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Antoni Miró, crediting reality

Santiago Pastor Vila

“At the heart of Antoni Miró’s sustained and protean work has been, from day one, a critical decision focused on man and the society that Western man has created. At times it is a cry of denunciation, at others it is provocative sarcasm, from time to time it is the very incongruity of an art cornered by its own hypotheses. Hence the profound meaning that emerges from it. And the lesson”.
Extract from the text Jove com és encara (And still young), by Joan Fuster, 1977

“The problem has always been the degree of reality, the content that guides this grasp of reality, the height, appropriateness and communicability of the language used. The rest is rhetoric. Without forgetting that art is only one aspect of the great human process that must choose between plenitude and destruction. It is, therefore, highly important to catch, even if only by the tail, the difficult and dangerous tiger of true realism”.
Passage from the book Panorama of the New Spanish Art, by Vicente Aguilera Cerni, 1966

I once stated that Antoni Miró is a Fusterian artist. As were certain other artists directly involved in the process known as the contemporary Valencian Art Revival of ’64, or those close to it. They were all influenced, albeit in different ways and to different degrees, by Joan Fuster’s ideas. I am referring to some of the artists who belong to the movement to chronicle reality (Miró, for example), to others, such as Boix, Heras and Armengol, and to Alfaro himself. Of course, I am not alluding to a group of artists formally organised around Fuster; nor is it the case that this thinker explicitly indicated the keys to a new way of participating in the world of the visual arts. What I am trying to underline here is that, as is well known, since the initial reception of Nosaltres, els valencians (We, the Valencians), published in 1962, Joan Fuster’s notoriety increased enormously in the political sphere (promoting opposition to Franco’s nationalist regime) and in the cultural sphere (most intensely among university students). And, needless to say, in the art world, it falls within the second sphere mentioned (although, for many, also the first).

Therefore, during the second half of the sixties, and also throughout the following decade, certain artists tried to explicitly consolidate their Valencian identity through their work. Others considered the essayist from Sueca to be an intellectual reference point. While others simply took him as a model of mordacity and scepticism. There is no doubt that Antoni Miró did all three, the result of the enormous admiration he professes for the individual. He also took many other positions, of course; then, later and now. But it is undeniable that the Alcoi-born artist is within the sphere of influence of Fusterianism and that this is a fundamental truth about him. Moreover, there was a certain reciprocity, despite the inevitable asymmetry: Fuster respected the painter and his work. In fact, he had a Mironian version of the Mona Lisa hanging near the place where he used to write, an example from the seventies and, at the time, a precursor to the transition towards the series that would dominate the following decade: Pinteu pintura (Paint Painting).

Rather than reconstructing the evolution followed by the artist, or identifying the keys to his relationship with Fuster and its effects on his career, as the title of this article suggests, what I want to do is to focus on a specific and, at the same time, very significant aspect in terms of understanding Antoni Miró’s work. In this short essay I wish to mention the unequivocal commitment to realism shown in the work by this artist. I will not be exhaustive, I will simply run through his prolific series making specific comments. On the contrary, I will try to show the timeliness of this choice as a tool that contextualises the initial moment of critical recognition for his work, approximately fifty years ago. And also, use it as a medium to bring together, within its stylistic diversity, the varied body of his work.

An affirmation of reality is evident in all the series in which Miró’s work is structured, despite the varying degrees to which it is manifested in each one. Some, such as El dòlar (The Dollar) and others from the 1970s, are realist in the fact that they were completely shaped by the tense economic and political situation at the historical moment in which they were created. Also in the choice of a language that sometimes borders on hyperrealism. Pinteu pintura (Paint Painting) or Vivace, on the other hand, are realist for different reasons. They make the history of art and nature, respectively, two areas to be valued and preserved from the continuous attacks they suffer, as a sign of twin commitments the artist wants to extend to society as a whole. For example, in the first, which kept him occupied throughout the eighties, he collected, updated and altered the symbols and landmarks in the systems of meaning, both from high and popular culture, to reformulate, or at least question, using a poetics that mixed the technique of collage and the strategy of irony, the meaning of history. Nor can it be denied that some of his works are infused, in terms of the combination of significant elements, with a surrealist aura. But the aspect I would like to emphasise here focuses mainly on his motivations, arrangements and aims, and not on the concrete, formal configuration; in short, the results.

