In many ways, the choice motivating an exhibition by a European master in corporate Africa is challengeable, but there are interpretations and resonances that exist between the work of Joan MirÃ³ (1893-1983) and an African aesthetic, beyond the political gesture of forging bonds between France and South Africa.
MirÃ³ was neither Africanist nor colonialist, but the sense of continual renewal and reinvention of the commonplace are themes that underwrite his work as it resonates within the joie de vivre of African art and craft. MirÃ³’s work developed in spurts and dramatic changes of direction throughout his life and in spite of this, he didn’t stop working around pre-established traditional European values of art making. He continued to use oil on canvas, and he was trained within western traditions, but he also played freely with the possibilities that can be found in throwaway materials – an element which is manifest richly in the fascinating selection of works on paper, assemblage and cast sculptures in this exhibition.
This element to the exhibition is refreshing: for years the popular media have represented MirÃ³ as a painter. A great modernist, a surrealist, but a painter, nevertheless. This exhibition, especially curated for South African audiences, comes from MirÃ³’s mature aesthetic. It represents a time when he was no longer working within established codes of expectation, but was reaching into the realms of experimentation, of humour, and of, as Jacque Dupin terms it “the energy and radiance” of an object, rather than its aesthetics. This capacity to take elements of the detritus from the culture in which we exist and give it new life in the form of art is about improvisation as well as a deep sensitivity to cultural manifestations echoed by the roadside vendor who makes objects from wire or plastic bags.
Also evocative of the African mindset which produces objects of beauty, is the element of secrecy to these assemblages. Almost each of the objects on display in the Standard Bank Gallery bear the title Personnage et Oiseau in one permutation or another. People and birds populate his work in spirit, but his work has transcended the purely representation many years hence, and in creating this rich plethora of relatively commonplace creatures, he challenges different levels of reality and of possibility. These people and birds are about experimenting with the mediums, as they are about allowing spontaneous gestures given licence to dominate a work, but they are restrained to the boundaries of the representation. This means that on a level, these works retain the serious dignity of western art. But examined a little more closely, they embody a playfulness that is endemic to African tradition. Here we see the discarded body of a plastic doll, a padded envelope used as support for a painting, or the compressed and gaping body of a soccer ball, cast in bronze: it is elements like these which maintain a level of familiarity that both charms us into the work and poses questions at us about its identity.
The African analogy with MirÃ³’s work is not forced. This is corroborated biographically: MirÃ³ was drawn to poetry as a medium. One of the downstairs rooms in the gallery contests to this, with a magnificent display of 26 lithographs from nine rare French books of poetry by key surrealist poets. MirÃ³’s prints serve not to illustrate poems, but to operate in syncopation with them. Michel Leiris was a poet with whom MirÃ³ famously shared deep affinities. An anthropologist with a bent towards the poetic in so-called primitive rites and exotic cultures, Leiris opened up real levels of awareness for the growing MirÃ³, to aesthetics which were so far removed from that of western culture.
But looking to MirÃ³’s earlier roots, the farm, both generic and specific, was MirÃ³’s spiritual and physical sanctuary all his life. The notion of peasanthood, tilled land, the rhythms which underlie the traditions of nurturing a land so that it nurtures its people are echoed in his work. Of course, these rhythmic patterns and the simplicity of form which represent the bones of MirÃ³’s signature method of working, can be seen to have roots in Romanesque Catalan painting, but on close perusal of the innovation and experimentation with materials and approach in his mature work, an African aesthetic resonates loudly.
Taking a tour of this exhibition that hails from the Fondation Maeght, Saint Paul and L’Institut de Bouquinerie in France, respectively, from this perspective, is less about formal analysis than about taking the time to look at the works with one’s heart. Often the persons represented are archetypal and crude in their manifestation. Their eyes may not be of equal sizes and their sex is revealed unashamedly and with boldness. They often have no arms, or awkward little puny legs and within their patinaed bronze, are comprised of a rich combination of found objects, process-generated happy coincidences and a dignity which evokes something deeper than direct representation or aesthetic beauty.
MirÃ³ may have only experienced Africa vicariously through his association with Picasso and Braque, and his awareness of the rich African holdings of the Musée de l’Homme in Paris, but the magic is potent, and from this vantage point in Africa, it’s palpable.
The Magical Universe of Joan Miro is showing at the Standard Bank Art Gallery, Frederick Street, Johannesburg, until December 7. Due to popular demand the gallery will be open until 4pm on Saturdays. Tel: (011) 636 4231