Belinda Beckett’s gallery of five famous Spanish-born painters, spanning five centuries, takes a sideways look at the artists you thought you knew.

Joan Miró 1893-1983

Miró’s work is a joyful celebration of life, colour and ideas of freedom dear to the Catalan painter’s heart, even when far from Franco’s Spain.

is was a fanciful world of free-floating insects and eyes, squiggles and blobs, dismissed by Surrealism’s chief exponent, André Breton, as “partially-arrested development at the infantile stage” (he ate his own words later, admitting: “Miró is the most Surrealist of us all”).

The blobs and squiggles are the artist’s language, a symbolic way of commenting on the world. The birds in his Constellations series are war planes, the moon is the beauty extinguished by Fascism, even the colours are words.

The ‘angry young man’ who wanted to “assassinate art”, hating its bourgeois elitism, made it affordable to all through his lithographic prints. He also produced tapestries, ceramics, illustrated books and abstract sculptures for public spaces in his native Barcelona and beyond: a giant mural at the city’s airport; his World Trade Center Tapestry, destroyed during the 9/11 terrorist attacks; a poster for the 1982 Barcelona World Cup.

In sharp contrast to bohemian contemporaries like Picasso and Dalí, Miró was introverted, modest, a man of few words. He had a happy marriage, he wasn’t a party animal and his penchant for dark business suits made him seem ‘like a slightly apprehensive accountant’, one critic wrote.

He actually started out in business to please his parents before rebelling, immersing himself in 1920s Paris, the crucible of modern art, to develop his own style.

Until then, his work had been more figurative, inspired by Van Gogh, Cézanne and the countryside around Barcelona and epitomised in The Farm, an obsessively detailed painting of the family finca. Miró said it was “a summary of my entire life in the countryside and one period of my work, but also the point of departure for what was to follow. I wanted to put everything I loved about the country in the canvas, from a huge tree to a tiny little snail.”

Ernest Hemingway, his boxing partner at a local gym, bought it, commenting: “It has in it all that you feel about Spain when you are there and all that you feel when you are away and cannot go there.” Although his first solo show in Paris bombed in 1921, Miró reinvented himself to become the greatest living Spanish artist of his time and a pioneer of abstract expressionism.

He remained in France throughout the Spanish Civil War, expressing his anguish in works like Still Life with Old Shoe. Dubbed ‘Miró’s Guernica’, humble everyday objects are set against an ominous background of flames and shadows.

When the Nazis occupied France, the Mirós fled to Spain on the last train out of Paris. The following year, through the auspices of his New York dealer, Pierre Matisse (son of artist Henri), the city’s Museum of Modern Art held the first Miró retrospective.

It was a turning point. Although internationally recognised, Miró had to push galleries to value his work more highly, writing: “What I will no longer accept is the mediocre life of a modest little gentleman.”

Miró was a hit in America, inspiring the abstract expressionism exemplified by Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. Pollock may have been Miró’s inspiration too. On seeing his 1952 Paris show, Miró recalled telling himself: “You can do it too, go to it, you see, it is OK!” Thereafter, he was liberated, slashing, burning and even throwing paint at his canvases.

Two further lucrative MoMa retrospectives paid for the studios of his dreams in his in-laws native Mallorca, built by avant garde architect Josep Lluís Sert. In 1992, it became the second Miró museum, alongside Barcelona’s.

Salvador Dalí 1904-1989

Towards the end of his life, an eminent scientist asked Dalí whether the melting watches in his most famous painting, The Persistence of Memory, were based on his perception of Einstein’s theory of relativity. “No, they’re based on my perception of Camembert cheese melting in the sun,” was the master of surrealism’s flippant reply…

Words Belinda Beckett

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