Taxonomies of the production of Antoni Miró
Santiago Pastor Vila
It is advisable to start any text that has the aim of classifying, such as this one, by explaining the criteria that will be used to establish the categorisation and defining in general terms the object it will be based on.
The subject before us is the valuable pictorial production of Antoni Miró. It has reached an extraordinary dimension after six decades of continuous dedication to art. This alone would be enough to establish differentiating arrangements in groups of different kinds that refer to one or more distinctive criteria, such as periods, themes, techniques, languages, styles… In this case, luckily the author has already done this: with his innate meticulousness he decided to organise his pictorial work within several series whose characteristics have been previously fixed and strictly sustained throughout his development.
We have therefore a complete work that is already articulated in several blocks that are obviously different from the rest, despite being very extensive. On each one the theme and the language he uses are very different from the rest. Over periods of a significant duration (about a decade in several cases), he makes works and remains faithful to a certain way of doing things. At a certain point, his interests change and his sensitivity leads him to different ways of painting, and another new series is born. These disruptions do not prevent certain issues from being dealt with across several series.
Precisely because of this, in addition to succinctly characterising the various series that build his career, it is essential to identify the four areas of reflection that the artist most often addresses. We will be able to check how these are common to the various series presenting a variable modulation but simultaneously remaining in essence.
How the artist proceeds, as we just defined, is evidently the result of his strong personal determination. Willingly a painter from the beginning: this could be the definition of what Antoni Miró has been. The brief but accurate text that Sofia Bofill has prepared for this catalogue raisonné clearly explains this key issue and its consequences. This firm will has been, in fact, the main stimulus that has fuelled his artistic career since its inception. So much so, that many of all the considerations that Fernando Castro has brought in his brilliant and extensive text regarding the evolution of Antoni Miró’s artistic career and the aesthetic approaches that sustain it also have to do in some way with this fundamental and starting purpose. This intense dedication to painting, continuous and decidedly voluntary, in short, qualifies in a good way and differentiates Antoni Miró’s unique vital vision of the world.
He has been building his career in accordance with this early and determined orientation towards pictorial action: it is a declaration of principles that has not lost its validity for more than sixty years as a painter. He looks at the state of things in which reality is presented, aware that the effects that will result from its sensitive analysis will inevitably end up acquiring the body of a pictorial work. For this reason, among others, the artistic disciplines share a name with the results they provide, and, at the same time, with the term painting we refer to the way of acting, working and the objects that will be derived from it. But, in addition, and especially with artistic actions, it can end up building what an individual intends to be essentially for a lifetime.
He has been able to insistently create a prolific broad-spectrum trajectory. The desire to immerse himself in painting has been an invariant factor of extraordinary relevance. Still, it is not the only theme of his career; indeed, the warp of the fabric of Miró’s work is multiple. He has always painted holding positions of protest, rejection and support sometimes, and he has built his speech intertwining with it. As already mentioned, the successive elaborations are grouped in series according to thematic interests of a specific nature and different elaboration strategies.
In terms of subject matter, sometimes, for example, the works highlight allegations of injustice around the world (famine, war…); others are allegations of defence of his own culture and identity, and others are tributes to the masters of the history of Western art since the Renaissance or to Catalan intellectuals, poets and artists. Many reproduce social manifestations. Many others celebrate feminine beauty and sensuality, or refer to the warmth of the Mediterranean or the Caribbean seas. Several warn about the risk of destruction of nature. This multiplicity can be shown in a compact and explicitly coordinated way within a single series, but it also becomes recognisable as an implicit continued theme affecting several differentiated series. In many cases, moreover, the space-time of his referents are very different. The artist has repeatedly alluded to the Battle of Almansa, and, when it was happening, to the Iraq War. He has also brought to light Arab and Valencian Springs. He has incorporated figures and images from the works of Joan Miró and Hieronymus Bosch in the same painting, and he has also done so in others with those of Velázquez or those of the comic book author Ibáñez. He has contrasted an African rhino with the nuclear power plant in Cofrentes. All these connections between elements that share traits or that are alien to each other but build a new meaning despite being part of very different areas are the result of a predisposition to make analogies based on irony.
As for the languages that the painter has used, it must be said that, except for a first expressionist phase, he has focused on figuration and has gradually and progressively advanced towards realism, so that he reached hyperrealism at the end of the 20th Century.
Social realism, or more precisely the crònica de la realitat (chronicle of reality), is the movement in which its work in the late sixties and seventies should be inscribed. In the eighties, he made what we call doubly pictorial collages — painted and referring to painting — which, by the way, from now on will always have a highlighting of silhouettes of the fragments, as if they were drawn. In the following decade, he shifted to a style of dreamlike figuration. The 21st century is, as far as Miró’s work is concerned, that of hyperrealism, and it is also when he regains the will to capture the hardest paths that open up globalisation in history on canvas, as he did thirty years before with another communicative disposition that was less faithful to the real appearance.
During this evolution, his techniques of representation have been very varied: boards and canvases painted with acrylic or oil, but also with filings of metals and other materials, and often incorporating other resources such as collage, aerography or others. Major works have been shaped as objects due to the fact that they have been modified in terms of the quality of supports or by configuring pieces that, although pictorial, are close to the field of sculpture. Others are painted by arranging a three-dimensional object directly on the reference plane.
The temporal and thematic dimensions — that is, the length of the career and the scope of interest — are, as said, of considerable extent. But in addition, there are other variables that introduce an extraordinary degree of multiplicity. Thus, the work of Antoni Miró increases decisively in its polymorphism. However, it can be organised by series whose characteristics are undoubtedly recognisable in the pictures that make them up. The factors that frame the works within each series respond to a certain communicative strategy. Depending on the language he uses, the density of signs and the relationship factor he establishes, it is one or the other.
