A cockerel merges with a cloud

“I would not trade it for any picture in the world,” wrote Ernest Hemingway, owner of Joan Miró’s first masterpiece “The Farm”. “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. No one else has been able to paint those two opposing things.”

Falling on a eucalyptus tree silhouetted against a cloudless sky, a sun-bleached farmhouse and sharply outlined surfaces detailing ploughed earth and an abundance of life – cockerel, goat, snail, the back end of a horse, a child defecating – the bright morning light of “The Farm” illuminates the opening room of Tate Modern’s retrospective Joan Miró: The Ladder of Escape with seductive brilliance.

This “résumé of my entire life in the country”, as Miró called it, has the vitality of lived experience, the primitive power of northern Spanish romanesque frescoes, cubism’s condensed forms, and fauvism’s swathes of colour. It is palpably a modernist picture, but in case anyone consider it naïve, Miró comically depicted a copy of the Parisian journal L’Intransigeant alongside a watering can in the foreground.

The picture’s hallucinatory quality, Hemingway claimed, was the result of young Miró nearly starving to death as he laboured to complete it over nine months in 1921-22 in Paris. It is a romantic image, and perhaps true, for among the achievements of this compelling show is the dramatisation – for good and ill – of Miró’s intense romanticism.

“The Farm” balances daylight clarity with mystery – the moon is still up – in an anticipation of surrealism; the surrealists adored Miró as a painter of marvels. But unlike them, he always started with the real, developing an entire fantastical vocabulary from his family farm at Mont-roig. The early, crisply frontal “House with Palm Tree”, with circular forms of pumpkins, moon, sundial, palm fronds embedding compositional structures in the everyday world, and “Vegetable Garden and Donkey”, show his impassioned sustaining engagement with this landscape. “Nowhere else have I felt such a powerful shock as in Mont-roig, it is the primitive preliminary shock, where I always come back to,” he wrote. “Right now what interests me is the calligraphy of a tree or a rooftop, leaf by leaf, twig by twig, blade of grass by blade of grass, tile by tile.”

From here it is a joyous, exuberant leap to “The Tilled Field” (1923-24) – the Mont-roig landscape metamorphosed into the fluid, organic yet whimsical forms that would dominate the rest of Miró’s oeuvre. The eucalyptus sprouts ear and eye, the cockerel merges with a cloud, the snail swells to chicken-size, the furrows are elegant abstract curlicues – everything is on the verge of transformation.

Space here is giddy, expansive, flowing, rather than compressed as in cubism. “Empty space, empty horizons, empty plains, everything that is stripped has always impressed me,” Miró said, and for the next decade he explored an ebb and flow between openness and detail, abbreviated signs or isolated forms and flat planes of colour – MoMA’s “Catalan Landscape (The Hunter)”, the Guggenheim’s “Landscape (The Hare)”, Philadelphia’s “Dog Barking at the Moon”. The American provenances indicate how essential Miró became to the birth of abstract expressionism; Picasso called him the only other artist “to have carried painting forward”.

“Dog Barking” depicts a ladder that Tate claims as a symbol of “independence” and “futile resistance”. This is pushing things: these are works from the mid-1920s, when the Ecole de Paris mood was light, absurdist, piqued by the irrational, but not political. Indeed, the key evolution here is between the 1920s and 1930s, when Miró’s work darkened with the clouds of fascism. The threatening forms and acid colours in the copper paintings “Seated Personnages” and “The Two Philosophers”, and the violent brown and tar-black series on masonite, with pitted, punctured, confused surfaces, from 1936, are his pessimistic reaction to the Spanish civil war.

The phantasmagorical “Still Life with Old Shoe” (1937), often called Miró’s “Guernica”, echoes the sombre spiritual Spanish still life tradition to which Picasso also returned during the war. “Without my knowing it, this picture contained tragic symbols of the period,” Miró remarked, “the tragedy of a miserable crust of bread and an old shoe that, like a burning house, spread its flames across the entire surface of the canvas.”

In Normandy when the second world war began, Miró answered with the modestly scaled, rhythmic yet free-floating oil and gouache “Constellations”, painted while listening to Bach, then rolled up for flight in 1940 to Mallorca. Tate’s fine selection includes the promise of light emerging from black in “Sunrise”, the velvety cerulean “Figures at Night Guided by the Phosphorescent Tracks of Snails”, the luminous, erotic “Awakening in the Early Morning”, the snake and toothy bird cutting across rosy surfaces in “The Passage of the Divine Bird”, and the red/smoky black “The Escape Ladder”, which gives its name to this show.

Miró surely meant it as metaphor for the voyage to interiority that was his response to atrocity. Nowhere does his sprinkled colour and imagery of crescent moons, spidery stars, watchful eyes, mutating phallic and breast shapes, drawn with the wrought-iron tracery of art nouveau – recalling his youth in Gaudí’s Barcelona – achieve a more subtle balance between hope and darkness than in these poetic, concentrated nocturnes, which André Breton likened to “the note of wild defiance of the hunter expressed by the grouse’s love song”.

From inner exile in Mallorca during Franco’s rule, Miró emerged in the postwar period to take on international commissions and mural-sized paintings but his language ceased to evolve, was less effective when upscaled, and risked self-parody. For good reason, most Miró shows – the Pompidou’s in 2004, MoMA’s in 2008 – end in the 1930s. Tate, choosing to “focus primarily on Miró’s politically engaged art”, presses on with too many late sentimentalist works – “May 1968”, celebrating student revolt; vast series condemning Spanish repression such as the fragmented “Burnt Canvases” and triptych “The Hope of a Condemned Man” after the 1974 execution of Catalan anarchist Puig Antich.

Miró’s political credentials are never in doubt, yet it is not his didactic works but his initial painterly inventiveness and liberal fantasy that embody freedom of expression. As his Spanish heir Antoni Tàpies wrote, in Miró’s “infinite flux of nature ... he showed us that we are all equal because we are all made from the stars themselves. He made the wretched see that they carried all the riches within themselves.”

‘Joan Miró: The Ladder of Escape’, Tate Modern, London, to September 11; www.tate.org.uk. Then Fundació Joan Miró, Barcelona, October 13-March 25 2012; National Gallery of Art, Washington, May 6-August 12 2012

For a video tour of this exhibition go to www.ft.com/arts-extra

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