Last updated: March 24, 2012 12:17 am

Whole new dimension

Miró’s sculptures reveal how the challenge of a new medium inspired the artist in his final years

Late work by great artists – Monet’s lilies, Matisse’s cut-outs, David Hockney’s east Yorkshire – always mesmerises. There is the virtuoso distillation of a lifetime’s experience, the risk of a fresh direction, but most of all the energy and optimism flung in the face of mortality.

The sculptures Joan Miró made in his seventies and eighties have all these qualities, yet are little-known beyond Spain and France. Yorkshire Sculpture Park’s new show is the biggest ever survey, presenting for the first time in the UK a range of fabulous, often comical, works – from an inchoate form studded with false teeth called “Naissance” to a two-metre figure modelled from a folded napkin, and a “Gymnaste” whose starting point is a clothes hanger. Beautifully installed across the grounds and inside the gallery, it is an enlightening sequel to Tate’s exhibition of Miró’s paintings last year.

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“La caresse d’un oiseau” (1967) is a bronze figure with legs made from an ironing board, painted green, torso from a toilet seat, painted red, and head from a straw sunhat worn in Spain by ploughing donkeys, painted yellow and turned sideways so that the holes cut for the donkey’s ears represent eyes and the pointed tip a nose. The paint, shiny household enamel, does more than underline connections between Miró as sculptor and painter; it turns volumes into surfaces and establishes the separateness of each element, giving a haphazard, disunited quality. But there is poetry here too: a large inverted turtleshell asserts that the figure is feminine, fecund; a small sculpted blue bird perched on the hat suggests a flutter of movement against the face, a fleeting, living moment.

Picasso reckoned that “sculpture is the best comment a painter can make on his paintings” and certainly Miró’s painterly sensibility, and also his metamorphosing impulse, dominate here exuberantly. The painted bronze “Femme assise et enfant” denotes a body by an ordinary chair, with a red pebble – the child – sitting on its seat or lap, and an abstract blue disc as the mother’s head. In “Jeune fille s’évadant”, a water hydrant is a head, with sponges for a torso placed above sexy red mannequin’s legs. These, too, date from 1967; the juxtaposition of incongruous elements is as surprising and erotic as in any defining surrealist work, yet absolutely of the 1960s in its minimalist and pop connotations.

Joan Miro's ’Personnage’ (1982);©Jonty Wilde

’Personnage’ (1982)

A red- and yellow-painted “Personnage” (1982), assembled from the lid of a wheat canister, a chopping block and a rake, recalls the delight in rustic objects, each lovingly depicted as an independent entity, in the painting that launched Miró’s career, “The Farm” (1922). That celebrated his family home at Montroig and announced his lifelong connection with rural existence. “The thing is to intoxicate yourself with the great optimism the country gives,” he wrote. “Courage consists of staying at home, close to nature, wherever you are you can find the sun, a blade of grass, the spiral of the dragonfly.”

An important patinated bronze “Personnage”, cast in 1970, consists of a pebble placed on an almond, enlarged 15 times. Glinting in the spring sun, this owl-like form, with eyes hollowed out of the pebble and pitted almond-skin, is a wonderfully eccentric welcoming figure as you arrive at Yorkshire Sculpture Park. Inside the gallery, the minute stone and nut that sparked the work are on show alongside a worn-down soap bar that was the basis for the torso of “Femme, monument”, and the donkey yoke that, topped by a cardboard box, inspired the four-metre “Personnage gothique, oiseau éclair”.

Standing on the terrace, towering over the gentle Yorkshire parkland dotted with smooth, easygoing Henry Moores and Elisabeth Frinks, this weird, raw piece is a coup of southern oddness.

Joan Miro's ‘Femme Monument’ (1970)©Jonty Wilde

‘Femme Monument’ (1970)

Such sculptures grounded Miró in everyday life; he wanted them placed “outside, where they might be confused with living things”. The spacious, airy display here gives full scope to such found-object works – basically assemblages cast in bronze – that reprise the surrealist language of appropriation, transforming the commonplace into the marvellous. What makes the show really comprehensive, though, is its skilful balancing of the collage-led strand of Miró’s oeuvre with more mythic, monumental, modelled sculptures: the abstracted “Maternité” – enormous womb, small breasts and arms, tiny tapering neck and head; a boldly reduced yet bulbous “Femme (Femme debout)”; the rough-edged “Tête”, with strongly incised marks and a nose resembling a spear, which Miró’s grandsons nicknamed “Pinocchio”.

As early as 1941 Miró predicted that “it is in my sculpture that I will create a truly phantasmagoric world of living monsters; what I do in painting is more conventional.” In 1946 he sketched the outline of a big bird on the floor of his studio – a simplified, pared-back shape whose dynamic wings and condensed body powerfully capture the essence and spirit of the creature. This became “Oiseau lun-aire”, modelled in 1946 – the first cast is still in the family collection and is visiting here; it was then modified and magnified as a large-scale bronze in 1966. A leaner, longer, lower “Oiseau solaire” is a companion. The moon bird is more aggressive and spiky, but both are crowned by a crescent shape whose tips might be breasts, horns, phalluses, handlebars – something androgynous, or part-man, part-beast, perhaps part-machine.

Joan Miro's ‘La Caresse d’un Oiseau’ (1967)©Jonty Wilde

‘La Caresse d’un Oiseau’ (1967)

Shown at Pierre Matisse’s New York gallery in 1967, this pair inaugurated Miró’s sculptural oeuvre. The art critic David Sylvester noted at the time how their flowing, sweeping gestures, evolved over two decades, “feign a superb spontaneity” and that “presumably Miró was prepared to go back on his tracks in this way and carefully elaborate old ideas because he was out to produce a pair of masterpieces”.

The birds’ origins are clearly in surrealism’s fragmentations but they also have a classical grace and sensuousness that resonate with the postwar sculpture begun by other Ecole de Paris painters – Picasso, Chagall – who, like Miró, relocated from the French capital to studios on the Mediterranean in the 1940s.

“I am an established painter but a young sculptor,” the ageing Miró told Alexander Calder. In seeking the challenge of a new medium, the elderly artist was more innovative, energetic and true to himself in his sculptural experiments than in his late paintings, where his vocabulary ceased to evolve and could lapse into self-parody. Last year Tate attempted unconvincingly to reposition his 1960s works as political but, as André Breton lamented, Miró “loved painting too much” to be a revolutionary – asked to shout an incendiary slogan during a demonstration, all he could think of was, “Down with the Mediterranean!”. Here, his love of painting and of the Mediterranean are transposed to sculpture in Yorkshire: an unlikely, upbeat, eye-opening exhibition.

‘Miró: Sculptor’, Yorkshire Sculpture Park, to January 6 2013, www.ysp.co.uk

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