For example, it was common for him in the seventies to channel his anxieties about exposing yankee imperialism representing only one character, or even a fragment of it, involved in a violent situation, with a prominent place in the composition, sometimes almost out of bounds, and represented with photomechanical echoes, linked, at the same time, with an object representing consumer society (a dollar) or war (a rifle).
In the following decade, the vindication of the tradition of Western painting is generated by carefully reproducing the canons of representation that are characteristic to the styles of the people he tributed. But the essentiality of the seventies is replaced by some kind of revised horror vacui that makes clear the intertemporal superposition and the various authors. The conceptual association is less direct than before. The titles of the works acquire a major role in regards to the ability to complete the message of the work, a function that he still uses to this day.
The nineties mark the arrival of a style maturity. It is a moment in which his elaborations acquire a new personal style that combines a realistic figuration with the proposal of some suggestive and evocative ideas that are related to reality only in the conceptual plane. As in many word plays, irony and absurdity are the basis for the creation of his expression back then, but he did not shy away from referring to specific situations for that reason. Absurdity is subordinated to denunciation, because in such a way one can surprise the public more effectively than by showing them a painting that makes them remember what they see daily. As with visual poetry and as he does, it is necessary to separate the signs from any element that removes their communicative intensity.
For the last twenty years, on the one hand, the harshness of reality has led the artist not to apply filters on what he sees, and leaves the transposition of the facts into the painting directly as the main function, in addition to the selection of the frame, and stresses the details that bring the most connotations to the scene. This way of making history is complemented by another interest of his: the appreciation of the elements that nourish his memories and also his cultural references. The bridges of Alcoi or a portrait of Vicent Andrés Estellés are motifs that lead to reflection on the life course through painting.
This brief overall analysis of his trajectory must necessarily be complemented by specific comments on each of the series with which it is built. From the initial works of the late fifties to the last works of 2020 that have been added to this catalogue raisonné, eight are the series: “Opera Prima” (1960-72), “Amèrica Negra” (1972) [“Black America”], “L’Home Avui” (1972-74) [“Man Today”], “El Dòlar” (1973-80) [“The Dollar”], “Pinteu Pintura” (1980-91) [“Paint Painting”], “Vivace” (1991-2001), “Sense Títol” (2001-13) [“Untitled”] and “Sense Sèrie” (from 2013 onwards) [“Unserialised”].
Brief description of the series
The first works of the late fifties (1957-59) form an “initial period” whose works could be classified as expressive attempts to approach painting.
The paintings of the early following decade are still imbued with this initiatory character, but they already hint at some of the key concepts that later define his mature production. His first attempts of social denunciation were in this time, as he made what is the first of the formally constituted series, called “Opera Prima”, going from 1960 to 1972. The selection of the work El bevedor (The Drinker), made in 1960 as the inaugural piece of this catalogue raisonné, intends to stress this position. With clear neorealist echoes, it refers to the particular suffering of a disadvantaged person.
Other works from that first phase constitute a diverse repertoire that mixes learning actions (still lifes and other exercises, such as a beautiful representation of masks) with others aimed at representing the living environment of the artist in his early youth. We have examples of this in some urban scenes in Alcoi, shown as an industrial city located on a complicated terrain, with clear distinctive features that make it different from the common appearance of other Valencian towns at the time. Or also some portraits of people close to him, which serve to delve into the figurative representation of a psychological nature. During this period he complemented the figure paintings with schematic sketches of line drawing and learning mainly about the secrets of foreshortening.
Within this first series there are several integrated subseries, and this constitutes a set defined by the eagerness to experiment in plastic arts and by thematic diversity.
Within the subseries “Les Nues” (1964-66) [“Nude Women”], “La Fam” (1966) [“Hunger”] and “Els Bojos” (1967) [“The Insane Ones”], there are expressionist and matterist works. They are presented as sets with strong telluric components, finished with very marked textures and with a very small and dimly lit palette, with echoes of Goya’s black paintings.
He goes on with some abstract and formalistic “Experimentacions” (“Experiments”) that consist of a sample of compositional systems based on the chromatic alternation within modular networks.
Definitely, his subseries “Vietnam” (1968) and “L’Home” (1968-71) [“The Man”] are the most significant of the decade and have a clear transitional character towards what is his most common approach: social realism. He still creates works using expressive resources that keep them away from what could be a fully realistic figurativism. However, they are a critical position against the injustices that were taking place in the social context of the time, which was entering the era of late capitalism and advance of globalisation. His language does not properly belong to the movement of the crònica de la realitat (chronicle of reality), but the thematic interests do.
The works are composed by combining schematic figures and signs of various kinds with intensely coloured layouts, mainly red and black. The use of the airbrush and other non-traditional techniques endows the representations with a new, updated look, similar to that used in the mass media and advertising. There is a narrative in many cases that symbolises the passage of time through scene sequencing.
In 1972 he made the series “Amèrica Negra” (“Black America”). The title is explicit and makes it clear that it is dedicated to African Americans. He does so in a vindictive tone: the matter denounced by the artist is the lack of effective equality in terms of rights and opportunities in the US still during the seventies despite the achievements of the previous decade thanks to the liberating work of Martin Luther King Jr. against racism. He questions, in short, that all citizens are free in the country known as the country of liberty.
He creates his works on medium format, usually square layouts. It develops a pictorial language that aims to emulate the image of journalistic photographs, printed using increasingly sophisticated systems. The press talks about a problem that occurs in a specific part of the world but instead spreads globally. This is the source of the information, and the very condition of real situation that is happening while the work is being created is what makes him choose this representational parallelism of the chronicle of reality, which gives the work a high communicative efficiency and a character of immediacy, of critically narrating what affects consumer society.
