Miró/Calder – Out of thin air

Colm Toíbín

Both Joan Miró and Alexander Calder were interested in the drama between the mind at play and the object created. They knew how pure colour worked on the nervous system and how dream-shapes – forms emerging from the deepest part of the consciousness, or indeed from its lighter surface – could have a visual impact, both sharp and mysterious.
In the time they began as artists, the world around them was alert to ideas about self, symbols and will, ideas that made their way into the public domain courtesy of Freud, Jung, Nietzsche and their followers. Thus for visual artists, while a colour or a brush-stroke or a shape had its own dynamic power and was an act of pure will, it was also an act of guile; it managed to conceal as much as it revealed. A single colour could be both pure and autonomous and also carry a symbolic force. In work made, inspiration from within the hidden self became as significant as the conscious decisive act. For Miró and Calder, what happened when they closed their eyes had significant power. But it remained important, nonetheless, for both of them that they also kept their eyes open.

Surface interested them as much as depth, until surface became for them a kind of depth. They wore their seriousness lightly. Making art for them became something close to a performance or a circus act; juggling with colour or line and walking along a high wire became more useful metaphors for what they did than, say, notions of exploring the self, or furthering a tradition, or struggling to wrest meaning from the world. But some of this was disguise; their work, like the words spoken by Hamlet in Shakespeare’s play, put an antic disposition on merely when it suited them, or to distract the viewer from their serious ambition, their sombre intent.

For both of them, the enabling tension was between poetry and geometry. They used abstraction as a writer might use paragraph-breaks or a composer might use percussion. It was useful to have it there; it served a purpose, but it was hardly the point, it was seldom at the centre. Pure geometric shape itself was interesting, but it was not enough; it was at its most worthwhile when it was suggestive and mysterious, when it led elsewhere rather than when it was certain or solid.

Both artists were interested in repercussion and energy rather than stability; they were concerned with the power of afterglow rather than with fixed image; they were interested in the raw pull between control and openness. They managed to evoke the soul, the inner shape of things, by attending to the body, to the outside, to what seemed simple. They both became interested in images which contained or released forms, forms which suggested dream or psychic repression or pure possibility or rebellion.

For both artists intuition and fluidity were essential. They liked the aura of an object made at a given moment and the sense of process in the finished work, but they both made notes and plans, they both had a feel for hidden structure, and for materials used with skill. On the one hand, they worked like alchemists and magicians; on the other, especially when it came to materials, they were deliberate and careful, almost precise.

Both artists became involved, in Yves Bonnefoy’s phrase, with ‘the field of the passionate imagination’, but they did this with modesty, grace, humour and then some wildness. In writing about Miró, Bonnefoy referred to an art which ‘chooses before it knows, sees without calculating and makes decisions according to degrees of emotional intensity.’ He could also have been alluding to Calder. Making work for both artists was a form of action. What they used to temper this was a rare sense of tact; they knew when to leave the surface alone or let a piece of sculpture breathe; they trusted that the rawness of their own instincts could be rendered with care and precision, without any apparent signs of struggle.
Their work has the aura of pure voice, pure vision, but it is also controlled with exquisite care. The power comes from the playful gap between what is released and what is meticulously put in place.

There is plenitude in their use of colours, form and imagery, but there is also a starkness, a fierce urge to control. The work of Miró and Calder has the beauty and sense of spontaneity of birdsong, but there also have a deep-seated and hard knowledge which comes from the selecting gaze, the sense of flight-path, destination, hunting, danger.

In remaining tactful, in attempting to be true to the image itself rather than having the image become an expression of its maker’s personality, neither artist was ready to compromise. Their work takes its inspiration from an unwillingness to create density and complexity so that the work might merely dazzle or easily impress. They were ready to seem simple and playful, knowing that it might be easy to misread this as restraint or lack of ambition. For them the act of imagining did not involve restraint, but rather quest, impulse, a delight in what was coming into being, and a willingness, especially in Miró’s case, to explore dark dream, or in the case of Calder, lightness and fragility.

It is important to emphasise that while both artists used elements of the playful, this was merely a way to avoid the heavy rhetoric of overstatement or a dutiful solemnity. Their playfulness was also an engagement with the world. There was a battle going on in their work between inwardness and outwardness, and it was serious, with many casualties and with elaborate strategies used to outfox the enemy. The enemy in the end was not only dullness but it was also self-parody.

The inwardness gave dreams primacy over experience, or integrated dreams with the known world. It allowed a small thing or an elemental thing – a shape, a colour, the moon, a line, a ladder – to become an icon or a piece of iconography. For Miró also, the body, especially the sexual elements of the body, continued to fascinate, as did amorphous shapes and the pull between hard and soft materials for Calder.

The outwardness demanded subtlety, but more than anything a striving. They pulled mysterious energy out of paint and form, refusing to settle for what was easy to read. Both artists were involved in resisting or refining the image that came easily and naturally. They had both come up with a very personal and particular iconography early in their lives as artists; the task then was to make it seem freshly invented each time they returned to make an image.

In his solitary self-invention, resisting and absorbing a large set of cosmopolitan influences, Miró as a young artist began to work as though from scratch with colour and substance, shape and shadow, dreams and consciousness. The world of appearances and the pictorial world he wished to create came into being by hard lonely dreaming and then by struggle with his images and his material. Solitary in Paris or Barcelona, and then alone in the landscape of Tarragona, single-minded and unsure, Miró began to work with a simple set of systems and, almost by sheer perseverance, managed to create a relationship between himself and the marks on the surface of the picture which was tentative to start with, and then hard-won, exacting and uncompromising. He played with innocence and experience in both his painting and his sculpture as he allowed his dream life and his life awake to echo against each other.

