Joan Miró, “The Form” (1921–1922)

Pictographs of disembodied eyes, floppy breasts, and melting stars are not the best delivery devices for political screeds. That’s the problem at the heart of “Joan Miró: The Ladder of Escape,” a retrospective spanning seven decades of work from the Barcelona-born painter, who died in 1981 at the age of 90.

The 120 paintings, collages, drawings, and prints on view in the National Gallery’s East Building prove that in the studio, Miró consistently delivered the goods. He created paintings that are sublime, disquieting, or downright ugly via seriously pared-down pictorial strategies and symbols—and he remained in command of his medium even in the late phases of his career.

But his work is not, as the curators attempt to prove, best viewed as the product of repressed regional identity and allegiance to the political left. The show provides plenty of historical context and biography to try to support this reading, but little of it ultimately touches on the true nature of Miró’s achievement. Like last year’s “Gauguin: Maker of Myth,” “The Ladder of Escape” comes to D.C. from the Tate Modern in London, and it too attempts to spin an artist’s career in a way that doesn’t really make sense. “Maker of Myth” proposed Gauguin as a sort of proto-post-modernist; “Ladder” presents every Miró canvas as a political statement.

This is especially odd, since Tate curators Marko Daniel and Matthew Gale acknowledge Miró’s oft-stated ambivalence toward the marriage of art and politics. Miró believed in lyrical expressions of the freedom of the individual; he resisted collective action. He didn’t sign Surrealist political manifestos and kept his distance while the movement’s leader, André Breton, joined—and was expelled from—the Communist Party. He detested social realism. And during his most trying times in Spain and in France, he directed his art not toward engagement but into the depths of his own imagination.

And yet the entire show is devoted to “another Miró,” as the curators tag him. “Was Miro an activist, a fantasist, or both?” the opening wall text asks. “Did his art emerge despite or because of difficult times?”

These are not difficult questions to answer, and pretending that they are is disingenuous. Miró made a few overtly political statements—a design for a one-franc postage stamp; a now-lost mural for the Pavilion of the Spanish Republic in 1937—but these were exceptions.

The title of the show suggests that the “ladder” Miro climbed into escapist, imaginative realms was somehow grounded in political realities. Through this metaphor, art that avoided politics turns out to have been obscurely, covertly political. It sounds like a stretch and it is: Miró was an aesthetic revolutionary, not a political one. The proof is in the painting.

Those who haven’t seen Miró’s work up close might think of him as a childlike painter of goofy, loopy biomorphs, threading cartoonish traceries against scruffy, flat backdrops—sort of like a doodle-happy version of the Swiss-German Expressionist Paul Klee. But Miró’s paintings are tough, smartly constructed, and anything but facile. “I want to murder painting,” he said in 1928, and though his lines sometimes seem to meander, his canvases bristle with the premeditation of a killer.

In the space of about five years, from the early to mid-1920s, Miró cleaned house, jettisoning everything he felt his art didn’t need and committing himself to the twin modernist tendencies of cosmopolitanism and primitivism. In the first room of the show, we see the artist developing a stripped-down, quasi-cubist pictorial vocabulary to depict rural settings, which culminates in “The Farm” (1921–22), a painting on which he worked for nine months continuously. It looks equal parts storybook illustration, illuminated Gothic manuscript, and naïve painting à la the self-taught Le Douanier Rousseau. Each goat, hare, and watering can in this bucolic scene is rendered in a hard-edged, stylized, calligraphic form; each eucalyptus leaf on the tree spreading in the center of the composition is an isolated, abstracted curlicue. Objects and animals appear to either float weightlessly in front of or sink behind curious angled shadows and buckling, interlocking planes. Throughout, odd jumps in scale indicate an abandonment of perspective.

The painting depicts Miró’s family farm in Mont-roig del Camp. It’s a fantastic early masterpiece in an exhibition full of them; it shows Miró thinking about rural Catalonia but painting like a member of the international avant-garde—a stance he would maintain through most of his career.