The approaches chosen, many close-ups in which part of the figure falls outside the frame, increase the violence of the scene. The characters and the tough situation they find themselves in are what matters; there is no information left out or that is not part of the background. Faces, necks, fists… all the elements are put in front of the public in a virulently direct way. Volume modelling is achieved by gradually placing chromatically flat shapes, as with screen printing. Red and blue predominate over the most significant elements, and the rest of the composition is completed with grey and black. The artist adds wefts in several of his works, such as those of punched cards for jacquard machines or moiré, which visually complement the scene. This last tactic has made it easier for the images obtained to be pinpointed directly at that specific time. This can be seen, for example, in the work Lluita d’infants (Child Fight), which we know is from beyond the sixties not only because of the t-shirts or hairstyles, but because of the aforementioned elements.
The essentiality of the configurations is sometimes intensified by the existence of halos that are placed around the figures. The triptych Igualtat per a tothom (Equality For All) is a clear example of this. The central character radiates a message of hope powerfully.
Also in 1972 he began to create the series entitled “L’Home Avui” (“Man Today”), which lasted until 1974, in which Herculusa and Daviet is to be highlighted over the rest of his works, since it makes up a very interesting metaphorical treatment of the denunciation of Yankee imperialism, which is formed by representing two classical sculptures.
Social concerns are manifested through the consideration of painting as a vindictive tool. However, he also deals with other functions of art related to enjoyment, as evidenced, for example, by the fact that he does not stop making erotic drawings of female nudes, in addition to the aforementioned proposals for political denunciation.
In 1973 begins what could be considered the first of his great series, “El Dòlar” (“The Dollar”), which kept him busy for the rest of the decade, until 1980.
We consider this to be one of his great series for three reasons; the same applies to the next ones. The first one has to do with the considerable temporal extension and the extraordinary volume of production. The second comes from the relevance of thematic interests, in terms of current events and in terms of the combination of a scope both global (anti-capitalist struggle) and local (reaffirmation of the signs of cultural identity that the artist considers his). But the importance lies especially in the third aspect: in a very obvious way, we find that the painter insistently defines a personal linguistic code. The hyperrealistic figuration of the various elements of the compositions is articulated in a singular way. Irony, so typical of the critical currents of social realism and British-influenced pop, is crucial, as it was before and continued to be so for other groups in the Valencian environment (Equipo Crónica, Equipo Realidad…) or for Arroyo himself, for example. However, a specific way of doing things can be recognised in Miró’s work.
The fact that he can be differentiated thanks to his style and that, at the same time, his denunciations share features with others that are part of a close and recognised artistic context shows the start of his first maturity, already firm. It is, therefore, in the seventies when we can say that Miró begins to be seen in a different way. Thus, we can also say that during the early sixties the sphere of influence of his work was merely local and that he was awarded several prizes. During the second half of this decade and the first years of the next, it was no longer so. Not only did he gradually advance in his knowledge of the Valencian and Spanish artistic environment, but he became increasingly involved in this system. Examples of this are the leadership of both the Alcoiart group and, later, the almost homonymous gallery Alcoiarts in Altea. This process of rooting combined with the fact that he imbued himself with what was then contemporary art, living for some time and exhibiting in various European countries — such as England, France and Italy, where he formed together with other people the Gruppo Denunzia —, of course, had effects in terms of choosing a personal position as an artist.
The subseries called “Dòlar-Xile” (“Dollar-Chile”) is quite characteristic of this series. It is certainly extensive and had an extraordinary relevance at the time, as it was made just after the coup d’etat of Pinochet and had distinctive features that distinguish it from other contemporary denunciations. The murders perpetrated by the military, the coercion of liberties, the procedure directed by the Yankees… All key elements are shown in a way different to other contemporary critical proposals.
As one can suppose, within this series the dollar is an essential symbol. It is at the same time a symbol of both Yankee domination and capitalism. There is a very interesting work that clearly reflects the keys of the artist’s gaze towards what these oppressive superstructures represent: Dòlar enforcat (1974) [Dollar hanged]. On a background that simulates curled paper, a dollar is presented strangled with a line, as if one could rebel against neo-liberalism. We have a view of the dollar that further develops criticisms made earlier by Warhol but seeks to highlight how the effects of the aforementioned dominations had already been globalised with serious consequences.
Wars are one of those harmful effects. A series that was intended to be an amendment to what American imperialism represented cannot be free from denunciations of the wars that the major world power was waging in several locations. Vietnam War, which had already ended, was still a benchmark; but the artist also refers to new ones motivated mainly by the confrontation between blocks and for economic reasons. The dynamics of war are represented very effectively through a mobile work: Sobre la processó (1975-76) [On the Procession]. Two frames overlap showing the racks at the back. One is fixed to the wall and another rotates on the first one. Each of the quadrants of the rotator comprises the same fragment, which consists in part of the body of a soldier and his rifle. This aligns with the diagonal of the quadrant, faced toward the centre point. By moving quickly, as in mills, the presence intensifies.
The seriousness of the issues addressed by the artist can be opposed with other interests that are, however, not exempt from a critical nature. For example, eroticism and female beauty are combined with the denunciations of capitalism and war. The work Una noia i un soldat (1974) [A girl and a soldier] is its paradigm.
Shortly afterwards, he began to develop the part of his work dedicated to his own culture with the subseries “La Senyera” (1977-78) [“The Valencian Flag”]. Especially with a fundamental work in his production of that time, Llances imperials (1977) [Imperial Spears], what we have already discussed above occurs. Several artists referred to Velázquez’s masterpiece to symbolise the surrender traits that the process of democratisation in Spain could have at the time (Arroyo or Equipo Crónica are two examples). Miró uses this same resource, but focuses his interpretation on the context of the territorial articulation of the Spanish State and refers to the historical moment that Valencian people face. With this painting-object he rethinks the unequal exchange: now the empire is assisted by neo-liberal logic, and defeated people surrender for less than they deserve. It does so, moreover, by staying in an intermediate plane between the pictorial and sculptural disciplines. None of the body elements lack volume, they are all modelled beyond the two dimensions, they are not a mere flat support of the painting, but still they are all defined by painting.
