A Bright Bridge To Surrealism

THERE'S A HEATED BATTLE of words currently raging Tin the art press between Spain's two most famous painters. Antoni Tapies, the country's establishment abstract artist, fumes that Antonio Lopez-Garcia, a consummate realist, should never have gotten a retrospective in the national modern art museum. Tapies calls Lopez-Garcia's work retro, the kind of meticulous copying of nature that every modern artist who's after a deeper reality has transcended. Lopez-Garcia retorts that Tapies should wake up and smell the paella, that it's a big, wide, pluralist world out there and realism is back in fashion. Besides, he hints, a child could paint like Tapies. Boys, boys! Take a couple of deep breaths--and book a flight to New York, for The Museum of Modern Art's Joan Miro retrospective (on view through Jan. 11). It's an encyclopedic, 400-work show of the one Spanish artist of the century who bridged not only the chasm between abstraction and representation, but almost closed the gap between poetry (what an artist feels) and craft (what an artist does about it).

To most people, surrealism means Salvador Dali, who took what he saw in dreams and hallucinations and rendered it in an academic fashion. Miro, on the other hand, was the absolute best of the surrealists who actually plumbed the subconscious for the free play of shapes, colors and lines in their paintings. Miro's style zips and twinkles across the canvas (or paper, or wood, or small rectangle of copper, as the case may be) with odd-looking but tantalizing human and animal creatures doing strange things in a benignly quirky cosmos. Miro often titled his paintings with such teasers as "People at Night, Guided by the Phosphorescent Tracks of Snails" and "Woman with Blonde Armpit Combing Her Hair by the Light of the Stars." And if you look closely, he delivers: sure enough, there's a blond armpit (some colored trapezoids), there's a snail trail (a wiggly line) and there's some starlight (the translucent ground).

Miro is the magical master of slow painting that looks fast. Sometimes he produced only four paintings a year. (fie worked on some pictures in 1980 that he started in 1930.) On light grounds, he tends to fine-tune his lyrical dark lines by partially overpainting them with paler tones; he fills in his primary-color, nursery-school shapes with a care and touch that Vermeer would have envied. If he were a lesser painter, you'd pocket these quick, bright little thrills and move briskly on in search of more novelty. But with Miro, your eye contentedly crawls through each picture and settles for a while into each of his piquant "personages" as if it were a shady spot on a summer day.

Of all the great modern artists, Miro led perhaps the least traumatized life. Born in 1893, the son of a watchmaker in Barcelona, he studied at the progressive Escola d'Art. At the relatively ripe age of 26, the artistic gravity of Paris finally lured him, but he kept returning home to Catalonia (once a separate nation, now a region of Spain, but with its own language). Miro's Catalonian roots kept him spiritually in the province, even when he was living abroad. In the 1920s in Paris, where the art of his fellow Spaniard, Picasso, was cosmopolitan, Miro's remained folkloric at heart. The crucial 1921-22 painting "The Farm" (originally bought by Ernest Hemingway and now in the National Gallery of Art in Washington) delineates a love so intense for his family's land at Montroig that the picture's hard-edged realism can hardly contain it. With two subsequent paintings, "The Tilled Field" and "The Hunter" (both 1923-24), Miro lets the emotion loose into the floating, organic forms that led Andre Breton, author of surrealism's official manifesto, to consider him a member of the club.

Miro went about his career with orderly determination. He wrote to Picasso in 1929 that he was "in pursuit of a Mme Miro, of a studio, and a dealer." That same year he married the daughter of family friends. Miro's fevor for Catalonia clashed with Franco's nationalism and the painter spent the Spanish Civil War in exile in France. Yet he could be strangely apolitical. Two weeks after the Nazis invaded Poland, he was able to write to Matisse from Paris, "I've entirely resumed my regular life and am very satisfied with my work." Miro spent most of the rest of World War II in Majorca. Until his death at 90 in 1983, he seemed to live a happily-ever-after existence. Because his career was long and brilliant, he can be forgiven for creating, in his later years, a few too many easy logos like the Spanish Tourist Board's spritely star-and-sun.

MOMA's exhibition, the largest Miro show ever in the United States, commemorates the centenary of the artist's birth. It is a common-sense chronological installation, accompanied by a gorgeously weighty catalog by curator Carolyn Lanchner (484 pages. Abrams. $75, paperback $37.50). The lessons in esthetics that Miro gives are so close to universal that the exhibition might encourage today's painters to be clearer and cleaner instead of angrier and louder. Alas, the exhibition doesn't travel out of New York. But a glance at a picture like "Painting" (1950) would probably be at least enough to make rivals like Tapies and Lopez-Garcia stop bickering and shake hands.