature in the 1950s—1960s and ended in students’ riots in 1968. In 1972 Antoni Miró, together with several Italian artists, organized Gruppo Denunzia (The Group of Denunciation) in Brescia. Their exhibitions in European countries were the manifestation of the artists’ protest against humiliation of a person or a nation. This position was based on socialist ideas then shared by the majority of European artists. Miró’s socialist views, devoid of ideological fetters, party privacy, totalitarianism and naive utopianism, influenced his creative and personal life. Visiting Ukraine in 1991, he said that if he had lived here earlier he would probably have found himself in Siberia. There need be no doubt that Miró would have shared the fate of those Ukrainian intellectuals who in the 1960s—1980s suffered concentration camps, prisons and emigration. The artist from Alcoi would have been an undesirable person for power structures of that time, because the active protest against injustice expressed in his series in the 1970s is too keen and sarcastic. These are the series Realities and The Man (1970—1971), Black America (1972), The Today’s Man (1973), and The Dollar (1973—1980) which includes the subseries The Lances, The Standard, The Freedom of Expression and Chile.
Real images in the works from the above-mentioned series are devoid, on one hand, of the naturalism often inherent in realistic art, and on the other, of the aesthetic stylization inevitable in the figurative painting approach to the poster idiom. Antoni Miró constructs his works like a cinematic close-up, when the background merges into a solid monochrome mass, all superfluities severed while insignificant details gain a particular semantic significance. And with that the artist employs the most diverse methods to organize the canvas space. In his works Vietnam (1972) and Despair (1973), for instance, he uses the effect of a double frame when the main subject is ornamented by a chain of human figures (proceeding with the analogy with cinema — repeated sequences on a narrow film). In the first work it is a soldier with crutches: the future which waits an invader who, in the central part, puts a pistol to the temple of a captive Vietnamese, and, in general, the tragic consequences of any war. In the second it is the figure of a man unable to break a wall: casual consequences of subsequent despair. The subject in other works tends to repetition, reflection, breaking up into separate episodes, contrasting of two halves. The masterful employment of pop-art and op-art stylistics, the metaphorization of ideas and actual historical events make the works pictographically expressive, stimulating the reverse connection of viewer — painting — artist by allowing the comprehending and sharing of common emotions.
In his sculpture of this period Miró also turns to real objects. Representing the whole through its part, which echoes the comprehension of harmony by the Renaissance artists, Antoni Miró creates his “hands,” “legs,” and “torsos,” avoiding the exotism of modernists, the dissection of avant-gardists or the naturalism of realists. This is probably an antique tradition adapted to contemporaneity. Even in such sculptures as Man the Hat and Man the Casque an ancient Greek tradition of phallic images can be traced though the modern attributes of a hat and a casque impart to these images a Freudian interpretation and a certain irony.
With The Lances subseries painted in the late 1970s Miró approaches directly one of his central series named Painting Painting (1980— 1991). It was preceded by the canvas The Three Graces (1968), where the mythological goddesses, impersonating the kind, joyful and eternally young source of life, change entirely under modern conditions and take on new meaning according to social demand. The series Painting Painting is characterized by its antimythologism and irony. It’s very name, in fact, is full of reciprocal negation or ironic significance. At the same time, in the series Painting Painting the synthesis inherent in Miró has found its consummate realization: the synthesis of epochs and styles, when masters of all times and all nations seemed to group under the cover of one concept and creative trend. It is as if Miró had gathered a brilliant ensemble of performers and managed to harmoniously unite medieval and modern musical instruments, being simultaneously the conductor and the first violin. (By the way, if the conversation turned on music, then we should say that Miró’s latest work in progress will differ completely from the previous ones; it is called Vivace, i. e. lively, and deals with ecology in the broadest sense of the word).
The antimythologism and irony of the series Painting-Painting are two sides of one coin. Numerous philosophers and historians, including K. Marx, M. Bloc and A. Losev, have written about the significance of myths in the life of society and the individual. Rejecting some myths, we immediately try to create others, whether in the historical plan, or in social, creative or everyday life. In his series Painting Painting Miró destroys this immutable system of myths but does not create a new mythology, a move to which all the trends of fine arts tended, particularly at the end of the last and during the present century. Paradoxically as it may seem, this breaking down is not of a destructive character. While destroying habitual myths the artist does not bereave the viewer of his inner support, on the contrary, he brings spiritual liberation and elevates his human nature.