The second great series in his trajectory, “Pinteu Pintura” (“Paint Painting”), develops throughout the eighties: it begins the first year of this decade and ends in 1991. There is a very significant change in the direction of his artistic approach. The very denomination of the productive stage offers a paradox. It could be said that it is some kind of order, but also that it is a mere warning. Miró may suggest that we paint painting that has already been made and shapes Western canon and nothing else. In short, he implies that history of art is the reference and the duty of that time is to revise it, deconstruct it and shape a new meaning using signifiers that are well known. Otherwise, he may be reminding that nothing else than painting paintings can be done, and these make up, as we said, a valuable catalogue that has been left to us.
Either way, we have a metapictorial approach. Painting is made from paintings or rather painting is made in the midst of postmodernity, after having killed it and appealing to the classic referents from the Renaissance on. The object of analysis is no longer reality, it is a qualified previous elaboration of the same type. With this kind of reworking, several fragments of classical works are recombined to create a new message. These collages are ironically composed. In many of these, the artist still communicates with a will of denunciation, but in others he remains in a plane of reflection on the pictorial discipline or even pays homage to it.
He continues to convey political criticism with works such as object-painting Dídac d’Acedo (1980) [Diego of Acedo], which represents a selection of Velázquez’s portraits that is transformed so that it makes the character more sinister, or the works Díptic democràtic (1986-87) [Democratic Diptych] o Qui té por (1988) [That Who Is Afraid]. Two works are fundamental within this first thematic group: Retrat eqüestre (1982-84) [Equestrian Portrait] and El misteri republicà (1988) [The Republican Mystery]. In the first one, a cut-out of the horse and the rider is shown iconographically threatening. It is taken as a symbol of domination and arranged on a background textured like crumpled white paper. The plastic approach of the element is more straightforward than its historical reference. The shapes are outlined and the gradations are hardened: it approaches comic drawing. This is not the only link with popular culture. A lot of logos of multinational companies brands, mostly from the automotive sector, are placed on the horse’s buttock. The leash with which the saddle is fastened is presented as a Spanish flag.
The painter conveys a critical opinion regarding consumerism and submission to the demands of large multinational companies. His vision of the State focuses on its ability to coerce and to wage violence, which he points out with two symbolic elements: the ace of batons and the head of a crow. The indifference with which he treats the historical figure of the Count-Duke of Olivares as a repressive agent in Catalonia is completed by the fact that he is shown smoking and with a patch in one of his eyes.
In the second one, political criticism is more veiled and its artistic references are closer to the time. Faced with a situation that the artist finds enigmatic, such as the abandonment of the project to recover republicanism, he makes a work based on four elements. The basis is the work of Magritte called The mysteries of the horizon. The moons disappear and the work is complemented by an upper stripe with a collage of international press clippings with forms typical of cubist compositions, such as a glass bottle, filled with news about vindication and liberation processes. This strategy contextualises the message within the realm of political news, as if it fed the concerns of the character(s). On this new field, the artist introduces two more elements. One is an inverted reproduction of the portrait of Charles III painted by Mengs. It is very interesting how he is arranged in the dark, with his eyes directed towards the viewer, showing himself despite not being perceived, metaphorically, by the other characters. The other one is the band that surrounds the four, as suggesting that it affects them even indirectly, as if they could not detach themselves from the historical tradition.
Thus, during the 1980s, political criticism was conveyed through the ironic reformulation of several recognisable elements or fragments of the repertoire formed by the canonical works of Western art history of the last five centuries. The acts of selection and combination provided the most valuable keys to this communicative process based on offering a more or less literal successive representation of part of an antecedent, never of the whole.
On the other hand, the signs with which the works of the nineties are made are daily-use objects, no longer high-culture referents. With the series “Vivace” (1991-2001), the artist complements the critical profile that is characteristic of his production with another vision that celebrates various aspects of life.
Thus, his denunciations remained only partially, focused on issues that are constant throughout his trajectory, such as Yankee imperialism, as shown in the psychedelic Interludi (1998) [Interlude]. However, at this stage they were often related to environmental claims. The Mediterranean coast was already besieged by urban predation. Consumption habits caused an unsustainable increase in the volume of plastic waste. Both situations hinted at the coming catastrophe.
Despite this terrible forecast, the production of this series is very colourful and seeks to be attractive to those who observe it pleasantly, far from the complexities of previous phases. In the painting Costa Blanca (1993), the arm of an excavator appears threatening, and a small can of Coca-Cola serves to link the destruction operation with the excessive consumption patterns that had been imported from the U.S. since World War II. The painting Parc natural (1993) [Natural Park] shows two bundles of plastic packaging, but they are not alone. After a closer look we discover a whole series of messages in the form of rebellious trademarks (Verí Good [pun with the word poison in Catalan], Dona Casa [literally, woman house]…) and how the failures of society (there is therefore a cut-off ear, as if it were Van Gogh’s?) can lead to death, as pointed out by the depiction of a skull.
On the other hand, vitality is depicted mainly through naked female figures. It is so in Tros de Cuba (1999) [Piece of Cuba] and also in Horitzó roig (2000) [Red Horizon], two paintings in which the beauty and sensuality of some young Cuban women are depicted on an intense blue background in different ways. The first one, as an actual presence that goes beyond limits and intensifies; the second one, almost like a dreamlike appearance as if it were just drawn.