From the beginning of his artistic career, a certain realist zeal can already be identified, which I will describe as avant la lettre. The painting entitled El bevedor (The Drinker) is the clearest example. By using the term realist, I am not just alluding to the figurative fidelity that is denoted by the expressive language he employs. Nor is it simply a matter of explicitly evoking certain social problems in a premeditated way through the exercise of painting. That is why I refer to it as an anticipation.

He would arrive at a fully realist position a little later, when he assumed the inherent historicity of art. As we know, this leads it to assume two fundamental aspects: on the one hand, it comes to be considered as a product that is a consequence of the political and economic determinations that affect the society of which the artist is a part and, beyond these present circumstances, on the other hand, the continuous tradition of the new is recognised, inserting one’s own work within the course of events, within the history of art, as a singular part, but one that is related the rest: heir to the past and answerable to the future. Moreover, the commitment to society, “art at the service of man”, as Fuster reminded us, entails the search for ways to change society as a result of individual action. In short, we move from the field of individual expression to that of communication with a transformative will.

The underlying issue is, in any case, that a certain realism has been a constant focus of attention throughout his long artistic career (not for nothing has he devoted more than six decades mainly to painting, but also to other disciplines such as sculpture and graphic work). We have a brilliant and extensive theoretical construction that delves into this issue: the text La realitat rebel·lada (Reality Rebelled), written by Fernando Castro, who combines enormous doses of erudition and perspicacity in conceptually positioning Miró’s realist poetics. Earlier, Romà de la Calle had pointed out, as is usual with him, that his was not just “painting that raises awareness”, but that there was a remarkable degree of “awareness in these paintings”. To understand the intentional repetition that informs “the images of images”, to which Romà de la Calle also referred, requires, in my opinion, this mixture of ideological purpose and a process of internalisation that characterises Antoni Miró’s work. It is clear that this is not a unique and exclusive positioning of this artist; but this does not prevent it from being his own, just as it is for others. As the genealogy of Valencian social realism is well known, many will see commonalities with other equally valuable approaches. But, as I said at the beginning, I want to address the problem by focusing solely on Miró’s work, and mainly through Joan Fuster.

In El descrèdit de la realitat (Discrediting Reality), a book published in 1954, the essayist reflected on the canonical “painter-reality relationships” in each period or artistic movement from the Renaissance to the trendsetting movements that followed the historical avant-gardes. Fuster waited until the prologue to the second edition (1975) to indicate what he understood conceptually by painting. He wrote: “it is purely an invention of images, and whatever image the painter «attempts», he will always respond, according to a specific dialectic, to the image that «reality» imposes on him”. Thus, for him, reality determined the approach to it, and did so in accordance with the artist’s own deliberate positioning. As can be seen, this definition is not free from vagueness and can lead to misunderstandings due to its incompleteness. Even so, when speaking of Goya, Fuster made an essential clarification: “what the painter really paints is not the thing —Donya Cayetana, Don Carlos (Doña Cayetana, Don Carlos) and their relatives, the «madams» or the «Mays»— but their relationship with the thing”. This implied, on the other hand, that the reproduction was not in terms of representation, of transposing what is seen, but in terms of meaning, of an explicitness of another element that is not initially visible to the eyes. Therefore, as Fuster explains, figurative artists do not copy reality, but rather, by painting it, they remake it. Or, I would add, they make something else out of it.

The core of the discourse that informs the essay lies in the fact that, for the Valencian intellectual, there had been, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, a “non-figurativist avalanche” that had led to the dominance of abstraction, in both its analytical and expressionist aspects, which then generated some initial counter-reactions later on, during the first half of the century. In the mid-1950s, Fuster highlighted three ways in which a return to reality had taken place: the Neue Sachlichkeit (new objectivity), the principles of “socialist realism” and surrealism. All of them were already then, in 1954, exhausted, in his opinion. However, it was, instead, a new influence inclined towards realism that became particularly noticeable in the Valencian Country during the following decade, as we now know. Thus, Fuster explained in 1975, in the prologue to the second edition to his work, even amidst the complex crossover of the sixties, the paths that converged in what were “pop and op, «socialist realism» and odourless hyperrealism, and more, many more toponymic fantasies”, even in the face of this, there were others that “adopted, with admirable insolence, the label of «chronicle of reality»”. It is well known that Antoni Miró was one of those.