What could the world, or indeed the pictorial surface or the surface of a piece of sculpture, look like if it had to seem both knowing and pure and also be refracted in the viscous, complex and uneasy waters of the symbol and the self? These problems preoccupied Miró and Calder as they attempted to create new forms and systems, as they tried to work out a personal iconography.

As they both began to find this, Paris was the capital of the known world for artists. “I must tell you,” Miró wrote in 1918 when he was twenty-five, “that if I have to live much longer in Barcelona I will be asphyxiated by its atmosphere.” Once the First World War was over, a note he sent to a friend had only three words written on it: “PARIS! PARIS! PARIS!” When he arrived in Paris in 1919, Miró found great personal and artistic liberation there, in the streets themselves and in the museums and galleries. He was so excited by the place, indeed, that at first he could do no work. Over the next fifteen years he would move back and forth between France and Catalonia, as though he was seeking nourishment from distance and travel, enough to take home and work with in a familiar and calm environment.

Calder arrived in Paris in July 1926, when he was twenty-eight. He began to move back and forth between Paris and the United States. In December 1928, he wrote to Miró who was at his parents’ house at Mont-roig in Tarragona. The two artists met in Paris at the end of December 1928. When Calder visited Miró’s studio there were no new paintings. Instead, Miró showed Calder a collage, “a big sheet of heavy grey cardboard with a feather, a cork, and a picture postcard glued to it,” Calder wrote. “There were probably a few dotted lines.” Calder was ‘nonplussed’ at the beginning; “it did not look like art to me,” he wrote. Later Calder showed Miró the performing circus figures he had made. Miró had, by that time, made a series of paintings of a circus horse. Four years later, when Calder and his wife came to stay with Miró in Tarragone, he performed Cirque Calder for Miró, his wife and their neighbours. Miró remembered: “He came to Mont-roig and brought the circus figures, on which he never stopped working. We organised a presentation for the local farmers who were very pleased with the spectacle of the wire performers. Later the Cirque was presented in galleries, but there in Mont-roig it was really a performance for the people.”

Although Miró was shy and introspective, he was skilled at making friends and keeping them. These included the architect Josep Lluis Sert, whom he met in the early 1930s and who later designed his studio in Mallorca and his Foundation building in Barcelona. When Sert moved to the United States in 1939 and Miró lived in internal exile in Barcelona and Mallorca, they began an intense correspondence. Miró’s friends also included the art dealer Joan Prats, with whom he maintained a close relationship, and the ceramicist Josep Llorens Artigas, whom Miró met when he was in his early twenties and with whom he later collaborated.

After 1928 Miró added Calder to his small group of friends. They showed work together for the first time in 1933. By the following year they were both represented by Pierre Matisse. In 1937, they both created works for the Spanish Pavilion, designed by Sert, which also housed Picasso’s “Guernica”, making clear their political sympathies. In 1942 Calder, by complete coincidence, called a collection of his sculpture “Constellations”, the same name as a famous series of gouaches begun by Miró two years earlier. The work of both artists was shown together in the United States on a number of occasions. The friendship continued until Calder’s death in 1976. Miro died seven years later.

It is interesting to consider the work that influenced Miró and Calder, and the idea that there was in both of their visual imaginations a susceptibility to things, a readiness to be amazed, which made them open, when they began, to certain strong influences, influences they were ready to absorb them and recreate.

The Palau Nacional in Barcelona, which is now the Museu d’Art de Catalunya, has wall paintings which had a profound effect on Miró when he was growing up. This work mattered to him as much as any of the contemporary paintings he saw. The wall paintings come from small Romanesque churches dotted all over the Catalan landscape. When Miró saw this collection first, it was housed in the Parc de la Ciutadella, an easy walk from where his family lived. Miró once pointed to the veins running up his arms when a friend of mine asked him if Romanesque art was important for him. He loved the flatness of these painting, the importance given to small things as much as angels or saints, and the sheer power the images had, arising from a mixture of simplicity and a sort of deep and deliberate line and use of colour which gave them a stark intensity.

Calder has written about the importance of his visit to the studio of Mondrian in Paris October 1930 when he was thirty-two. “It was a very exciting room,” he wrote. “Light came in from the left and from the right, and on the solid wall between the windows there were experimental stunts with coloured rectangles of cardboard tacked on. Even the victrola, which had been some muddy colour, was painted red. I suggested to Mondrian that perhaps it would be fun to make these rectangles oscillate.
And he, with a very serious countenance, said: ‘No, it is not necessary, my painting is already very fast’….This one visit gave me a shock that started things. Though I had heard the word “modern” before, I did not consciously know or feel the term “abstract”. And for two weeks or so, I painted very modest abstractions. At the end of this, I reverted to plastic work which was still abstract.”

Although they were both open to influence, it is not as though they were ready to be affected by anything at all that came their way. Their work depended on the rejection of much of the art they saw around them, which makes what they accepted stand out all the more. They were both oddly uncompromising, intent on challenging. Miró was determined to destroy painting, or create new ways of representing his dreams and the world. Calder, in turn, wanted to destroy the idea that sculpture depended on mass and weight. He sought to become “the sculptor of thin air.”

The work of both artists has a mystery and beauty and delicacy. There are times when their work seems filled with a hard-won simplicity, images pared down to a number of pure marks and symbolic gestures. The work could be funny and surreal. Some of it is also beautifully and sensuously made; the sparseness of the imagery offers it a sort of transcendent power. They both managed to lift the human spirit by creating openness, working with a sort of daring innocence with light and paint, figure and line. They had a way of making work which seem monumental or fundamental rather than personal. Their work exuded freedom, the dreaming mind at its most exalted, images at their most pure.


Published in Miró/Calder. Barcelona, 2014. Mayoral. p. 27