Last Spring I reported on the Miro Exhibition at Tate Modern and my difficulty with the late abstracts including ‘The Hope of a Condemned Man’.
My daughters, Melissa and Anna, helpfully gave me a book on Miro for my birthday and I promised to read up on paintings like the above and to say what I discovered.
I decided to start by trying to empathise with Miro’s emotional landscape at the time he painted it. It was some time in gestation – from sketches in 1969 to the finished work in 1974, when he was 81 with just two years to live, while the dictator, Franco, had just one year to go.
Miro made it clear that ‘The Hope …’ rose from the violent repression of the anti-fascist opposition and was provoked by the execution by garrotting of Salvador Puig Antich whom he described as ‘the young Catalan anti-fascist’ . It can best be understood, perhaps, as complementary to the Burnt Canvases that are so shocking towards the end of the exhibition.
A contributory factor to the minimalism of the triptych can be found in Miro’s then fascination with Zen and the art of East Asia.
Miro’s impulse, then, was to produce an austere, anti-Franco statement raised to the level of triptych – a form with religious associations.
But even empathising with where he was coming from I still can’t see why his expression of strong feelings should emerge as three curved lines with three splodges of red, blue, and yellow. The background could be a cell wall. I must look more carefully.
The left panel has the splodge outside the curve, whereas the other two have splodges contained within. Any connection to imprisonment? ‘The Hope …’ suggests a shift to freedom, not from it.
How about the choice of colours? Anything to do with the Spanish flag?
No blue. In Miro’s day the flag also included an eagle … but the eagle was black.
At a loss I turned to Marko Daniel’s text: ‘… the main motif in each panel is executed as a black line that articulates the surface in a single large gesture; on each of the three panels it holds a different dynamic relationship to a single coloured blotch (Ah! ‘Blotch’ not ‘Splodge’. Slapped wrist) in red, blue, and yellow, executed in furious brushstrokes’. But this is mere paraphrase. Daniels’ only explanation is that Miro painted it in a hurry! An odd remark regarding a work five years in the gestation.
But later Daniels turns for succour to another critic: ‘In the catalogue of Miro’s retrospective at the Grand Palais in 1974, where ‘The Hope of a Condemned Man’ was first shown, Jacques Dupin called it ‘possibly the most difficult to understand work of the exhibition and, without doubt, the most important’. (How did he know?) ‘In his detailed, poetic and closely observed description he argued that its three silent panels’ (He expecting Flamenco or what?) ‘register ‘agony, anxious waiting and imaginary escape’.’
I can’t help wondering what Dupin would have said if it had been called ‘Gone With the Wind’: ‘One gets the feeling of things disappearing amid a force of nature.’?
I’m left bewildered. I suppose the fairest way is to look at the negative and the positive.
The negative reveals a painter consumed by his own grandeur and risking an arrogant, minimalist series of scribbles hoping to engender the same awe he has recently discovered from Zen and Oriental art.
The positive sees a major artist at 81 experiencing the impatience, characteristic of the elderly, with the trite and familiar, trusting to the casual and chaotic as a genuine expression of the unconscious, offering the anarchy of careless abstraction as a symbol of a dead anarchist, and giving us a highly charged trio of images of the deadly garrotte threatening life and the world of colour. The ‘Hope’ lies in the garrotte getting less threatening until it is too minimal to kill.
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School friend Bob Parker writes in answer to my question about ‘A society that no longer believes in God doesn’t believe in nothing – it believes in anything’ and attributes it to Chesterton. Thank you. He adds that I fail to include any words from the Judeo-Christian tradition. Mea culpa, Bob, mea maxima culpa.