But it is not only through the eroticism of some nudes that he refers to vitalism. The journey, as a process that leads to self-knowledge through distance and acknowledgement of others, is another symbolic motif for life. A cup of smoking coffee, an expectant bollard on the edge of a pier or a half-open suitcase are three elements that are painted in a precious way, as if they were relevant objects, although they are simply evocative. The relationship proposed by Antoni Miró towards nature is free of impact. Lightness is the essential factor. Bicycles are the paradigm of this ideal interaction. They are almost transparent mechanisms, formed by linear elements that almost disappear when overlapped with the environment. But above all they are sustainable devices that move exclusively thanks to human traction and are opposed to the heavy machines with which we destroy the environment we live in.
The artist uses bicycles as an ecological paradigm and transforms them in his compositions in various ways. He continues to establish contacts with elements of art history, for example, when characters from the Gernika talk to each other about a bicycle moving on the border between the sea and the sky, in Diàleg (1996) [Dialogue]. Or when it is Leonardo’s flying machines what causes a bicycle that illuminates the road with a light à la Picasso to move, in Bici aèria (1996) [Air Bike].
With the turn of the millennium, his artistic vision regains its critical-political side and, in addition, its global reach in terms of interests. The series “Sense Títol” (“Untitled”), which he continues until 2013, is a revision of the art of denunciation that he used to make three decades earlier.
The tensions produced by migrations to the first world are one of the topics to which his reflections are directed. Other evidence of this turnaround are the works on the 9/11 attacks in New York, such as the canvases Manhattan people (2002) and Escac i mat (2004) [Wordplay with checkmate and angelshark]. Besides, there are other subjects of representation: the conflicts in the Middle East, especially the Iraq War.
During the seventies, war was already central to Miró’s artistic production. As we know, Vietnam was the theme of a subseries, and conflicts in the Arab environment, such as the struggle against Israel in the Golan Heights, were the themes of other works. However, in this new revision of armed conflicts he abandons symbolism, essentialism and visual manipulation, and chooses a hyperrealism with which he portrays the complexity of situations. Desert de Kuwait (2004) [Kuwait Desert] and Tortura BBA (2010) [BBA Torture] reproduce press images reliably and directly with the rawness that characterises them; only in a few cases are distortions of an ironic nature introduced, such as the replacement of the American flag by some Valencian flags.
The painter’s gaze on the torments of contemporaneity does not aim only to wars. Poverty is the other matter he often refers to. Even in times of economic prosperity, he reflects many scenes whose protagonists are beggars who hide their faces as they extend their arms praying for alms in several tourist places in cities across Europe. All these are an example of the stark contrast between lack and opulence. Others show a broader scenario but insist on the theme of misery, as in Gran Madrid (2010) [Great Madrid]. This work shows a village with huts inhabited by the lumpenproletariat, although, after a careful and detailed look, it additionally provides several messages added through singular alteration (painted on the walls) and complementation by the arrangement of symbolic elements (the flag of the Second Spanish Republic, for example). Modifying some elements of the system or adding other alien elements are the two strategies used by the painter in order to expand the communicative effects of his creations. As these actions are only slightly perceivable, the viewers only notice them after carefully observing the painting. Before that, the viewers assume, in an illusory way, that they are facing the reproduction of a fragment of reality that reaches them without mediation.
The artist also addresses the clash of civilisations. Burka políptic (2010) [Polyptich Burqa] is perhaps the most notable work in this regard. Clearly Warholian in origin, it questions the indifference with which women are treated in Afghanistan. Since a mask undesirably nullifies the diversity of characters, he paints some rows of a covered head combined with chromatic variations in order to criticise, precisely, this mandatory homogenisation. We have initially described this composition as Warholian because of the influence on the configuration and transformative operation of the motif; however, during this stage of Miró’s career, his production is strongly related to the problem of the reproducibility and aura of the artistic work, both purely Benjaminian concepts.
It is clear that Benjamin was considering the effects of the emergence of new technical media: photography and cinema. The opportunities offered by these new languages had to be opposed with the risks of losing the values that had hitherto qualified the works of art. We can evaluate this problem in Miró’s 21st century works from several analysis perspectives.
One of these has to do with a reversal of meaning: if photography questioned painting as a tool for representing reality since before the mid 19th Century, it is now reversed: painting can increase possibilities of meaning of images with original photographic nature, especially in the field of symbolism. Another one affects the artistic conditions of the work as a material object, its aura.
In connection with this last detail, some of the key pieces of Western painting tradition are sometimes shown reworked in a particular way. We are referring to works such as Pintar a Botticelli (2003) [Painting Botticelli], Observant Murillo (2006) [Observing Murillo], La famosa Gioconda (2008) [The Famous Mona Lisa] or La lliçó d’art (2009) [The Art Lesson]. In all of them, the tension between reality and representation evolves into a different one that links a first canonical representation (of reality) with at least another representation that is no longer merely limited to its referent, but includes the environment that surrounds it, the museum, and in which there are other viewers who enjoy it. That is to say, the painting includes a previous pictorial elaboration (it is the case of the Mona Lisa) or several (the original elaboration of the scenes of The Story of Nastagio degli Onesti, part one and the reworking of a copyist); but he presents them contextualised as an object of appreciation and at the same time makes an implicit mention of the process of aesthetic reception of the viewers.
Museums are addressed in other works of this period in an ambiguous way. They are pictured in detail, highlighting the uniqueness of their architectural aspects as containers. But their contradictions are also shown: cultural plunder, commodification and trivialisation of art are three circumstances pointed out in several works. In a way, Miró tries to prevent us from rushing to conclusions and warns us of the conditioning that affects our aesthetic or appreciative experience.
Precisely, the artistic object-viewer interaction is another issue that the artist develops taking into account changes in language. Sculptures of paramount importance as Left hand raised, by J. Gonzalez, or the Victory of Samothrace are painted by Miró. In these actions we can find that recursive insistence because they are representations of models that are representations of other ideas simultaneously and at source. However, a partial substitution of referentiality is proposed by means of alterations that separate what is painted from what serves as a source of inspiration. The eagerness to emulate reality gives way to the interest of distancing oneself from it even if it does not seem so at first sight.
