Joan Miró, 'A Star Caresses the Breast of a Negress (Painting Poem)' 1938

Joan Miró
A Star Caresses the Breast of a Negress (Painting Poem) 1938
Oil on canvas
support: 1295 x 1943 mm frame: 1365 x 2001 x 90 mm
Purchased 1983© Succession Miro/ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2002

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Now that Joan Miró: The Ladder of Escape is open, we have the opportunity to think back to other exhibitions. The last show in Britain to look across his whole career (rather than at focussed moments) was the one on which Miró himself helped his friend Roland Penrose to make in 1964 for the Arts Council at the Tate Gallery. This has been a marker for us in making our exhibition, but today I am also thinking about the strange circumstances of Miró’s first museum retrospective. This was seventy years ago in 1941 and held at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Among the most recent works that were shown there was ‘A Star Caresses the Breast of a Negress’ (above) that Miró had completed in April 1938.

James Johnson Sweeney, a curator at the Museum and a friend of the artist, was the curator. Miró himself never had the opportunity to see it. He could not even make a sensible contribution, as he was in Franco’s Spain and wartime conditions in Europe prevented him from communicating regularly with New York. As Sweeney noted in the catalogue: ‘only fragmentary news of his work has crossed the Atlantic’. How extraordinarily frustrating this must have been.

Matthew Gale is head of displays at Tate Modern and co-curator of Joan Miró: The Ladder of Escape, at Tate Modern until 11 September.

Comments

Robbat

As presumably intended the octagonal enclosure of the coloured dual triptychs (Room 10) produced a very intense and rapid onset emotional response. (I had not read the exhibition reviews beforehand, which I note also mention this effect)

Only about twice b4 in my 60 odd years have I experienced the same effect on viewing a work of Art.

Can someone explain why?

N.B I have a neuroscience background and may struggle with a philosophical explanation...

Jonathan Sydenham

It was a bit like watching a film in a language I do not understand. To unlock the paintings I felt I needed a symbol dictionary and there just wasn't one around. Ladders, yes. Berets, yes. Beards etc, yes. Dark, murderous shapes, yes. But what was at the top of the ladders? Were those eggs or stones or potatoes? If so, what did they signify? Why the crosses? What did they actually mean? How much artifice went into those thin, curved lines? Why? What was the apple forked for? Why an apple? Why the bread? Was it more than bread? Why did the girl with red and black hair trip on blood, and why THAT kind of blood? There is a whole language here that eludes me!

Tessa Case

Yes, it is possible to experience a major retrospective exhibition of Miró in just over 30 minutes when you are with your seven-year old son. A little frustrating to do it so quickly, but on the other hand important for my son not to get bored with art or feel negative about coming with me. To his credit, we stopped and sketched and that helped us both to understand Miró's art better. I love his sinuous, deceptively simple lines. Lines that ache with emotion, sadness and despair interspersed with personal, dreamlike symbols. It is best not to study Miró's work in an analytical way, but rather respond to the rawness of his emotion, understanding that many images were a response to his country's political situation. Well worth a visit especially if you can afford more than 30 minutes!

Mark Sammut

Having visited the Barca museum, I wanted to see if this exhibition brought anything new. The early works were interesting, not great but interesting. I still see Miro as a one trick pony. He found a simple style - blue or black background with some red yellow or green shapes. He was content to explore not one inch further- just take the money. My visit to the exhibition was the shortest ever at Tate Modern.

deb rae smith

The Miro was big and a bit too deep in places (one bloke burst into tears). I prefer the Miro museum in Barcelona and the weather, no puddles or tears there.

Tony

It's because you believe in your own fantasies, generated by your misconcieved notions of art and artists

d.mcardle

R.you might like to look at the paintings of Barnett Newman who made colour field paintings from the late 1940's and see what he says.Also Yves Klein (1960's) who said blue had a quality closest to pure space,immaterial values beyond what can be seen or touched. I suppose experience thus may invoke what Freud called 'oceanic feeling ' (from Romain Rolland) womb - like? emotional confusion ,as people might experience in a relaxation water tank if they can't 'let go' .Blue is simply like the sky,so perhaps -falling ? again,fear. Giorgio Agamben aesthetics prof. Venice, I remember talking about the blue being the first colour to emerge from the darkness ,not science but a classical idea I should think.

Robbat

Thank you both for your comments. I suspect that this response is hard wired in all of us, manifest to varying degree and due to the involvement of the amygdala in further processing of sensory phenomena, hence a very primitive function of evolutionary development. It does seem that the intensity of the colours used in the work and their arrangement are important as d.m suggests. I experienced no such phenomena when observing the mainly monochromatic works in Room 12, nor when viewing similar work individually. The calming effect of certain colours has also been described (green, purple).

Looking into this further I discovered the following comment on an Art Therapy website, for what it's worth:

"Eric Kandel...came to neuroscience by way of psychiatric training. The author was born in Austria and he had a fascination with Freudian psychoanalysis. Knowing that all mental functions have a physical manifestation in the brain, he was intensely curious about the question, "Where in the brain does the ID reside?" What Kandel did find is where and how short term memory becomes long-term memory. He discovered that the emotional charge of a fearful or anxious memory in the amygdala is moderated - lessened - when that memory becomes conscious. Bringing the unconscious into conscious awareness helps dissipate the intense emotional charge around it."

Perhaps certain works of art have an ability to trigger this response in those susceptible to it, independent of the original notion of art or artist. Perhaps therefore it is a fantasy - a fanciful mental image,which reflects their conscious or unconscious wishes; an idea with no basis in reality...

d.mcardle

and now define reality.

Sarah Richardson

I was recommended to visit the Miro exhibition by one of Britain's foremost abstract painters as we are looking at colour and the way it interacts etc. I have to say I was dissappointed on several levels with the exhibition. Firstly, although I am sure the lighting is very sophisticated and specialised for art exhibitions - I nonetheless found it difficult to really appreciate the finer colours in his early work to the point of it creating a rather depressing atmosphere. Of course I realise that art is very contextual and of its time but I can't help agreeing with one of the comments posted outside the exhibit which stated that it "smacked of the Emperor's new clothes" !! It was like reading a whole lot of pontificating tosh one might find wine tasters talking. Sorry a big thumbs down for me especially when I visited Tate Britain afterwards and compared what Turner and the like were doing with colour so many years before. Well, you asked for my comments!

Ian Dalton

It was disturbing being told how to decode some of the symbols and not others. I gave up reading the notices on the walls because they made the work seem so trivial. Partly, as Jonathan Sydenham says, it makes it into a game of spot the symbol; see the ladder that means desire to escape. Partly, because the artist was being described as continually reacting to Spanish politics making it into a game of spot the political message. It was a relief to wander about wondering if I would like to have any of the images hanging in my house (if only it were big enough!).

jane

On visiting this exhibition I was hoping to find some sense of what Miro was trying to achieve through his practice, but for me it did not work. However am happy that I gave the work time and can only appreciate an artists creativity regardless of anothers likes or dislikes.

Malgosia

Evolution, evolution of the way artist expresses himself in his works - elegantly and meaningfully condensated in 13 exibition rooms...Great choice of pictures, magics of the Miro's secret symbols, strong , courageous lines and colours. For me - unique, stimulating experience (and fully worth travelling from Warsaw to London ;-)