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Exhibition at Kunsthaus Zurich presents Joan Miró's large-scale mural works
Joan Miró, Peinture (La magie de la couleur), 1930. Oil on canvas, 150.2 x 225.2 cm. The Menil Collection, Houston © Successió Miró / 2015 ProLitteris, Zurich.

ZURICH.- From 2 October 2015 until 24 January 2016 Kunsthaus Zürich presents ‘Joan Miró – Wall, Frieze, Mural’, a ground-breaking exhibition that presents Miró’s large-scale mural works in the context of his oeuvre as a whole and which proposes an atypical reading of the artist’s approach to painting. It points out important constants in the artist’s career, not least the inherently monumental quality of his art and his desire to work on a large scale. The exhibition presents some 70 works from the finest public and private collections in Europe and the US.

Miró’s work is distinguished by a compelling directness and an emphatically material quality. Unsurprisingly, then, his statements about his work often focus on ‘pure’, simple forms and on the surface of the wall as the wellspring of his painting. At first, it was the walls of the family farmhouse at Mont-roig. These formed the starting point for his well-known painting ‘The Farm’ (1921–22), in which he recorded their material beauty with meticulous attention to detail and to great poetic effect. For him, the wall was thus not merely an object to be depicted: its materiality also dictated the intensely physical, tactile quality of his images. This move away from a straightforward reproduction of reality to the equation of the picture plane with a wall informed his work from the outset. In the opening section of the exhibition, ‘The Farm’ is shown alongside ‘The Hope of a Condemned Man I-II-II’ (1974), linking Miró’s early representations of walls with the wall-like graffiti in that monumental late triptych and its harrowing indictment of Franco’s continued cruelty during the final years of his regime. This pairing of an early with a late work establishes a strategy pursued throughout the exhibition. Miró’s approach to the wall explains the care with which he selected and prepared the grounds of his pictures at every stage of his career. Here, as elsewhere, he often worked in series, and the exhibition installation mirrors that practice by uniting works executed on grounds of a similar colour or using similar everyday materials.

In the 1920s the artist dripped and splattered paint onto brown grounds to produce imitations of old, weather-beaten walls. His serial approach is also reflected in the fact that he tended to repeat formats and dimensions over a number of works. Several pictures with blue grounds are shown in this section, including ‘Painting’ (1925), that features a rich, elaborately painted ground and a single black and white dot in the upper left corner, together with examples of Miró’s iconic ‘dream paintings’ of the mid-1920s. Customarily, the blue ground is referred to as the sky, yet Miró himself associated it with his memories of farm walls splashed with blue vitriol. The approach is elaborated majestically in the triptych ‘Blue’ (1961), which completes this section.

A group of paintings on white grounds from the late 1920s are shown alongside ‘Painting (The Magic of Colour’, 1930) a work which plays a key role here in interpreting Miró’s notorious claim ‘I want to assassinate painting’ of 1927. The ‘abstract austerity’ of the oversized red and yellow dots and the void around them represents an attempt to negate traditional approaches to image-making and also anticipate his later large-scale formats.

The use of unconventional grounds such as unprimed canvas, jute, Masonite, sandpaper and tar characterise the works included in the next section of the exhibition, which explores Miró’s use of materials as a means of ‘overcoming’ painting in the early 1930s. With their emphasis on texture and materiality, the collage ‘Head of Georges Auric’ (1929), and the relief ‘Human Head’ (1931) mark the beginning of this approach. This section also includes works where Miró has emphasised the materiality through texture, with tactile qualities evoked by gravel, sand and tar mixed into the oil paint.