Referring to the relevance of the past is one of the objectives to which the artist devoted himself most intensely during this period. He did so by honouring and paying homage to many works of art of crucial importance but also to a wide range of people from the world of culture, mostly but not exclusively from the Catalan sphere. This subseries was titled “Personatges” (“Characters”). Writers, musicians, scientists, artists… such as two good friends of Antoni Miró who have already left us: Ovidi Montllor and Isabel-Clara Simó, also from Alcoi. All of them are portrayed in black and white, with a texture that marks the passage of time, which made them distinguished men and women. These constitute the painter’s particular pantheon.
However, as we know, not everything was better in the past. Miró considers that memories of the turbulent 20th Century must be preserved. Despicable events must not be forgotten. Places for repression were crowded with the terrible suffering of the victims, although it seems absent now. That’s why he paints Ciutat sense sortida (2005) [Dead-end City] or L’estadi nacional (2004) [The National Stadium]. The affliction in the eyes of a man before being shot in one of his paintings of the subseries “Dòlar-Xile” (“Dollar-Chile”) is no longer explicitly present in this latter work. On the other hand, the strangeness of observing buildings as large as these, which usually house crowds, completely empty, brings memories of the injustice.
These uninhabited scenarios are opposed to those of the numerous demonstrations that took place after the citizens suffered the ravages of the last global economic crisis. Back then there were mass rallies against governments pushing for budget restraint measures in Europe. Along with these, vindictive and liberating positions resurfaced. This tone of protest and denouncing systematised injustices also took place in the Arab countries. But the spring on which we will focus our comment is the Valencian Spring.
With the subseries “Mani-Festa” (2012-18), the painter comes back to the chronicle of reality. His painting aspires to be a critical mean with which he wants to immortalise a particularly tense and at the same time hopeful moment. With the work Prohibit pensar (2012) [Thinking is Forbidden] he shows the incipient revolt against the Valencian government at the time. While in the seventies his characters were shown on a neutral background with a certain degree of realism, now Miró highlights them full of details over the rest of the image, which is dampened.
The core of interest are certain actions and reactions that were held by the protesters and the police. In the work Primavera valenciana (2012) [Valencian Spring], a young woman defends herself and tries to run away from two agents; in Policia a València (2013) [Police in Valencia], a young man is already neutralised. The artist’s intention is to emphasise these specific circumstances within the great commotion. He uses several plastic means in order to isolate and highlight the figures involved and also to indicate directions of movement. However, the desire to convey reality to the viewer in all its harshness makes him avoid making transformations that could distort it.
The last of the series he has made so far is called “Sense Sèrie” (“Unserialised”). Since 2013, the painter modulated his own vindictive tone by bringing it closer to evaluating it. Homage to his city is now a key concept. He intends to place value on certain elements of this industrial city, such as the bridges with which the orographic limits that constrained its growth were overcome. But he also points out that during the Spanish Civil War, international solidarity allowed a Swedish-Norwegian hospital to be set up there.
Thus, within the subseries “Costeres i Ponts” (“Hills and Bridges”) we find urban views that are focused on the latter. Their structures are well defined thanks to the geometric rigour that is innate to them. However, due to the arbitrariness of the arrangement of other elements surrounding them, their cleanliness is corrupted. We know that this contradiction has often been the basis of the credibility of realistic pictorial representations, as absolute perfection reduces the possibilities of verisimilitude.
But he does not only depict aspects of Alcoi. The works dedicated to the Tribunal de les Aigües (a traditional court that settles disputes on irrigation) mainly involve the assessment of this customary Valencian institution, but also the framework that houses its members and the entire irrigation system that articulates the Valencian fields. He emphasises the Valencian flags that are at the Door of the Apostles of the Valencia Cathedral as characteristic marks and reproduces them separated and dyed with diverse colours. However, he also paints purely functional hydraulic devices with the same level of details, such as a sluice valve that regulates the flow of a canal.
In the last two years, Miró has focused part of his production on eroticism and sexuality, and has set up a subseries called “Nus i Nues” (“Naked Men and Women”). As the title points, not only feminine sensuality and beauty are the focus of attention, but masculine too. Whole bodies or parts of them are shown explicitly and, moreover, this nudity is shown without hiding a lustful attitude.
The importance lies therefore in the body or in a part of it as an underlying layer of desire, a purely mental factor. Thus, he painstakingly paints bodies and often adds features that are part of his identity in order to strengthen the bond he establishes with them. Beyond the controversy, at bottom, it is about exercising painting by using nude models.
Comments on four areas of interest
So far we have discussed the series with which the artist has structured his career; it is now appropriate, as noted at the beginning, to highlight the four areas of interest that form their backbone. The first and most general is related to his distinctive personal consideration of painting as a discipline whose possibilities include understanding the reality of the world and personally linking to its improvement. Of the other three, two are properly and almost exclusively thematic: memory and identity, on the one hand, and eroticism and life, on the other hand. The latter is not, however, solely and fundamentally argumentative. The condition of denunciation and the political character that are inherent to his production go beyond the limits of the content space, and are truly the foundations of his critical vision. Because it is clear that what Miró ultimately aspires to is for his painting to be a transformative device in contemporary society.
Despite being four areas of recurring attention during his painting career, their incidence in each of the series is modulated and is not always shown in the same level of intensity. His is an aesthetic program, in short, that allows for the continued use of this range of interests in different ways and with different levels of involvement.
Miró’s painting, as Romà de la Calle so rightly pointed out, is about sensitisation; but in addition, as this expert explains, there is a clear degree of sensitisation of painting with regard to the construction of its plastic language. That is, there is a predisposition to guide the viewer’s reflections and another one aimed at internalising the successive effects of his creations on his new compositions, within a continuous and increasingly sophisticated self-learning mechanism.
