PRINT January 1994

Michel, Bataille, et Moi, and I

IN 1927 MIRÓ MADE a picture of himself strolling at night in Paris, accompanied by Michel Leiris and Georges Bataille. Or, if “making a picture” is something of a misstatement of how they appear in this painting, he inscribed the following words on a loose, umber wash: “Musique,” in the upper left; “Seine” in the middle; and then, along the lower right—presumably at the spot where the riverbank would be—the three walkers: “Michel, Bataille, et moi.

Yet if Miró thus indelibly inscribed the name of Bataille into his art, no writer on that art—up until the present exhibition at MoMA—has ever done likewise. This includes myself, though I was given ample opportunity to do so when, in 1972, I wrote on this and similar pictures for an exhibition of Miró’s work at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum called “Magnetic Fields.” In the intervening years, of course, I have written extensively on the relation between Bataille and other members of the Surrealist group, particularly Alberto Giacometti, and beyond that on the revisionary impact Bataille’s thinking (particularly with reference to his concept of the informe) might have on our view of various areas of Modernist practice. But never did I imagine Miró might be implicated in such a revision.

Carolyn Lanchner, the curator of the present exhibition, points out that in 1930 Miró filled a large notebook with images of a big toe, this following Bataille’s 1929 article “Le Gros Orteil,” published in Documents. Having invoked this consonance in subject matter, however, Lanchner goes on to say that the two men’s interests in the big toe “were—to borrow a children’s locution—‘the same but different.’” This difference she sees turning, on the one hand, on Bataille’s conception of the toe as the part of the human body that resists the idealizing, “humanizing” values that are read into the rest of the body’s upright posture, and thus—although she doesn’t use the term—of the toe’s “base materialism”; and on the other hand, on Miró’s concern with the toe as “emblematic of our common humanity, male or female—the support that connects the terrestrial and the celestial. One widely quoted remark,” she adds, “makes his view quite clear: ‘You must always plant your feet firmly on the ground if you want to be able to jump up in the air.’ ” It is this idea of Miró’s relation to the ethereal, of his connection to the azure of the empyrean (given his repetitively blue backgrounds), of his notion of a dream space as necessarily immaterial, that has blocked any serious reading of Miró’s work in the light of Bataille’s.

Yet Miró probably drew more “dirty pictures” than almost any painter one can think of, at least up until the very recent past. Vulvas litter his canvases of the ’20s, triumphant penises urinate fulsomely, the imagery of copulation is endless, smokers stroll with enormous erections that visually rhyme with their tiny pipes, semen turns to pollen, breast milk fills the sky, and there is an endless genital metaphoric play as hairy labia become mouths that in turn become spiders that in turn become radiant suns that in turn become eyes that in turn become ova.

It is, of course, this very process of metaphor—or what Bataille would call “transposition”—that seems to wall these pictures off from Bataille’s base materialism. For if Bataille spoke of the fetishist’s loving the shoe more than any art lover could love a painting, if he asked us to consider staring wide-eyed before the erotic sight of the big toe, this was because he thought of this experience as “without transposition.” His concept of the fetish was more tribal than Freudian; it contained a picture of being compelled to worship a stone or an effigy not as a substitute, but as the real thing.

And yet, as Roland Barthes has shown, Bataille’s own pornographic novel, The Story of the Eye, is itself an extraordinary cycle of metaphor in which “the story” is built up of chains of substitutions either along the shape of the object (eye—testicles—egg—sun) or along its contents (tears—sperm—urine—yolk—rain). And these chains not only produce the action of the novel, they generate its imagery as well, as in the phrase “the urinary liquification of the sky.”

In order to argue that Miró’s metaphoric chains should be thought of in the same universe as Bataille’s, one would have to reconceive the meaning of those sumptuous washes that constitute the grounds of his paintings of 1924–27. One would have to stop thinking of them as avatars of something like Color Field painting—immaterial vehicles for the occasional ideogram—and start thinking of them in terms suggested by Leiris in 1929 when he spoke of these works as “not so much painted as dirtied,” and saw the grounds as ruined walls awaiting the attack of the graffitist. And indeed, this reorientation would be a matter of retrieving Miró’s own conception of their function. When Bataille himself wrote a short note on Miró in Documents in 1930, he quoted the statement Miró made fairly widely in the late ’20s to the effect that he wanted “to annihilate painting.” And this annihilation seemed in Miró’s own view to be tied precisely to the withdrawal of “paint” from his works, such that he wrote to Leiris in 1924, “This is hardly painting, but I don’t give a damn.”

Miró’s “magnetic fields” retain all the centrality to his work that I saw them having in 1972, and indeed MoMA’s exhibition is the first presentation of the full sweep of Miró’s art to give this group of pictures pride of place. The question still remains, however, of how to look at this crucial series. And I am now wondering whether their implications are less a matter of Andre Breton’s conception of the poetic image than of Bataille’s reconstitution of metaphor.

Rosalind Krauss is a professor of art history at Columbia University, New York. Her most recent book, The Optical Unconscious, was published this spring by MIT Press.