His position, like that of so many others, is obviously only a particular version of a general trend, as I have already noted. Nor does he represent a new position, as it is originally aligned with the realist paradigms of the eighteenth century: with those of Zola or Courbet, for example, or even with the critical side of the late Goya. But, beyond the pioneers, and the whole tradition of the figurative aspect that has adopted a critical perspective that has followed them, above all this broader current that I have just mentioned can be typified by the chronicle of reality, which has been particularly developed in the Valencian Country since the sixties. Figuration is the methodological underpinning and expressive vehicle for Antoni Miró’s poetics, and the problems of individuals and contemporary society are his most frequent driving force.

If we pay attention to the modulation followed throughout his career, we find ourselves witnessing the problems of the society in which he lives; as well as key aspects and figures from history or politics, from the history of art or literature, events and characters, in short, from the past and present, near or distant; the most recent civil demonstrations, in Catalonia or Egypt, or elsewhere; the victims and scenes of war; the destitute who survive in opulent societies, etc. They are all episodes or characters shaped as points of interest for the artist, which compel him to create because of the situations they represent or experience. What he generally does, then, is to select a fragment of reality, present or past, and, by painting it, establish it as the foundation for a denunciation or an acknowledgement that he presents to others in order to make them aware of it, as has already been said. It is clear that this process of awareness-raising requires a double gaze, backwards and forwards simultaneously, as suggested by the two-headed bust of Janus. Any denunciation, in fact, obviously incorporates testimonial evidence; but it also carries with it an implicit determination to transform.

The chronicle of reality was one of the post-informal alternatives advocated by Vicent Aguilera Cerni, right in the middle of the 1960s, as stated in his Panorama of New Spanish Art, and it had been presented in the form of an exhibition, curated by himself, at the Barcelona College of Architects in 1965. This Valencian critic was referring to the dazzling invasion of images that was taking place at the time, which provided the possibility of a kind of social reportage by artists. For him, pop art had chosen to use the idiomatic elements of consumer civilisation, both objects and myths, whereas it could then switch to a language nourished by the civilisation of the images. It is obvious that the demarcation between the two domains is blurred in many parts and non-existent in others. Advertising, the mass media, especially television, and the cinema were then powerful means of disseminating increasingly powerful visual resources, thanks to growing technical advances in the way communication was used. This was to be exploited for its proven communicative effectiveness. However, the essential point is that, for Vincent Aguilera, the chronicle of reality, unlike pop art, enjoyed credibility because of the clear critical intentionality with which it could construct its compositions. It was, he stressed, a cumulative and communicative movement, typifying and signifying. In short, he concluded that the chronicle of reality was the sum of social realism and contemporary visual experiences. As Bozal has indicated, Aguilera’s theoretical proposal “moved halfway between traditional Marxian concepts and the analysis of some aspects of consumer society and the mass media”. For Fuster, on the other hand, the chronicle of reality was a “new realism, complex but evident”.

Also, just at that time, in the mid-sixties, Tomàs Llorens had defined contemporary aesthetic semiology with a high degree of sophistication and in a way that was particularly suitable for correctly positioning the political or ideological intention within the process of artistic creation. He explained that it tends towards conflict in the social frame of reference of its interpreters and towards the socio-centric in terms of its objectives. In other words, a conflictive society (as any capitalist society is for a Marxist) corresponds to an artistic field that illustrates the tensions inherent in social interaction in a continuous class struggle. The artist could therefore only be a critical agent reflecting these problems and contributing to social progress. I believe that, in the work of Antoni Miró, the circularity that can be deduced from Llorens’ scheme is highly evident. He characterised it by the fact that both the initiation and the objective of the process of communicating artistic meaning are situated in the chorus of the historical process in which society, and therefore the artist, finds themselves in each epoch. This is because Miró’s works emerge from a reflection on the tensions of the world in which we live and they aspire to generate new critical actions, beyond that which each one constitutes as a message formulated and shaped as an object. The subject matter he takes as a motivational reference is, specifically, a broad set of different specific circumstances, typical of very different historical moments, alternating the local with the global sphere; a vast selection of partial aspects, which, in short, characterise in some way his vision of contemporaneity. By showing it to others, he seeks, deep down, to change it together with them.