Painting in this case serves primarily as a communication channel with those who observe the work, but at the same time it is also not only a way of learning, but of interacting with the world. Chronicling contemporary reality by denouncing serious injustice or questioning certain unacceptable circumstances is a double process by which, on the one hand, he raises awareness about situations that are to be fought and, on the other hand, he shows his commitment to solidarity. As Zola did in relation to the Dreyfus case, Miró accuses publicly. He has spoken out to society painting against those he has considered to be oppressive powers at all times.
This was a widespread position in the 1970s; in fact, Mario de Micheli said about the works of the members of the Gruppo Denunzia, of which Miró was a part, that their pictures were “images against and images for: against the offence to the integrity of men and for the affirmation of his freedom.” In fact, the vast majority of Antoni Miró’s works in the series “Amèrica Negra” (1972) [“Black America”], “L’Home Avui” (1972-74) [“Man Today”] and “El Dòlar” (1973-80) [“The Dollar”] specifically show this duality which consists in acting against the oppressive agents and, at the same time, crying out for the freedom of the oppressed.
This same thing happens with many of the works of his last series in the current century, in which he makes explicit the position of denunciation. This critique of a certainly political nature can also be observed during the eighties and nineties, in “Pinteu Pintura” (1980-91) [“Paint Painting”] and “Vivace” (1991-2001). However, in these two series the irony and aestheticisation made this manifestation less direct than during the seventies.
There are two eighteenth-century pictorial currents that can be linked to the social realism of the following century: realism set out by Courbet and history painting, which so brilliantly cultivates Alcoi artist Gisbert, incidentally. However, while it is true that Miró’s work as a realistic critical art deals with the mere mortals — as Proudhon would say in Du principe de l’art et de sa destination sociale, an unbeatable allegation in favour of Courbet —, his, more than history painting, is story painting.
In addition to articulating a means of denouncing political offences with painting, painting itself has often been the object or topic of reflection throughout Miró’s career. The recursion of the series “Pinteu Pintura” (1980-91) [“Paint Painting”] is the clearest example of this. “Images of images”, thus aptly described Romà de la Calle these creations based on the combination of elements of the canonical repertoire. He made this reference to metapainting by following and adapting the approaches of important philosophers such as Husserl and Benjamin. In the case of Miró, formulating new messages from fragments, signs and symbols already in the tradition of Western painting is an ambiguous strategy. It is based on the appreciation and recognition of art history, but in some cases he grants them a critical capacity in order to subvert the original meaning.
This semantic dislocation that comes from the juxtaposition of fragments of images that lack a relationship connecting them is the fundamental strategy of collages. Renau’s are a clear reference for Miró, as evidenced by the coherence between compositional strategies and critical intention. The artist, at the beginning of each of these operations, chooses several elements that, despite having a certain significance, on their own lead to new interpretations about themselves when placed next to others. The controversy results from an unproblematised assimilation in the first instance. Familiarity becomes strange, but unlike surreal precedents it must make the viewers enter the field of critical consideration and encourage their political actions.
We have already said that Miró’s work shares the intense use of intertextuality with representatives of Valencian critical pop. His is, like theirs, a generally acid and ironic critique; however, this causticity is sometimes replaced by a certain lyricism, especially in the series “Pinteu Pintura” (1980-91) [“Paint Painting”] and “Vivace” (1991-2001).
Having explained the particular functions that painting develops as a critical vehicle and reference source, it is now necessary to approach the three thematic areas identified as his areas of constant interest: memory and identity, eroticism and life and denunciation and politics.
With varied nature and more or less intensity, all three can be observed in the series. The references and reflections that involve cultural aspects or that are very close to him belong to what we call memory and identity. The close environment of the artist has two faces: on the material plane it could be the territory in which he lives, for example; and on the spiritual plane, the poets he knows and respects, among others. It is clear that the culture that he feels as his own, the Catalan culture, is the aspect he most frequently insists on. But there are also other referents outside this culture with whom he creates relationships and to whom he pays homage.
A testimony of the transversality of the interest in this class of character factors is evidenced by the representation of the Valencian flag. The first major work in which the question of identity is dealt with is, without a doubt, Llances imperials (1977) [Imperial Spears]. However, during the following decade several of the works in the series “Pinteu Pintura” (1980-91) [“Paint Painting”], as Temps d’un poble (1988-89) [Time of the People], use it as the central motif of the composition. But, perhaps, the work in which the symbol acquires the most importance is Senyora Senyera (1987) [Mrs. Senyera], which inevitably refers to one of the icons painted by Delacroix. This new Liberty, however, does not wave the flag guiding people, but covers herself with it except for her breasts, making a sign of intimate identification. Much later, Miró acts similarly again in the work Senyera (2012) [Valencian Flag], maintaining the ensign as a source of pride that protects the nudity of a female body. But in other works it was not so: Altre amar (1999) [Another Love] and Tornarà al sud (1999) [It Will Return to the South] are two small boards showing completely naked women holding the poles of flags waving in the wind.
The landscape he recognises as his own — on the one hand, that of the city of Alcoi and its surrounding mountains, and on the other hand, that of the Mediterranean coast — is another clear point of reference in terms of identity. He made some works during his first stage, which we call “Opera Prima”, depicting Alcoi. And, above all, it is the recent “Costeres i Ponts” (“Hills and Bridges”) the subseries in which numerous representations of various characteristic places and infrastructures of this industrial city are concentrated. Apart from the urban scene of Alcoi, in the works of the series “Vivace” (1991-2001) he shows the link with the natural parks that surround the city and also with the Mediterranean coast; the first ones subjected to human pollution, and the second one besieged by the development of urbanisation processes since the sixties.
