Decoding Miro: How to Enjoy His Abstractions

David Barnett Gallery
Jun 4, 2019 9:45PM

April 20-July 14, 2018, David Barnett Gallery hosted an exhibition of original lithographs by Joan Miró. During this exhibition, Art Historian Rachel Kreiter gave a gallery talk called “Decoding Miró,” inspired by the frequency of visitors to the gallery claiming that they didn’t “get” Miró. Because his art is approaching complete abstraction, many people understandably feel a bit alienated from his work. However, Miró had an enormous impact on the art world. “Decoding Miró” attempts to give the everyday viewer an inside look into the artist’s ideas and goals.

Who was Joan Miró?

Joan Miró was born on April 20, 1893 in Catalonia, an autonomous community in northeastern Spain. In 1907 he attended the School of Industrial and Fine Arts to study landscape painting. Then, in 1912, Miró learned about modern art and poetry in Barcelona, and began to expand his artistic repertoire to include still lifes, nudes, portraits, and landscapes. In 1918, he had his first exhibition in Barcelona, which was an utter failure; he did not sell a single work.

He continued to work in the business and art world at the request of his parents, but after moving to Montmartre in 1920 and suffering a mental break, he decided to devote his life to making art. Eventually, Miró’s art made its way to the United States by way of Pierre Matisse’s gallery.

Developing Abstraction

Early in his career, Joan Miró’s artworks were inspired by those with Fauvist tendencies, like Henri Matisse or Vincent Van Gogh, or Cubist ideas, like Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque. However, he soon began to transition to a personal and nationalistic style, with uniquely Catalonian subjects. This included some significant political and at times grotesque pieces, mostly responding to war and the oppression his people faced under Francisco Franco.

It was during this time that he began to create his own symbolic language to discuss his interests. These at-times nonsensical symbols were inspired by both the Surrealists, whom he formed a close relationship with in the early 1920s, and the Dadaists. Surrealism’s interest in dreams and automatism, and their frequently communist political leanings, led him to believe that he should emphasize the dismantling or “assassination” of the trends of the art world. In other words, he began to make art that was distinctly anti-bourgeois, and against tradition. Miró’s art was becoming increasingly abstract and modern.

Miró’s Symbols and Techniques

Even so, Miró never completely abandoned representation in his work. Instead, the artist preferred to insert personal or even political symbols into his seemingly subject-less works. Even into his late career, he continued to experiment, revisit, and distill these symbols. They frequently included birds, celestial objects like stars or moons, suggestions of male and female energy, and other references to nature. However, they were not simply visual stories that were meant to be read easily, and he instead mixed his language of symbols with a thoroughly Modernist exploration of the formal elements of art. In other words, he wanted to explore color, composition, markmaking, line, shape, and medium as equally important to what he was trying to say.

So how are we supposed to understand his work?

A Formal Analysis

There are often two distinct ways to “decode” or analyze an artwork. These methods have been used to study works throughout the history of art, from ancient artifacts to contemporary performances. Most of it boils down to this: formal analysis vs. emotional analysis.

The first of the two, the formal analysis, encompasses a critical and aesthetic discussion based on the artwork’s context in the world and in art history and pertains to previous criticism and techniques. Clearly, this type of investigation requires a significant amount of prior knowledge and often involves unfamiliar jargon, which can make this particular path one less traveled and significantly more intimidating.

However, a formal analysis of Miró’s work can illuminate part of his influence as an artist. One of Miró’s most iconic elements throughout his career is his use of bright colors, often limited to red, yellow, green, blue, and black. These simplistic choices gave a coherence to his work over time. Miró’s use of shapes, at times simple and geometric and at times complex and symbolic, can also be formally analyzed for how they interact, balance, and compete for attention with the other shapes. These shapes and colors also interact with the negative, blank space between them, forming pathways for the viewer to follow as they look carefully at each piece. Each color and shape interaction forms the overall composition of the piece—which in Miró’s case usually forms a roughly central balance.

Miró’s work can also be analyzed through his technique. In the case of the pieces displayed in this exhibition, Miró’s medium of choice was lithography. This technique of applying ink to a greasy surface allows artists to get a wide variety of marks—from painterly “brush strokes” to fine, even lines to what looks like waxy crayon. Other marks include those that look like drips or even bursts of spray paint. Some of Miró’s lithographs look like a step-by-step experiment in each technique of markmaking, which shows his deep interest in the act of creating itself.

Finally, a formal analysis requires the viewer to consider Miró’s work in the context of the art and the world that surrounds him. Miró lived and created in a world where many of the most important artists formed very close connections with each other. Working with the Surrealists, the Dadaists, and many other modernist artists gave him a great sensibility of what the art world was producing. Additionally, his formal training allowed him to learn about the traditions of art, and he could decide that he wanted to break from them.

An Emotional Analysis

Even though Miró’s work clearly emphasized the reading of symbols and technique, he deliberately attempted to avoid art historical classification and clear narrative. As the artist said himself, he wanted to “assassinate” art. If this is the case, how else can a viewer take in a work of art that wasn’t meant to fit into the historical canon?

This is where an emotional, or personal, analysis of Miró’s work becomes important. Every art viewer constantly makes these personal analyses based on experiences, memories, likes, and dislikes, even if they are as simple as “I don’t like it.” However, an abstract artwork with hidden symbols like Miró’s lithographs are the perfect subjects in which to dive deep.

Spending time with an artwork can lead one to project their own mind onto the artwork, thinking things like “This aspect reminds me of…” or “I feel angry when looking at this…” An artist might imagine how the artist made each mark, or somebody interested in psychology might think of the artist’s emotion as they chose a specific color. In essence, this emotional connection is the most personal and meaningful way to engage with art, and can even lead to a brand new or renewed interest in the more complex and less accessible formal analysis and backstory. Each time somebody’s brain makes a connection, the artwork becomes stronger and more meaningful.

Miró explicitly invited people into his work, even though his ultimate goal was to move far away from anything that had been done before. Some have described this as “interpretive resistance,” but it in fact invites curiosity and a multitude of unique analyses from each unique viewer. Miró did not create fully abstract art, and included visible symbols in each piece, in order to allow a viewer to connect with his work. There is no sure conclusion, but Miró did not create artwork that forbade emotional connection or analysis.

What do you see in these lithographs?

Miró’s Legacy

Joan Miró had significant influence on many art movements after his death, including abstract expressionism and color field paintings. Late in his career, he had completely changed in the eye of the public from an artist who couldn’t sell anything at an exhibition to one who is heavily lauded and exhibited in all of the major museums around the world. Today, Miró’s auction record is $26.6 million! Even though (and possibly because) he avoided categorization in the art world, he was an influence to a great many.

Joan Miró certainly had a knack for making people think.

Many of these lithographs are available for purchase. Visit the following link to view all of the Miro lithographs on display:

Or send an email to : [email protected]

David Barnett Gallery