Walking into the next room, the viewer might feel transported from the Catalan countryside to the surface of the moon. Four different “Catalan Peasant” paintings dating 1924-1925 are schematic in the extreme. “Head of a Catalan Peasant” (1924) consists of little more than a thin, chalky, loosely brushed yellow background and a handful of lines drawn with crayon. The peasant’s head is indicated by a large, canvas-filling cross: One thin vertical line connects a simple red cap in the top of the painting to seven dangling wavy brown lines indicating a beard in the bottom; the horizontal axis of the cross connects two black dots serving as rudimentary eyes, each projecting three ominous red rays to the margins of the composition. A blue, five-pointed star and a few curved, colored lines hover in the upper right hand corner, as if they’ve wandered in from a preschooler’s drawing.

The painting is deliberately, fearlessly empty: “I was very interested in the void, in perfect emptiness,” Miró once explained. “I put it into my pale and scumbled grounds, and my linear gestures on top were the signs of my dream progression.”

Two other “Head” paintings retain a still-faintly-visible reddish-brown pencil grid underneath diaphanous films of color. These images are all tentative, verging on incomplete, yet they’re powerful and iconic. Arguably, the Catalan peasant is Miró’s country-bumpkin alter-ego, his inner artistic savage—a more truly authentic identity, created in these pictures out of nothing but atmosphere eddying around a few thin, floating marks. As with so much modern painting, Miró makes a series of heroic refusals—of the seductive qualities of his medium, of traditional displays of mastery, and of the traditional rules for the construction and content of paintings in the Western tradition.

From this point on, Miró could do almost anything with next to nothing. Sometimes he passes from artistic liberation to pure lusty psychosexual self-indulgence: Witness the parade of crooked penises, giant crescent-moon vaginas, and cilia-like pubic hair that appears in his collages, pastel drawings, and paintings through the 1930s. A series of paintings on masonite from 1936 are startlingly ugly: Tar, sand, and greasy oil paint stain and mar the pitted, absorbent surfaces of these supports. One typically primes the smooth side of a masonite panel to paint on; Miró used the rough, unfinished back side. The viewer can see how the curators might associate these with the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in July of that same year—at least in terms of mood.

Miró’s most celebrated series, the “Constellations,” was also produced at a moment of crisis. Miró and his family were trapped in Normandy in 1939 as the Nazis advanced. Yet the Constellations share none of the scorched menace of his works from 1936. Instead, these curious intersecting moons, stars, faces, and bodies push and pull against diffuse blooms of washed-out background color—incredibly, produced by Miró cleaning his dirty brushes on each piece of paper. Ten of these small gouache-and-oil works on paper are arrayed on a curving blue wall on the show’s second level; they are an invitation to pure visual pleasure.

Unlike Picasso, whose studio practice became increasingly involuted in his later years, Miró at least attempted to engage the painting that followed World War II. Inspired by the Abstract Expressionists, he created giant triptychs: His “Mural Painting” cycle of 1962 consists of three massive monochrome canvases, each with a few thin, hovering stray lines, ready to be swallowed by feathery criss-crossing strokes of pure color. In the meandering curve that crosses through “Mural Painting II (Green),” the viewer clearly sees every instance in which Miró stopped, replenished his brush with black paint, and touched bristles to canvas again; the green strokes in the background respond to each small change in direction, as if line and ground evolved simultaneously. A decade later, Miró began setting large canvases on fire, leaving gaping holes and visible charred stretcher bars in the middle of his paintings; for the “Fireworks” paintings of 1974, he tossed pots of pigment against wall-filling panels. However successful these very late works are, one cannot accuse Miró of playing it safe: “Fireworks” is a display of anarchic artistic joy.

In the history of modern art, Miró was the real thing: He could make an increasingly attenuated focus pay off in new and startling ways, decade after decade. In “Ladder,” he emerges as an artist professionally committed to Surrealist strategies for throwing off repression and self-censorship via automatism and dream imagery—and as a man personally alarmed by fascism and war, afraid for his family in the face of violent upheaval. But these sides largely remained separate.

Miró’s art may have acted sometimes as a seismograph, registering the traumas of being a native Catalan whose language and identity were repressed by Generalissimo Franco. But his guarded, solitary studio habits; his deliberately obscure, self-referential repertoire of symbols, drawn from his own unconscious; and his unwillingness to fully join with groups, causes, or parties makes Miró the Secret Political Animal a hard sell. As political activism, Miró’s art is an unqualified failure. As painting, it works just fine.