The painter also recognises himself in others, he has used painting to relate to those close to him. Some members of his family and friends from childhood and early youth were the subject of his first portraits. Companions of later stages, such as Ovidi Montllor, Isabel-Clara Simó, Antoni Gades… are also included as portraits in the long list of characters he admires and make up the subseries “Personatges” (“Characters”). Within this list we find Freud and Marx, as the origin of contemporary critical questions, or Fuster, as the initiator of a process of recognition of what it means to be Valencian. Also many writers and poets: Miguel Hernández and García Lorca, in Spanish; Pla or Espriu, in Catalan. Musicians like Pau Casals, singers like Raimon. And, of course, painters such as Dalí or Tàpies.
Precisely, many elements of the works of these two artists, as well as Picasso and many others from as early as the sixteenth century, are added to the paintings of Miró that make up the series “Pinteu Pintura” (1980-91) [“Paint Painting”]. This way of acting allows him to internalise the keys of his artistic references and, at the same time, reformulate the meaning with which he tries to present them again. He fixes his production in the most valuable pictorial tradition and unites identity and memory.
But not all references are in a positive sense. While the works of art are subject of recognition, many of his criticisms are directed at museums. By the way, certain historical disasters, such as the Jewish Holocaust, are represented in order not to forget them. Also, the author often uses certain symbols such as playing cards numbered with 1707, the year of the defeat of Almansa, in order to negatively highlight Spanish centralism.
On the other hand, the subseries “Mani-Festa” is intended to create an information repository that allows to recognise the intensity of the several springs in the future. This works as a tool of historical memory, thanks to the gaze of which we can see, at the same time and later on, both the positive and the negative features of these processes.
The second of the three areas is that of eroticism and life. The origin of this representation is shown in his notes, in the form of brief line drawings in pencil or ink, with which he portrays young naked women. The sinuosity of the continuous lines with which they are formed is very characteristic of these sketches. They are often graceful foreshortening drawings that offer images that captivate immediately in which simplicity and elementality are conjugated.
His first paintings expressly related to the desire and beauty of the female body can be found in the series “El Dòlar” (1973-80) [“The Dollar”]. The triptych The Maja-Today (1975) is a good example, with which Miró tries to sarcastically update Goya’s model. Militarism and capitalism are the background to this lewd approach to women, which includes a critique of prostitution.
Later in the series “Vivace” (1991-2001) he addresses female attractiveness again. The sensuality of Caribbean and Mediterranean women is almost always shown on an intense blue background, as if the sea and the sky were the only frames within which they can be exhibited. That is what happens in Benvolença (1999) [Benevolence] and Tros de Cuba (1999) [Piece of Cuba]. It is also indigo the colour of the surface on which the figure is arranged in the work Senyera (2012) [Valencian Flag], from a much later creative phase, the subseries “Mani-Festa”.
It is not uncommon that he isolates the silhouettes and arranges them over a figurative sea or sky. In fact, nature and femininity are often identified or associated in Miró’s works. The painting Zebres a trossos (1998) [Pieces of zebras] is a metaphorical example of this kind of relationship.
The explicitness of sexuality by drawing and painting naked figures has been constant throughout his career. In fact, much of his recent work is close to pornography, so it follows the path started by Courbet with The Origin of the World. With these obscene paintings, the painter does not shy away from the discomfort he may generate in the viewers: he tries to challenge them. For the most part, the painter depicts women in explicitly sexual situations, but he also does the same with men. Sometimes, he adds tattoos in a fetishistic way on their bodies for intensifying purposes.
As the name suggests, life, along with sensuality, is the main motif of the series “Vivace” (1991-2001). Its power is made evident in some cases. But its fragile character is also often emphasised. This is achieved by simply referring to it, without representing it, warning of its threats. The work Parc natural (1993) [Natural Park] is probably the clearest example of this mechanism of awareness. Other previous paintings — as Intrús a Cofrents (1989) [Intruder in Cofrents], from the previous series, “Pinteu Pintura” (1980-91) [“Paint Painting”] — act in the same direction.
This task of raising awareness that corresponds to the painter’s vocation to become an influential intellectual in his society connects with the third axis of content, which corresponds to denunciation and politics. His painting has always had a criticism background. His approach from the beginning has been to aim his reflections on the present at raising awareness, as the initial work El bevedor (1960) [The Drinker] shows.
Specifically, his first political analyses revolved about the Vietnam War in the late 1960s. Later, they were about the poverty of African-Americans and violence against them in the U.S. in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Racism paved the way for reflection on neo-liberalism, Yankee imperialism and militarisation, but also on the defence of the interests of oppressed peoples around the world. It was basically a chronicle of the reality of international geopolitics at that time.
In the late 1970s and especially throughout the 1980s, this critical position affected other issues that were closer to him. That is to say, the Spanish Civil War (Personatge esguardant Gernika, 1985 [Character Looking Gernika]), the first results of the transition to democracy in Spain (Díptic democràtic, 1986-87 [Democratic Diptych]; El misteri republicà, 1988 [The Republican Mystery]), the Valencian national identity (Llances imperials, 1977 [Imperial Spears]), Spanish centralism (Retrat eqüestre, 1982-84 [Equestrian Portrait]) or left-wing policies (Qui té por, 1988 [That Who Is Afraid]).
In the nineties, the denunciation focused on the destruction of the environment. The growing pollution from consumerism and the devastating effects on the environment are the two consequences of neo-liberalism on which he focused his criticism.
With the beginning of the 21st century, he refocused his attention on political grievances. During the first decade, moreover, he regained his global scope; however, it was not so in the second one. The 9/11 attacks or the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan were some of the themes in the first one, while in the next one he addresses the serious effects of the economic crisis within Spain and the citizen revolts in Valencia.
After interpreting these three broad thematic sets that the pictorial works of Antoni Miró constantly reflect, even if it is in a very different way, it is necessary to end this taxonomy, whose central part is made up of a sequence of brief references to each of the series he has developed throughout his career, indicating what its general characteristics are.