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Bold surrealist delights eye and spirit

Mirό: The Experience of Seeing

Seattle Art Museum until May 25, 2014


Reviewed by Candace Fertile

The Seattle Art Museum presents the later work of Spanish artist Joan Mirό (1893-1983) in its current special exhibition. About 50 paintings and sculptures 1963-1981 are on display, along with two fascinating videos. The artworks are from the Centro de Arte Reina Sofia in Madrid, one of the world’s great art galleries.  This exhibit is the first in the US to feature Mirό’s late works.

Mirό’s colours are typically bold: red, blue, black, yellow.  He creates images from the dense and chunky to wispy lines that soar through the air. Birds, the moon, and women are common subjects, and whimsy is a hallmark. But whimsy is not the basis; perhaps Mirό’s works can be seen as a cry for freedom. After all, from 1939-1975, Spain was under the dictatorship of Franco.  Birds are certainly symbolic of flight and freedom, and women, well, Mirό’s exploration of women’s beauty through various shapes is remarkable. Mirό commented that while his work  may be perceived as humorous, he thought his inclination was “tragic rather than light-hearted.”

As a surrealist, Mirό championed breaking away from conventional styles of painting. He approved of automatic techniques and a return to child-like wonder, but he never completely abandoned representation. The pieces in this exhibit are those of a man who has spent a lifetime honing his style.  The clarity of his approach  to form, shape, line, and colour is mesmerizing. In Poème à la gloire des étincelles, for example, movement and even sound are suggested by what looks like a string of firecrackers. In three paintings with a white background, Mirό creates exceptionally simple paintings that become more complex as you look at them. He can create a sense of movement or flux with little on the canvas.

The sculpture ranges from the heavy — whether almost a flat plane or a cylinder shape — to airy, stick-like shapes or even a combination as in Oiseau sur une branche. It’s all fascinating and pushes the boundaries of the plastic.

Along with the art are two videos, one a French film made in 1974 of an interview with Mirό (he lived in France for many years). In it we see his love of his Catalan heritage: when asked in French about tradition, he replies in Catalan. He expresses his sadness about Spain.  He says he never dreams. When he sleeps, he sleeps. Given the dream-like nature of much of his work, that is astounding. The other video dates from 1969 and shows Mirό painting on the huge windows of a college—and then scraping off the paint. Unfortunately,  this film has an annoying sound track, but it’s worth watching to see the paint flung on the glass and then removed.

The Seattle Art Museum has scored again with this beautifully mounted show.  And in its own touch of whimsy, the gallery has included a room at the end where visitors can play on computers and make their own art.

Candace Fertile teaches English at Camosun College.