How did you get started in the arts world ?
When I started my PHD, I wrote my thesis on the cultural properties of the Spanish Civil War. As it happened, at the time there was a major exhibition at the Hayward Gallery on Art & Power. I had the opportunity to work on the exhibition and more specifically on the section that dealt with the Spanish Civil War. It was a fantastic opportunity to work with some really amazing curators selecting pieces of art work.
How did this translate to your work on the Miró exhibition at the Tate Modern?
I liked the political bent to the previous work,so when it came to organizing the Miró exhibition here in London, my colleague Matthew and I thought it would be a great idea to collaborate. Usually an exhibition like this is curated by a single person, but because of the political side of it, we regarded the topic as a complex one with different perspectives and points of view that needed to be explored. As a team, we would have a real advantage.
Over the last three years, we proved this was right. We engaged in dialogues, discussions and debates with each other and other experts about the different ways in which we were engaged with politics. By taking our discussions out into the wider world (our colleagues at the Miró foundation Barcelona, art historians, art critics in Spain, the USA and elsewhere), we managed to develop a really interesting relationship with our subject which though intriguing, we realised needed to become ever more subtle.
With this show, taking such an approach was crucial. Arguing that Miró was a political artist is a hard task; he didn’t join any political parties or even any artistic movements. Breton called him “the most surreal of us all”, but he never joined the surrealists. With an artist as single minded as he, the only way we could successfully make the case for him being politically engaged and committed throughout his life was not by making a radical claim for him as an activist, but rather that his engagement was more nuanced and subtle.
Looking at Miró’s work, we see the colors of the Mediterranean, we see an object of beauty, but we also see his response to the most recent works that he’d seen of the young abstract expressionists in the USA. A gesture like that – engaging with the contemporary art world – required a radical dimension to his personality. At this point, Miró was living in Mallorca, which was on the periphery of the repressive Spanish state. Spain itself was on the margins of Europe, geographically, culturally and politically. This engagement actually acquired overtones that went way beyond an artistic response to his international peers.
A majority of his work is clearly based on his readings and understanding of oriental philosophies and Buddhism. The processes by which he worked involved an almost Zen-like process of meditation before he started painting, so all these different dimensions come together in his work. Realising how an individual living in this internal exile could connect with ideas that came from the Far East and the West simultaneously, how he was plugged in to what was going on internationally, is what makes him so fascinating.
Can you Describe the exhibition for our readers?
The exhibition looks at Miró’s work from different points throughout his career. It starts with works from 1917 and ends with the mid-1970s works, stretching across seven decades in a turbulent environment, which he reflected in his work. It starts with a first section exploring his engagement with the Catalan landscape and cultural identity, details his relationship both with the international art world and also his active response to the Civil War, the support he lent to the second Spanish Republic and continues on to the third and final section which is his response to the final years of the Franco regime, where repression was beginning to be slowly supplanted with hope for a better democratic and free future.
We realised (to our surprise) that the last show of a similar scale in the UK had happened in 1964 – almost 50 years ago. There have been a number of very good Miró exhibitions internationally over the last decade; in New York, Paris, and Madrid. We felt that it was time to introduce these brilliant and powerful works to a new generation of visitors here in the UK.
What was the biggest challenge you faced in creating this exhibition ?
The biggest challenge one faces with a project like this is there are so many things to take in consideration. On one hand it is refining the idea, the leitmotif that takes you through the exhibition and making sure that the selection of works we have does just this. We want to make sure that people who come to the exhibition feel both inspired and enthused by the works they see. We want them to feel that what we want to say with the exhibition is convincing, even obvious. The sense that, as you go through the exhibition, a way of looking at Miró or perhaps hoping to change public perception of what Miró was like as an artist, comes across from beginning to end.
The latest triptychs were painted at a time when the earlier triptychs had long left the studio and were spread across public and private collections around the world. They have not been seen together anywhere before this. It is truly a fantastic opportunity we were presented with.
We are showing four of the five triptychs. They are spread across two octagonal spaces, which allows us to juxtapose the blue triptych with the yellow and the red. We have one room for the colored works and another for the white triptychs. These obviously have a very different feel – one is full of the exuberance of colour, whereas the other is shown on a slightly darker ground and therefore more sombre.
There is a certain sobriety to the way in which the works are displayed. One triptych is called Painting on White background for the Cell of a Recluse, the other is The Hope of a Condemned Man. These are themes that obviously relate to the exhibition more generally but also characterize this particular moment of the 1960s and 1970s in Spain. Intriguingly, when he (Miró) is seemingly very direct in the political statement that he makes about the recluse or the condemned man, there are always multiple layers to it. The layers start from the obvious references to, say, Salvador Puig Antich, the young Catalan anarchist who had been condemned to death, but extend far beyond that to a general empathy for the revolutionary spirit of young people.
At a time when Miró was already 80 years old, having such empathy with the revolutionary spirit of youth was quite tremendous. From there it extends even further, to describe the human condition in general and, ultimately, I think it refers to Miró’s awareness of his own mortality. With that you obviously have a wide gamut of possible meanings. Having these very beautiful and complex triptychs displayed together is a fantastic opportunity – they are great spaces, almost chapel-like, for contemplation and reflection on Miró’s art.