The subseries The Lances also serves to shatter the historic-heroic myth and the consciousness connected with it. This subseries is based on the famous painting by Velázquez, Surrender of Breda (1634— 1635), which is also called Las Lanzas and depicts a real historical episode, the surrender of the fortress city of Breda by its garrison to the Spanish army. There is a known statement by the prominent poet Luis de Góngora, a contemporary of Velázquez: “Breda was surrendered by hunger”, Velázquez’ canvas was painted after the events of 1625 and covered with a heroic-romantic veil: its central part represents Flemish Justin of Nassau transferring the keys of the fortress to the Marchese Spinola and symbolizes the dignity of the defeated and the nobleness of the victors. Documents testify, however, that when the Spaniards captured the fortress they found there stocks of grain sufficient for a month and of wine for three months. In works of this series Miró emphasizes not the heroics of a historical incident but ordinary self-interest — mercenary opportunism (which, in fact, has always accompanied any war, great or small). In one of the works (The Lances etching, 1975) two hostile troops are already armed with missiles and tanks. At that we should mention that the Spanish army, as it was, was called “the lances of the empire” because it consisted mostly of mercenaries. All of that comes to mind when you enter the space of Velázquez’ canvas penetrating through time — both in the direct and figurative meaning — for Miró’s object painting Lances of the Empire (1976-1977) allows you to become one of the participants of this historic episode.
The elaboration of the Velázquez topics5 permits Miró to destroy some established myths or to re-interpret them ironically. Let us take, for example, the myth of social values. The pride of contemporaries was expressed by Homer in his well-known list of ships, by Bernal Diaz del Castillo, participant in Cortez’ campaign to Mexico, in the list of horses brought to New Spain6, while by Miró, in the trade-marks of automobile companies which decorate the crupper of the horses of Velázquez’ El Conde-Duque de Olivares (Equestrian Portrait, 1982-1984). After all, there is some heredity in this which reflects the evolution of our civilization.
In 1932 Marcel Duchamp at the exhibition of Alexander Calder introduced the term Mobile in his description of the sculptures by the American artist. After that many works were written investigating Calder’s invention of three-dimensional mobile constructions which respond to the slightest motion of air and can exist only as a stereoscopic volume. Nevertheless, Miró ironically handles this myth as well. He introduces a mobile by Calder into Bosch’s Garden of Delights (Garden with Mobile, 1987), and that mobile not only retains its distinct three-dimensional character but gains an unexpected associative connection.
Roy Lichtenstein’s pop-art images taken from comics are considered to be the most comprehensible for mass viewers because they are an integral part of mass culture. But in Miró’s picture The Raid (1987) Lichtenstein’s comic-book supersonic fighter above Goya’s personages looks menacing, from the point of mass destruction and from the point of aggressive mass culture. As is known, having moved from the transferring of comic-book personages into the field of art, Lichtenstein arrived at the opposite process. And the painting Supervisor (1987) alludes to it specifically, but with sources different from mass media images — academism looking like a dressed rooster.
In general, works of the series Painting-Painting are characterized by the broad polysemantics and can be read on different levels and from various points of view. A linear connection of previous series, artist — picture — viewer — picture — artist/idea, is complicated by a system of mirrors which reflect not only evident or hidden allusions, analogies and symbolic-culturological details which are constantly repeated but also our own comprehension, the level of our education and the degree of our sensitivity. In a word, we find ourselves drawn into this mirror labyrinth and, looking back, observe our own faces.
The iconography of the series Painting-Painting is not a simple combination of images created by artists of different epochs, but first of all, the representatives of different styles and trends, the borders between which seemed to be immutable. Titian’s portrait of Charles V (Charles V in the Battle of Mölberg, 1548) is transferred into lithography and appears as a trademark (Charles V — Cromo, 1988—1989). The same Charles V by Anton Mengs can be found either in New York (The King in New York, 1987) or in Paris (The King in Paris, 1987) changing according to the cultural surroundings. The participants in the Village Fete by Teniers (1646) are celebrating either immutability of old art or the emergence of a new one, which appears in the background in the figures of Kandinsky. A Gauguin personage with his Taitian decorativeness peers at the Mediterranean horizon where not the symbols of the primitive beliefs of indigenous, but symbolic images of Paul Klee and Joan Miró (The Mediterranean Coast, 1988) become visible. All of that enables us to understand that definitions and schemes of art criticism have a relative and to some extent “mythological” character, the borders between them are temporary and in many cases invented, and the apparently remotest trends reveal an immediate connection. Thus, in the picture Translucid (1986-1987) an old man of Ribera (mentioned earlier) is seen through a Mondrian geometric stained-glass window. The metaphysics of De Chirico is organically introduced into Bosch’s Garden of Delights. In the picture Aristide Viewing Gala (1988) Aristide Bruant, the owner of a cabaret and a personage of Toulouse-Lautrec, is the main hero. Following his gaze we see “a picture in the picture,” a stylized portrait of Salvador Dali’s wife taken from his work. But Aristide Bruant is perceived by us as being its creator: namely, Toulouse-Lautrec. So it is Lautrec himself who scrutinizes the fruits of Art Nouveau with an ironical smile. Or rather we, together with Lautrec, look and compare. And so we go on, moving through the mirror gallery of artistic images which both academics and avant-gardists create in the same manner — in Vulcan’s Smithery where subconscious visions are scattered upon the anvil. It is no mere chance that Romà de la Calle, a Valencian art critic, defined Miró’s series Painting-Painting as “consciousness of painting.”7
As a rule, titles to Miró’s works are an important element of the composition. The verbalization of fine arts is not a recent occurrence. Classical canvases on biblical or mythological themes also have direct literary sources, and the titles of the works point to one scene or another, which are interpreted by the artist. Naturally, for the 20th-century tradition Brueghel’s visual presentation of precepts is more intimate. In the period of the formation of modernism S. Solovyov wrote: “It is hard to define in later works of literature and painting where literature influenced painting and where painting influenced literature.”8 Even before the emergence of avant-garde, dadaism and surrealism, literary influence was limited by the theme and plot of a painting while a caption to it was mere statement of the fact. The 20th century has turned the titles of pictures into concise concepts and declarations or else characteristics of visual images (Dali, Magritte), and it has turned the intertransfusion of visual images into verbal ones (Cimmerian Sonnets by Maximilian Voloshin and his water-colours). The titles of Miró’s works are characterized, like the works themselves, by laconicism, irony, and polysemantics and they make an integral part of the works. The plastic and colour organization of a canvas corresponds to the lexemic structure of the title. Miró testified to his ability to ironize a word with a witty mini-dictionary of fine arts which he created to supplement a set of cards with reproductions of his works, published in Barcelona in 1988. For example, “expressionism” is a forceful expression, “impressionism” — tendency to impress; “socialist realism”— works by an artist-socialist in which he depicts with veneration the image or the King; “futurism” — yesterdayism.
