Joan Miro – The Ladder of Escape [Edited by Marko Daniel and Matthew Gale]

This is the book for the Tate Modern exhibition from years ago, which I finally got round to reading, an essay at a time.
Miro and Picasso are two of my favourite artists, and while my knowledge of the world of art is quite limited, is is their bright and bold compositions that I love.

This book, a collection of essays focused around the work displayed in the exhibition gives an in depth portrait of Miro the artist.
A born and bred Catalan, no matter how far he travelled or what direction his art took him, the roots were always buried in the earth of the Catalan countryside.  From his early head of  a Catalan peasant series to his constant insistence at being called Joan, Miro never left the soil of his homeland.
Through the essays you can trace a line from his more traditional early works through to the abstract, the burnt canvases and his epic triptychs.  Deeply affected by the civil war and Franco’s dictatorship, Miro chose internal exile in Mallorca, and refused all overtures from the General’s administration.

He was exiled from his homeland only though, internationally his fame grew, and some of his works were subtle and not so subtle attacks on the Spain’s leadership and isolation, while he remained on a mission to ‘assassinate painting’ throughout his life.  The exhibition also included sculpture, which was an area of Miro’s work I was unaware of, and these are just as abstract, although he still managed to use some of the same motif’s from his paintings.

Complete with decent sized reproductions, the ladder of escape is a great insight into one of the twentieth centuries greatest artists.


The New Spaniards [John Hooper]

So I am wading through the thousand paged, unabridged classic, The Tale of Genji, but as it’s way to big to fit in my bag for work, I slipped in The New Spaniards by John Hooper to transport me away from my tube seat (when I’m lucky enough to get one).

Covering Spain’s most recent history and the breakneck pace at which it has, and continues to change, Hooper’s depth of knowledge and research is immense, yet the book flows along and is never bogged down by facts and figures, and through it you get a clearer picture of a country that must barely recognise itself sometimes.

From post Franco politics, the waning influence of the church, the strengths of the family and regional identity, royalty and the army to welfare, education, an absolute lack of ballet, law and the love of radio, all these are focused on as Hooper lifts the lid on the average Spaniard, their championing of the individual, propensity of easy money over hard slog, a fierce love and loyalty to their family over and above everything else along with their drive to embrace modernity as Spain moves forward.

There are a number of factors that will influence Spain’s future, not in the least the pull of the strong regional identities while the army sits in the middle waving the 1978 constitution, in which it is entrusted with the defence of Spain’s territorial integrity (and which one General has already alluded to, although he was quickly removed).  Yet as the immigrants pour in, and start to slowly reverse the decline in birth rates, Spain is becoming a more tolerant society, yet without losing it’s renowned Passion, and Hooper easily articulates how and why this is happening.

In much of South Amercia, gallego is synonymous with ‘Spaniard’.  Perhaps the most contemporary descendant of Galician immigrants is Fidel Castro, whose surname derives from the Galician word for a Celtic hill-fort.

Ice Age Art – The Arrival of the Modern Mind

Inside the exhibition, it claims the oldest known figurative art appears in Europe towards the end of the last ice age, about 40,000 years ago, and yet here I was still outside and one of the exhibits had just walked out of the entrance doors!  But no, the ancient relic in front of me was an old woman huffing and tutting her way to replacing her audio/visual aid.  I slipped past and into the low lit exhibition room.  A distant irregular drip could be heard, making the cool grey room feel like an ancient cave, filled with treasure from the entire width of continental europe, from decorated weaponry to flutes

One of the first objects was the Lion Man found in Stadel cave in Germany.  Looking good for it’s forty thousand years, it is cleverly carved in mammoth’s ivory and depicts a man’s body with an instantly recognisable lions head.  The carver demonstrating the capability to imagine something that does not exist.  While it is impossible to know why it was created, the existence of this capability kicks your mind into touch, as possibilities open up and more questions flood through.

Some things seem to have remained constant, and the female form in its softly curved, fully figured glory is the subject of a number of sculptures.   In a freezing climate that would have required at least some clothing, the fact that most of the figures are naked, could possibly indicate a more artistic depiction, especially as women in all stages of their lives are depicted. The exhibition hypothesises that they could have been created by women rather than men, nearby a Henry Moore shows how far art has come in forty thousand years (not very, or perhaps full circle).

Tucked to the side but perhaps more fascinating was a male doll or puppet, with moveable limbs, buried with a man who had pain from a disease of his joints.  What purpose did it serve?  Did he make it, did someone else make it as a talisman?
It was a while before I moved on, and a bit further on is the Zaraysk Bison.  An adult female carved in mammoth tusk, in exact proportion and three dimensions.  Despite her small size you fully expect her to wander up to the glass or dip her head to graze.

She is not as small however, as the miniatures, some of which have holes for cords which indicated they would have been worn upside down, possibly to be lifted up and viewed by the wearer.  On other works there are abstract drawings, perspective when more than one animal was featured, and a spinning pendant, that had a cow on one side and a calf on the other.  Even more practical items, such as spear throwers and antler batons, an essential part of a hunting man’s kit, were adorned with animal sculptures or motifs, art crept into practical use over pure form even then.

This is a brilliant exhibition, that will linger in your mind long after you exit through the gift shop into the searing brightness of the great court.
We can only speculate what Ice Age people were thinking, what place those sculptures held in their life and beliefs, but whatever it was, they were skilled enough to give it form with their hands,and minds.

Ice Age Art is on at the British Museum until the 2nd of June, details here

GUERRA! [Jason Webster]

I’ve picked up Duende many times while in book shops, but have never been convinced enough to buy it.  However, while helping my brother redecorate his house he offered me a few books he was getting rid of, including Guerra and Sacred Sierra, by Jason Webster, the author of Duende.

A chance encounter with his neighbour in the mountains (Guerra comes after Sacred Sierra) leads Webster to look into the Spanish Civil war, and Guerra is his recounting of the events, intersped with his travels around his adoptive country investigating the events of 70 years ago, only some of which seem entirely relevant.

And that is the main reason I struggled with Guerra, Webster himself.  His retelling of the civil war is detailed and uncluttered, giving great background into the events and their significance.  However, his own travelling parts are both hackneyed and seemingly bland fantasy.  Webster sets the scene up and when the inevitable happens there is no surprise or concern, or even interest, just a feeling that it all seems made up.  While there are no reasons to doubt the veracity of the book, the retelling makes Webster seem incredibly either naive or extremely unlucky.  From the mistaken arrest, the abandonment by the taxi driver, to the text book theft in the train station, it seems as if he has pulled out every cliche for a travel book, to make his own story as interesting as the war he is writing about.  When he meets a jogger outside Castuera, where a concentration camp had once stood, the jogger tells him that someone in the nearby village saw a ghost, right where he was standing.  I couldn’t make up my mind if it was ludicrous or just badly written.

The book picks up when he reaches Madrid and stays with his friend Kiki, who is by far the most interesting person in the book, and despite Webster claiming you can’t explain Kiki, he spends a great deal of time trying to do so.  But Kiki is much more engaging and thought provoking than Webster.  The scene where Pio Moa gave a speech to a room full of old elitist and students and whipped them into a frenzy was fascinating to read and Webster’s favour for Javier at the end was genuinely touching, but it wasn’t enough to rescue the book from a complete lack of interest.

I don’t really like writing a bad review, but you can’t like them all..and Webster has given me a great introduction to the Spanish civil war, and for that I am thankful.

From his headquarters, General Miaja urgently wired the government in Valencia for more ammunition.  In reply he received a counter-order from the Prime Minister telling him to send down the cabinets table silver, which had been left behind in the rush to get away.