1937 Miró created his first public wall-painting, working alongside Picasso in the pavilion of the Spanish Republic at the Exposition Internationale in Paris. Like Picasso’s contribution, ‘Guernica’, Miró’s ‘The Reaper’ (now lost) was a political statement relating not only to the Spanish Civil War, but also to the increasingly ominous political situation worldwide. A series of paintings on coarse burlap, that Miró produced two years later, continued to reflect the prevailing turmoil, while reinforcing the artist’s preference for vigorous materiality and stimulating texture. The bold style of these works, in which he came closest to painting on a bare wall, betokens an increasingly depressed state of mind, induced by political developments.

Taking up the thread of works he had produced during the war, Miró applied fine drawing freely to white or grey grounds in such a way that the pictures acquired the character of frescos. The textured white grounds imitate the visual richness of the whitewashed farm walls he remembered from his childhood, which remained a point of reference throughout his career. In the grey grounds he used straw to roughen the surface in the manner of a beautifully decaying wall.

‘Untitled’ (1953), combines bold textures with a few drawn elements derived from the artist’s previous, more allusive style and also relies on the kind of aleatoric and ‘automatic’ practices beloved of the Surrealists. This approach reappears in the enigmatic ‘The Awakening of Madame Bou-Bou at Dawn’ (1939–1960), in which lines traced finely on the white ground resemble drawings made directly on an old wall. In other works included in this section Miró gouges the cardboard surfaces or layers paint mixed with other substances such as cement or sand to give them added structure.

Miró’s practice of employing substances other than paint to structure the surfaces of his two-dimensional images is mirrored in his sculpture of the 1950s, which exhibits the same highly personal motifs. In ‘Large Figure’ (1956), which entered into the Kunsthaus collection as gift by Miró’s close friend Gustav Zumsteg, Miró enhanced the roughness of its surface by encrusting the clay with shingle before applying the glazes.

In 1973, Miró produced ‘Paintings I–III’, possibly conceived as a triptych, in which blue patches on the ‘wall’ demonstrate with compelling immediacy the eighty-year-old painter’s artistic vigour. These three paintings sum up his lifelong belief in the inspirational quality of bare walls and bring to mind Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘componimento inculto’ (intuitive composition), which Miró invoked throughout his career. While offering further evidence of his penchant for series, they encapsulate his ideas about mural painting – ideas that had had a profound impact on the Abstract Expressionists. Three late works from the Fundació Pilar i Joan Miró in Palma testify once more to the roots of the artist’s pictorial language in plain walls, complete with stains and other ‘blemishes’. The extreme, radical nature of these large-scale black and white paintings is unique in Miró’s oeuvre and forms a counterpoint to the brightly coloured works for which he is best known.

The Kunsthaus’s ceramic mural ‘Birds taking Flight’ (1971–72) was the igniting spark for the exhibition and its accompanying publication. The survey therefore concludes with works relating to a further example of this genre in Miró’s oeuvre: the full-scale cartoons that Miró made in connection with two murals commissioned for the UNESCO headquarters in Paris. ‘Wall of the Moon’ and ‘Wall of the Sun’ (1957) marked the beginning of a rich and fruitful exploration of ceramic on a large scale. It is the first time that these two cartoons are presented together.

The exhibition was originally conceived by Oliver Wick, former Kunsthaus Curator, it has been judiciously and expertly expanded by Simonetta Fraquelli, Independent Curator, who has worked on several exhibitions at the Kunsthaus Zürich in recent years. The exhibition includes works from many renown institutions, including the National Gallery of Art, Washington, the Fundació Joan Miró, Barcelona, the Solomon R. Guggenheim, New York, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Museo Nacional Centro d’Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid, and the Fondation Maeght, Saint-Paul-de-Vence, as well as numerous loans from private collections, such as the Nahmad Collection, the Merzbacher Collection and others who wish to remain anonymous.

Miró scholars and researchers have contributed to the accompanying catalogue (Hirmer Verlag, Munich, 170 p., about 110 ill.): Joan Punyet Miró, Carolyn Lanchner, William Jeffett and Simonetta Fraquelli. It is available at the museum shop for CHF 43. The exhibition will be shown at Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt from February to May 2016.

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