In some of his works the artist uses foreign words, thus characterizing his personage (The Maja Today — in English, 1975) or ideas themselves (‘Gora Euskadi, Visca Picasso’ — ‘Glory to Euscadi, Glory to Picasso!’ 1985); in others he uses the titles of books (The Fell of the Bull by Espriu, 1968, referring to the collection of verse by a well known Catalan writer, Salvador Espriu). Sometimes the titles of pictures have a more personal character, like Ovidi as Vicent in Chile (1977) meaning the actor Ovidi Montllor, a friend of the artist, in the role of Vicente Romero, when he was apprehended in Chile during the time of dictatorship. Many titles are full of hidden irony which is echoed in visual images: Under Spain (1986—1987), is a reference not only to the geographic position of Catalonia, but its dependent state; The Mystery of the Republic (1988), a post-Franco democracy with monarchy; The Time of People (1988—1989), a Catalan theme against the background of disfigured clocks by another Catalan, Sal vador Dali; Four Stripes (1981—1982), the national flag; Intruder in Cofrente (1989—1990), the name of the city where the APS, the nearest to Alcoi, is situated; Functional and Decorative (1990), the irony of the striving of modernist artists to make functional things aesthetically beautiful according to a specially devised theory; Miró also proposes to examine a woman in this regard; in Menina-Nina (1980) and La Menina by Velázquez (1985), there is an unexpected vulgar nuance in the familiar titles, as ‘menina’ in Catalan has an euphemistic meaning of male genitals. Thus, a word in its functional meaning turns into a peculiar clue to a picture, Ariadne’s thread in the mirror labyrinth. “The mystery of the word lies in the fact that it is a means of communication with objects and an area of an intimate and conscious meeting with their inner life.”9 In Miró’s works the word betters the understanding of the polysemantic character of the inner life of the represented objects.
The series Painting Painting has a number of analogies in the 20th century. The best of them is Joyce’s Ulysses, which needs profound commentary. Nevertheless, any picture by Miró could be provided with extended comments or a separate article. Miró, in fact, has created a book of reproductions of his art, where every work is dissected into its constituent parts — a kind of reference material. However, as was stated, his paintings are polysemantic, beginning from aesthetic comprehension and ending in the deciphering of a detail. And the first is, undoubtedly, more important.
If the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges is known as “the librarian of world literature,” then the Valencian artist Antoni Miró could be rightfully called “the treasurer of world painting.” His estate Mas Sopalmo near Alcoi, where he lives with his wife and son, resembles a museum, and here everything is systematized and catalogued “even better than in many museums,” notes the artist.
With the self-irony peculiar to him, he joked, showing one of his object-painting works (a figure of a soldier-dollar which divides into two parts), that those who bought it would have a double profit — both painting and sculpture for a single price, and very convenient to handle at that: it could be folded up. In the spirit of Valencian Antoni Miró, this book presents not only the creative endeavour of a talented artist but a peculiar gallery of world art.
1. Explanations of artistic universality in recent decades are diverse. In Ukraine, for example, artists have found themselves between Scylla and Charybdis: severe ideological and taste censorship (artistic councils, artistic commissions etc.) on the one hand, and the need to earn money to live, on the other. This explains to some extent the mass, often forced, turn of many ‘interesting easel painters to monumental art where the pressure is less and possibilities of realization greater. Such a situation is not purely Ukrainian, but general for Europe, though with certain differences in causes. Thus, it is understandable that a synthetic expression of an inner idea through various kinds of visual art has cost Miró much labour and material sacrifice for more than two decades.
2. See: D. V. Sarabyanov. Art-Nouveau Style. Moscow, 1989. p. 187. It is worth citing further: “The synthesis of arts is a means of immortalizing human ideas and notions, human society, people’s vital activities in the unity of spiritual and material creation.”