One of the great paintings in the exhibition is May 1968.
Miró kept it in his own collection and those of you who have been to the Fundació Joan Miró (our partners in the exhibition) will recognise it. Miró was seventy-five when he began to paint it. That, in itself, is rather extraordinary. It shows a vigour that would challenge younger artists. It was also begun in a very busy year. After a long period of international fame he was beginning to win recognition in Spain: on 20 April 1968, his seventy-fifth birthday, a plaque was set up on his childhood home at 4 Passatge del Crédit, Barcelona. Later that year he had his first major retrospective in the city. The local cultural life had gained in self-confidence and, somewhat, in self-sufficiency from the regime. It was liberalised enough for Miró to agree that the large exhibition made for the Fondation Maeght in France should also tour to an official gallery in Barcelona (the Recinte de l’Antic Hospital de la Santa Creu). It was, in some sense, the return of a prodigal son - albeit from his ‘inner exile’ in Mallorca.
This was also a time of revolution. In the spring of 1968 students across Europe, but especially in Paris, went on strike. Though the protests had different aspects in different places (and were quickly suppressed in Franco’s Spain), what was common to all was a demand for freedom: freedom of choice, of expression, for a new generation. In France, revolution was threatened. Miró was thrilled and this gives May 1968 an interesting context. Anyone seeing its title knew that it was referring to these ‘events’. He painted it over the period 1968-73, declaring it finished in time for his big exhibition at the Grand Palais in Paris in 1974. It captures the mixture of energy and celebration. The bright colours are urgent but the black appears to have been hurled at the canvas. The hand-print is a sign that goes back to the pre-historic painters marking their presence in the caves of Lascaux and Altamira. They state simply: ‘I am here’. For Miró’s response to the events of May 1968, this may be read as solidarity. The trace of Miró’s paint - like the gesture of protest at the Parisian barricades - shows that abstraction can reflect reality. It just depends on how you look at it.
Matthew Gale is head of displays at Tate Modern and co-curator of Joan Miró: The Ladder of Escape at Tate Modern.