Tàpies and Miró, a radical collaboration

by Carles Guerra

Antoni Tàpies (1923-2012) and Joan Miró (1893-1983) form an exceptionally genuine tandem, characteristic of 20th-century modernity. Global artists, to a greater or lesser extent, but closely connected to the local mindset and to the country of which they are cultural representatives. Artists who, although belonging to different generations, represent the continuity of the modern project, with all its tensions and dialectics. Among others, that of being modern in a country which was governed by an authoritarian regime during their lifetime. Their modernity is therefore richer, more complex and fascinating. A modernity perhaps more determined by the political situation in Spain under Franco’s dictatorship than any other.
This framework of historical adversities led them to an unusual collaboration. They were both committed to a practice of art which went beyond aesthetic boundaries and became an ethical benchmark. Early on, Tàpies accepted the responsibility of taking on political militancy from the solitude characteristic of the artist’s workshop. He said this most explicitly as a result of the Caputxinada, in 1966. Among young anti-Franco militants, and as he wrote in the first notes drafted after that initial act of resistance —published later, in 1977, in what became the Memòria personal. Fragment per a una autobiografia (Personal memory. Fragment for an autobiography)—, he discovered that “that condition, as of a solitary bird, of an independent rebel, which as artists we sometimes have to painfully accept, [...] inspires so many ideas that they
then become militancy”.
For his part, when the Spanish Civil War ended, Miró was already by default an artist who was politicized, and forcibly exiled. But even exile was an experience that they both endured without leaving their country, making them subject to a censorship which prevented them from openly expressing dissidence. At the beginning of the 1940s, Miró regained possession of his studio in Passatge del Crèdit, situated right at the heart of Barcelona, and it was precisely there that Tàpies visited him for the first time in 1948. The significance of that encounter had an echo that Tàpies never ceased to recognize. He described the transmission of values that Miró inspired, saying that “what matters is not an artwork, but rather the journey of the spirit throughout a lifetime, not what we do during this life, but what can only be glimpsed, that which will allow the rest to create in a more or less distant future”.
Apart from modern artists, Tàpies and Miró are both figures associated with a civil society which pursued the freedoms absent from public life. The work of these two artists is overall a symbol of a “muted speech” which is consistent with the project of modern abstraction, free from references to the real world and reduced to its own materiality. These limitations left little room for political content. It is, however, precisely this, which could appear to be an obstacle to how Tàpies and Miró’s works were received, which provided a greater potential impact and scope. The ability to resemanticize the work, that is to fill it with possibly heterogeneous content, is what prepares it to circulate in probably antagonistic contexts. But, as Mallarmé’s critics would say, this is the ideal of a democratic circulation which takes the contingent relationship between form and content to the limit.
Abstract painting was put to the test by the harsh reality of the later stages of the Franco regime which, during its last years in power, unleashed unprecedented political violence against civil society. Tàpies and Miró were confronted by intense repression which could not have gone unnoticed by them. Their painting could not ignore historical circumstances. A photograph taken on 12 December 1970 shows both of them in the lock-in of intellectuals that took place in Montserrat Monastery to protest against the sentences handed out in the Burgos trials, in which 16 members of ETA faced the death penalty. The militancy of the two artists converted them into icons of the anti-Franco movement, now without any room for ambiguity.
Despite the abstract codes that historically characterized them, between 1970 and 1975 the work of both painters evoked some of the most significant events of the end of the Franco regime. It is difficult, for example, not to link Pintura amb manilles (Painting with Handcuffs) to that turning point at which the subject of the painting is used to support a political action. In this case the frottage on the natural canvas transforms the bars of the frame into a prison. Without changing the anatomy of the painting, it offers an image of itself incarcerated, with the handcuffs attached and fixed to one of the horizontal bars. Here the characteristic grid of modern and rational abstraction becomes a sinister shape which unequivocally refers to the harshest repression of the Franco regime. That said, despite the dates coinciding with the Burgos trials, we will abstain from converting it into an illustration.
To better understand this rather unconventional logic, according to which artwork without literary content can evoke and represent historical events, it is necessary to bear in mind the narrative collapse that characterizes modern painting. In March 1974, the execution of Salvador Puig Antich, a young militant from the Iberian Liberation Movement, was subject to a tribute widely shared by many authors. In the case of Tàpies and Miró, though, that execution led to what we would have to deservedly call, in no uncertain terms, a history painting. Despite the impenetrability characteristic of abstraction, that occurrence was expressed in paintings, which remained faithful to the modern dogma, categorically prohibiting any type of literary content. Works in the face of which we feel that we are coming into contact with historical events.

Miró concluded L’esperança del condemnat a mort I, II, II (The hope of a condemned man I, II, III), a large-scale triptych which is in the Fundació Miró in Barcelona, on the same day that Franco executed Salvador Puig Antich. In relation to the same event, Antoni Tàpies recalls having completed a large-format painting on hearing about the execution of the young militant. The painting was entitled A la memòria de Salvador Puig Antich (In Memory of Salvador Puig Antich) after Tàpies added this inscription written in pencil at the top of the painting. Who knows whether it had been conceived to represent that terrible event. Or maybe the painting was already being produced when Tàpies heard the news. Although the two works mentioned express a fairly elusive iconography, they are unquestionably history paintings.

We would then need to talk openly about political art whose effectiveness would be comparable to that of a monument, a place in which to meet and express the convergence of the expectations and desires of civil society. The exhibition organized by Mayoral in its Barcelona and Paris galleries brings together works from the two artists allowing partial reconstruction of the aesthetic which, without the need to be explicit, became a sign of political opposition. With the demise of the Franco regime, these works remain as vestiges of a modernity which developed in adverse circumstances and which was impelled to break the silence that modernity itself imposed on painting as a toll.

Throughout the 1960s, both Tàpies and Miró had prepared the painting genre to subject it to these functions, in principle completely alien to the modern programme. If we extrapolate what Christopher Green said about the attempted “assassination of painting” —of which Miró was already the star at the end of the 1920s and beginning of the 1930s—, we could even suggest that both Tàpies and Miró tried to dispense with painting. The 1960 Sobreteixim, created by Miró at the Casa Aymat in Sant Cugat del Vallès, is incipient evidence of investigation with the intervention of textile techniques and materials in what we could call the second “assassination of painting”, this time led by Miró at the end of the 1960s and throughout the following decade, during which he made a huge effort to produce a series of monumental tapestries, in addition to the famous 1973 burnt canvases.
Miró’s small 1963 Peinture (Painting), which recalls a cloth to dry the painter’s brushes, radicalizes the very subject of the painting, as Tàpies also did during those years. The 1969 Caixa d’embalar (Packing Case), and the 1975 Composició amb corda i roba (Composition with Cloth and Rope), boldly simplify the state of modern painting to convert it into a pure and simple object which, in the case of Tàpies, goes even deeper into the programme of reinvention of painting that he started with the matter-based-paintings. In this respect, Tàpies and Miró are collaborators who do not need to work in the same studio to deploy a coordinated attack against modern painting. The result places them in a position counter to the postmodern versions of the same painting, because both Tàpies and Miró had already radicalized it until, paradoxically, they rescued it from the modern drift.
Contrary to what was expected and thanks to this rescue, painting recovered the possibility of acquiring a meaning which was recognizable by a latent community which wished to establish itself in relation to the events evoked by the works, events which were often terrible and decisive on imagining the urgent need for democracy. This was without having to betray the “muted speech” required by modernity. The idea was to prevent political manipulation which would have converted it into vulgar propaganda.

Carles Guerra, September 2023


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October 11, 2023
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