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Antoni Miró’s Personatges series: present and past

Santiago Pastor Vila

I already wrote about this series (Personatges) on a previous occasion. Started in 2012, the series comprises a sizeable and singular part of Antoni Miró’s recent pictorial works and is intended as some sort of personal pantheon. I focused on two aspects: the definition of the term “personatge” (“character” in Catalan) I thought the artist was offering and the wide-ranging cultural background providing the basis for this project. Identifying cultural references, however many they are (a myriad, I said then), is a quite specific way of taking stances, surprising though it may seem. Indeed, multiplicity allows us to denote a universe with clearly defined boundaries, at least as far as its essential features are concerned.

Now, however, my goals are different. I do not wish to further elaborate on what I said about this series, seen in isolation from the rest of his career. Instead, considering that throughout his years as an artist, especially in Miró’s first three series (Amèrica Negra, 1972; El Dòlar, 1973-1979; and Pinteu pintura, 1980-1991), the depiction of many historical characters has been a recurring theme, I would like to point out certain differences in approach between this and previous series.

The interest here lies in highlighting those historical figures the artist himself has selected and included in his paintings. My aim is to provide a more complete picture of the characters he focused on in his works; generally speaking, his characters are ordinary people who bear the brunt of capitalism and globalisation, as is made evident in other series produced by Miró over the years. More specifically, Vivace (1991-2002) looked at the threat of devastation to the natural environment; Sense Títol (S/T) (2002-12) was primarily concerned with misery, the consequences of war and the banalisation of culture; and Mani-Festa (2012-18) addressed the fight against the injustices caused by the economic crisis and corruption. In these three series, no single personality or figure stood out as a positive example; rather, the artist emphasised the relevance of certain social or citizen groups fighting against or suffering injustice.

Personatges, however, is completely different. The aim is not to condemn, but to show certain people, mostly from the Catalan cultural sphere, in a positive light. The artist shifts from criticism to praise. The painter presents these portraits according to a set of criteria, for the sake of consistency. Remarkable factors common to all these works include the framing, the non-use of colours and the special textures. In general, the characters are depicted from the shoulders up; many of the faces, taking up much of the canvas, are three-quarter turned. Most of them are in black and white, although sometimes with a touch of colour. Finally, in all cases, the texture suggests the idea of their never-ending existence, of their (in a way) timeless quality.

And yet, a relationship can be established between Personatges and those other series the artist developed in the 1970s and 1980s, in which Miró depicted some political and artistic figures he held in high regard. The series he created during the 1970s, clearly and strongly political in character, feature two key figures from the global political scene of the time. In the 1980s, Miró did not change his critical approach, but he started to include cultural (as well as political) figures in his series, mostly from, but not limited to, the pictorial tradition.

Accordingly, in Amèrica Negra (1972), in which he examined the fight against racism in the United States and the defence of civil rights for people of colour, there is only one fundamental character: Martin Luther King Jr. Whether in a frontal close-up, like in Veu de pau (1972), or seen from the back, illustrating his charisma as a speaker through some sort of shockwaves propagating from him (Igualtat per a tothom, 1972), the leader of the movement is presented with a combination of assertiveness and hope. Still, the children of colour living in the slums of North American cities are also major characters in his critical narrative, as he aims to provide a raw picture of those most vulnerable.

In the El Dòlar-Xile subseries (1973-77), the figure depicted (although not as prominently as Luther King in Amèrica Negra) is Salvador Allende, always as an antagonist to American imperialism, metaphorically represented by a $1 note in the entire series. Both Luther King and Allende are shown in action, rather than posing for a painter. The artist’s gaze is based on that of a photojournalist, always sneaky. Next, Miró applies a variety of visual effects to enhance the look of the document, a technique usually employed in the “chronicle of reality” movement. Like the black children from the previous example, the common characters here are soldiers, prostitutes and people executed by shooting – one could see them as extras, even though they are the ones allowing Miró to shape his activist discourse.

In the 1980s, the artist’s political concerns were less focused on the international situation. While his characteristic socio-political criticism remained a hallmark of his work, he also made reference for the first time to key figures in the history of Western art, in what would be the clearest precedent for the Personatges series. The artist meticulously depicted (and criticised) some political personalities he loathed. During the previous decade he had repeatedly painted the $1 note, and in the 1980s Miró condemned the Count-Duke of Olivares’s centralisation project by remaking the masterful equestrian portrait Velázquez had painted of him. What I wish to emphasise here, however, is that in the Pinteu pintura series we find the first indication of his admiration for culture or, at least, for certain painters.

In these works, high and popular culture are interwoven, as are different pictorial trends or different historical periods. Moreover, he sometimes expresses his views about a character (like in the Personatges series) through a portrait. For example, in Góngora (1981-91), Miró ironically reformulates Velázquez’s extraordinary portrait of the Córdoba-born poet and playwright, with his characteristically stern face, by combining Góngora with a Catalan-style Mort (a character from the Spanish comic series Mort & Phil), wearing a sash, espadrilles and the traditional barretina and offering a baguette. In other cases, parts of Renaissance and Baroque works appear next to paintings by 20th century artists, especially Dalí, Miró and Picasso.

By doing this, Antoni Miró is, to a certain extent, portraying those artists by borrowing distinctive elements from their work. There is no need for explicit references to other artists, whether relatively recent (Joan Miró, Salvador Dalí or Roy Lichtenstein) or more distant in time (17th century masters Ribera and Velázquez); he can implicitly allude to parts of their works.

Other painters are indeed portrayed by Miró, who recreates their self-portraits (Bosch, Picasso or Bacon) as part of complex compositions that explore the relationships between works by those and other artists. A similar approach is adopted in the case of other figures who are vital to understanding Miró’s discourse and political positions, such as Marx or Freud. The latter, in fact, is even willing to analyse the artist’s intentions in the Pinteu pintura series, as suggested in the work Psicoanàlisi de la pintura (1988).

Like the above series, Personatges is intended as a tribute to the characters depicted or alluded to by Miró, even if the creative strategies clearly differ. The three key differences between Personatges and the others are the occasional omission of the object of admiration, the unavoidable changes to the depictions of the characters, and the fact that all figures are part of connoted scenes, all of which are features of the Pinteu pintura series.

These aspects are all explicitly present in this series. First, we see that Miró’s high regard for a certain artist does not always mean that the artist will be portrayed; instead, by borrowing elements from the other artist’s work, Miró can engage in intertextuality and make direct reference to (without necessarily depicting) the artist. Second, the way a character is portrayed is frequently altered; in other words, these portraits are not faithful, as Miró adds motifs and resources of his own. Finally, the character is never depicted alone and is only a part of a larger composition.

In previous series, Miró portrayed Luther King, Allende, Marx, Freud... and many painters, including Bosch, Picasso or Bacon. Now, in Personatges, some of them appear again, as well as new characters: language scholars, novelists, essayists, poets, composers, singers, scientists… To sum up, a variety of cultural personalities, both men and women.

All in all, Miró’s project could be described as the reversed myth of Narcissus. Whereas Narcissus’ problems began when he recognised his own reflection in a mirror, Miró’s proposal (which simply involves standing in front of someone valuable, in order to relate to that person and start to appreciate his or her work) is a first step towards finding a solution.