Unreal Nature

February 23, 2015

Poetry and Engineering

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:43 am

… it was possible to build a unified style on the collective achievements of the age of Cubism, joining Klee’s and Kandinsky’s more explicit “poetry” to Picasso’s and Matisse’s “engineering” …

Finishing up Joan Miró by Clement Greenberg (1948; 1950):

… Already graceful and felicitous, Miró’s painting begins to acquire from 1931 on a monumentality that is both literal and figurative, dramatic and decorative. His art does not become the vehicle of history in the way that Picasso’s is; it cannot present as broad a surface or draw as much into its course. Picasso has at times — as in his classical Cubism — transcended the limits of a personal sensibility, whereas everything that Miró does is signed unmistakably with the hand of a painter who is forced to explore himself rather than the world. Yet within that self he is a more powerful and various artist and more of an historical force than is perhaps generally realized. Since the thirties he has taught the world a lesson in color, using it with a vigor, economy and originality no other painter except Matisse has matched. And he has created a style that answers to our contemporary world’s sense of itself and which is so incorporated by now in its visual sensibility that no one who paints ambitiously can afford to be unaware of it.

[ … ]

… Those who had the opportunity to meet Miró while he was here [on his 1947 visit to New York] saw a short, compact, rather dapper man in a dark blue business suit. He has a neat round head with closely trimmed dark hair, pale skin, small, regular features, quick eyes and movements. He is slightly nervous and at the same time impersonal in the company of strangers, and his conversation and manner are non-committal to an extreme. One asked oneself what could have brought this bourgeois to modern painting, the Left Bank, and Surrealism.

Nevertheless, he did come to them, bringing his extraordinary gift. And what he took, in fact, for the chief content of his painting was the very spirit and atmosphere of the Left Bank, which he has caught more completely for the twenties and thirties than any other painter, not excepting Picasso and Matisse — who belong in the essence of their moods to a previous period. (The fact that none were more infatuated with the Left Bank of the twenties and thirties than Americans may help explain why Miró is more popular, and exerts more influence, in this country than anywhere else.) Yet Miró could become the painter-laureate of Jean Cocteau’s, André Breton’s and Ernest Hemingway’s Paris precisely, and only, because he remained an outsider, kept forever at a distance by innocence, caution and an ineradicable personal conventionality.

Miró is an eclectic, by which term I mean nothing opprobrious. Quite the opposite: I mean to praise him: the organic, personal unity of his art excludes any suggestion of the calculated, second-hand thing usually associated with the term. It was logical, however, that an eclectic master should have come along when Miró did, to synthesize the seemingly disparate tendencies already in the field and, by doing so, to realize possibilities that had been opened up but hardly explored at all during modern painting’s heroic age before 1920. Miró’s freedom of imagination showed us that the Cubist legacy was not the severe and narrowly technical — let alone “intellectual” — discipline it was so commonly interpreted to be, that it was as much capable of flexibility and variety of emotion as any style in the history of art. And not only did Miró show that it was possible to build a unified style on the collective achievements of the age of Cubism, joining Klee’s and Kandinsky’s more explicit “poetry” to Picasso’s and Matisse’s “engineering,” and not only is he the sole new master of international importance to have appeared in painting anywhere in the twenty years between the two wars (Klee and Mondrian were already definitely on the scene by 1920) — he has also acted as a test case to decide the viability of post-Cubist painting as a school.

… When I say that his art sums up, at least in part, the collective achievements of the age of Cubism I do not mean to imply that its range exceeds, or even equals, that of Picasso’s and Matisse’s. Range does not depend on the variety of influences absorbed, and Picasso’s purer and stricter classical Cubism has still a wider scope and greater depth and breadth than Miró’s more eclectic art. Although the Catalan painter could pretend to say a lot more than he does — and it is to his credit that he does not so pretend — it remains that he does have a limited register.

Joan Miró, The Poetess, 1940 [image from WikiArt]

[ … ]

… As painters go … Miró is not old yet [Greenberg is writing in 1948]. This is why it is reasonable to hope that one day the bland surfaces of his canvases will become agitated and dense again and speak with a sonority surpassing even that with which they spoke in the thirties.

My most recent previous post from Greenberg’s book is here.




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