South Florida has had a big season for big names from the 20th-century art world: solo shows by Louise Nevelson at the Art and Culture Center of Hollywood, Andrew Wyeth at the Boca Museum, Louise Bourgeois at the Museum of Contemporary Art. Now comes "Joan Miró: Illustrated Books," also at the Art and Culture Center, which seems to be carving a niche for itself by presenting less-familiar works by high-profile artists.
Like his contemporary and countryman Dalí, Miró was born and died in Spain and became one of the best-known surrealist painters. And like their fellow Spaniard Picasso, Miró supplemented his extraordinary output in painting with works in a variety of other media, including etchings, lithographs, tapestries, ceramics, sculptures, and murals. This small but well-conceived exhibition, which originated in Los Angeles, focuses exclusively on the artist's illustrated books.
The term illustrated books as used in reference to Miró has a specific meaning, one far removed from its usual connotations. Miró didn't simply provide images to illustrate text. His illustrations get equal billing, so to speak, with the texts that accompany them. The French term for this genre is livre d'artist, or "artist's book," and Miró produced more than 250 of them in his long, prolific life.
The show features selections from just ten of those books, most published in the 1970s, when the artist was in his late 70s and early 80s (he died in 1983 at age 90). The texts are by writers as varied as St. Francis of Assisi and William Butler Yeats, although most of the sources are French. This is not surprising, given that Miró spent many years living and working in Paris, where one of his neighbors, fellow painter André Masson, introduced him to other surrealist artists and writers.
Among the writers he met, Miró found himself particularly drawn to the poets. "The poets Masson introduced me to interested me more than the painters I had met in Paris," he is quoted in the exhibition brochure as having said. "I was carried away by the new ideas they brought and especially the poetry they discussed."
Another quote from the brochure text, also posted at the entrance to the exhibition, stands as a succinct statement of aesthetic. "Poetry pictorially expressed speaks its own language." Conveniently, that language -- for Miró, anyway -- happens to be the same as that of his paintings, which employ one of the most readily recognizable visual vocabularies in art history.
Working on a flat picture plane and using bright colors and cleanly delineated shapes, Miró created a sort of alternate universe populated by creatures with features suggesting human or animal characteristics. If his style is essentially childlike doodling, as some skeptics have declared, it's childlike doodling of a high order. The simplicity of his forms and his lack of interest in detail and depth of field mask his imagery's surprising expressiveness.
The oldest set of illustrations in the exhibition, from Parler seul (Speaking Alone), dates from 1948-50, when Miró had already established himself as a master painter and felt free to explore other forms of expression. The text is a poem by Romanian-born surrealist writer Tristan Tzara, written in 1945 while he was confined to a mental institution in France. Even for a piece of surrealist writing, it's unusually impenetrable. (Sample passage: "Sand sand in my way/Round table flat table/I saw you at work/Trout of deliverance.") Miró made 72 lithographs for the book, drawing them directly onto the printing stones and working from minimal preparatory sketches.
The pages include colored forms but are dominated by thick, black swaths of ink that suggest hieroglyphs or ideograms from an unidentified language. There's not a lot of detail, and the abruptness with which they appear to have been executed is in keeping with the artist's belief in "automatism," in which creation is an unmediated act springing from the subconscious. One page is accented with fingerprint-sized ovals of bright red, blue, yellow, and green that seem to have been applied almost as an afterthought but are essential to the balance of the image.
The exhibition reaches a crescendo in the museum's main gallery. Although there are only five groupings of illustrations on display on the walls, along with a couple of display cases, this is a clear-cut case of "less is more." Some of the brightly colored pages are so vibrant, they almost jump off the walls.
A suite of four selections is from Les Pénalités de L'Enfer ou Les Nouvelles-Hébrides (The Penalties of Hell or The New Hebrides), published in 1974 with a text by French poet Robert Desnos. It's an especially powerful set, not only for the rich imagery but also for the story behind the book's creation. The lithographs are long, narrow verticals, and while they feature Miró's familiar shapes, there's an unusual emphasis on texture.
I was instantly attracted to these four prints, to an emotional lushness, that's in contrast with the cool surfaces of so much of Miró's work. Their poignancy is even greater, I think, when you read how they came to be. The artist met and became friends with Desnos, perhaps the most beloved and influential surrealist writer, in 1925, and before long, they made plans to collaborate on a livre d'artist. Those plans were put on hold because of the Spanish civil war and World War II. Desnos' bold criticism of the latter led to his imprisonment in concentration camps, and he died at age 45 shortly after his release in 1945.
Nearly three decades later, at the suggestion of Desnos' widow, Miró set out to illustrate the poet's manuscript. It was his first work in prose, which was written in Morocco in 1922 but remained unpublished until this posthumous collaboration. (Unfortunately, the handout offering English translations of several of the texts in the exhibition does not include this one.)
Another wall in the main gallery features half a dozen fine selections from Lapidari (Lapidary), a 1981 work based on texts by several anonymous Catalan authors. Each pairs another of those bold ideogram-like black markings with a brightly colored, more subtly detailed etching. The writings, from the 15th Century, have to do with the mysteries of alchemy, and Miró's renderings are suitably abstract for that arcane "science."
The largest set of illustrations is also the one that strikes me as most quintessentially Miró. It consists of a dozen etchings with aquatint based on a 13th-century text called Càntic del sol (Canticle of the Sun) that was published in 1975. Written by St. Francis of Assisi in the final year of his life, it's an elemental work on such things as the sun, moon, stars, wind, and rain -- long favorite subjects for Miró.
Here Miró returns to those subjects with a precision and an economy of expression that are nothing short of amazing. One etching, for example, features nothing but a big yellow crescent moon in a deep-blue sky. Another reduces rain to the basics: a white background for a large drop falling into a blue oval of water. A few of the designs are a little more intricate, but all are enormously evocative. And these prints work so much better as a group than they would individually that it made me long to see the book in its entirety.
As a writer, I have to admit -- grudgingly -- that the words in Illustrated Books are more or less expendable. Yeah, they look pretty on the page as graphic elements, but would Miró's "illustrations" work just as well without them? Absolutely. Still, it's no great sacrifice to put up with them when they're in the company of such compelling imagery.
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