PRINT January 1994

The Appeal of the Head Onion Peel

IN THE LATE ’70s I had a job a few blocks from the Modern, and I would go there often during my lunch hour. I was drawn more and more to Miró’s The Birth of the World, 1925, which was in the permanent collection. It spoke directly to problems I was encountering in my own painting, and it became my point of access to his work.

The position of The Birth of the World in the artist’s growth becomes much clearer in this exhibition. I take the title at face value, and I think the genesis to which it refers is both cosmic and personal. Beginning around 1924 Miró gradually cut himself free from most of the things that had previously given painting its “look.” From our present cultural perspective we have trouble really feeling the radicality and depth of some early Modernism, which can look fussy and illustrational to us. But it’s important to see how radical this work was—nothing like it had appeared before.

Miró’s break and subsequent blossoming obviously didn’t occur in a vacuum, but they have a special quality. He was close in spirit to the prehistoric artists of Altamira and Lascaux; the impulses in the work seem “human” rather than “Modern” or “European.” There is a wonderful comfort with playfulness and sexuality in the work. He achieved a scale and an openness several generations ahead of the conventional wisdom in painting, and he integrated language into his imagery through the collapse of writing and drawing into one activity. The implications of all this are still being explored.

For me, the tapestry cartoons done in Barcelona in 1933 and 1934 represent another defining moment. He did great things before and after, but these paintings stand apart, slightly indigestible. They are grand, playful, and dark—the emotional tone is complex and the odd taste behind their formal properties is still surprising. They show us Miró’s center.

His evolution after World War II is a puzzle. In an exhibition of this size one feels confronted simultaneously by the best and the worst that Modern art has to offer—sometimes it isn’t even clear which is which. On the one hand he seems to have settled into the middle of a Miró industry, and much of the work has an empty, formulaic quality. But he also glimpsed something brighter, less delicate, and less polite than anything he had done earlier. I think we can still learn a lot from paintings of the early ’50s like The Bird Boom-Boom Makes His Appeal to the Head Onion Peel, 1952. Later, the big “Blue” paintings from 1961 and the “Mural Paintings” from 1962 show him talking back to the younger American painters for whom he had been crucially influential twenty years before. This level of engagement seems exemplary and not at all typical of his peers.

The sculpture became both more and less interesting after the war. He found a way to be more direct, leaving behind his rather generic surrealist juxtapositions of the ’30s. Miró clearly had a gift for working with clay; there's something good in the sculpture when it functions as an objectified analogue for the presences in his paintings. A lot of this work, however, raises disturbing questions about how many kinds of things an artist really needs to do.

The prints and illustrated books are a different case. Aspects of Miró's sensibility that don't hold up well elsewhere gain another life when the scale and process are more intimate, or the purpose is more overtly illustrative. The offhandedness and graphic emptiness that make much of the work feel thin are only advantages here.

I would like to have seen more of the very late work. Though I doubt that a revision of the critical consensus here will ever be in order to the extent that it was for Picasso’s late paintings, I can’t escape the feeling that Miró is being protected, and that he doesn’t need it. The “Untitled” canvases of 1970–80, in the last room of the exhibition, are jarring in their bluntness and apparent lack of structure. Some emotional and pictorial bottom line was being approached, I think, and I want a fuller look.

I came away from the show feeling gratitude to Miró. His journey greatly expanded our freedom, and I feel sure that at some future point people will look back at this century—so mechanical, so “mass-produced”—and learn deep truths about us through his work. All the clichés about alienation and the “monsters of the id” can be found there, but they come side by side with a sweetness we have a hard time embracing these days.