Fuster would not have agreed with the latter, he thought that “the most radical evidence contradicts those theories that want to submerge the artistic and literary work in a pure historicity, «engagée» in an epoch making them incapable, or almost incapable, of surpassing it”. He admitted that the artist was obviously historically aware; but this did not imply, he said, that his work was exhausted by attention to the circumstances of oppression at the time and the proposition of a response dedicated to action. It seems that there is a certain romantic resistance that encourages exacerbated self-assertion and the denial of the pre-eminence of engagement with others. Fuster thought the artist was interested in his “uniqueness”. And from this would derive a legitimisation of the simple dissemination of their personal philias and phobias without any transformative vocation, which is the same as denying the ideological function of the artistic act and accepting that, once the fashion for representation is over, we would be left with death linked to mere expression.

As I said before, the rediscovery of realism is a far-reaching process. If we stick to Europe, since the fifties in several countries and especially during the sixties in Spain, the aim was to put an end to the hegemony of abstraction with an expressive aspect, informalism in our case. The stage at which a large part of European painting found itself during the decade after the end of the Second World War represented the culmination of the long process Joan Fuster referred to, that of discrediting reality both as a model of reference and as the primary source of the communicative code. The chronicle of reality was, on the contrary, an attempt to give legitimacy, once again, to reality. Antoni Miró committed himself to this project through his individual action and shaped his cries of denunciation and his cries for freedom in accordance with the principles indicated. The faces of the black children treated with penetrating harshness and intense chromaticism in Lluita d’infants (Children’s Struggle), speak of the iniquities in the poorest neighbourhoods of the cities of the United States. A Martin Luther King surrounded by vibrant haloes will allude, on the contrary, to the possibilities of change, achieving Igualtat per a tothom (Equality for all). It is a dialectical constellation of real events figuratively transposed onto the canvas. But it is not, as I have said, the realism of this linguistic or expressive option that is important. What is essential is a realistic approach in terms of the choice of subject matter, the vehicle for the denunciation and the hope for a change in the situation.

It is not that realist figuration is inconvenient or insufficient: it is that it does not stand alone, but rather accompanies the realist ideological positioning, which could even have been made visible with another language. For example, the denunciation of rapacious capitalism can be illustrated in the form of a mock revenge by means of a hanged dollar. Strangling a banknote with a simple rope is an ironic approach to a challenge that the artist would like to be more far-reaching. But this does not prevent us from presenting the symbol that identifies what it fights against with careful precision. The same is true of two other works from later periods. In Retrat eqüestre (Equestrian Portrait), the globalisation of the economy and the domination of various brands is exemplified by a series of logos depicted on the horse that supports a malicious new count-duke, highlighting the improper relations that can be established between economic and political powers. This is also the case in Costa Blanca, where the financial interests associated with pillaging our coastline are symbolised. For all of them, the motivation stems from a critique of the neoliberal economic system. They are messages of protest against the abuses inflicted on society. They are the result of a commitment and are intended to transform. They show a commitment to realism (yes, and also to critical figuration).

Even so, not everything in Antoni Miró’s work is a denunciation or a yearning for freedom, and it is worth remembering this, albeit very briefly, before concluding. Protest alternates with enjoyment and pleasure. As befits someone living beside the Mediterranean, his painting has another dedication to reality: that which is due to the fact that he is often in a position to depict corporeal beauty, especially feminine beauty. This is the source of beauty that looks, as Fuster stated under the corresponding entry in his Diccionari per a ociosos (Dictionary for the Idle), without concupiscent complexes. I do not have time to deal with it now because in the series on hell he already made it clear that there would be no end soon (or ever) to the reasons why “life is set up in such a way that, in reality, for many things —deeds and people— that we see and describe as “unjust”, there is no possible redress in the course of our temporal existence”.