On Miró and Meaning: A Review

Blue II - Joan Miró (1961) © Successió Miró

I recently saw the new Miró retrospective at the Tate Modern in London (for free, thanks to a friend who works there – thank you S!). Despite the exhibition focusing on an artist whose work – 20th century Surrealism – couldn’t be further from my own research on 18th century engravings, I couldn’t help but be struck by the fact that Miró’s oeuvre essentially raises the same questions that I am trying to work through in my thesis. Namely, from where or what the ‘meaning’ in an image is derived, and how does the process of interpreting that meaning work for the individual viewer?

Before unravelling this idea, it makes sense to briefly review the Tate exhibition. Based on sheer visual impact alone, it’s highly recommended. The profusion of bright colours and bold, organic forms in Miró’s work gave me a delightful feeling of psychedelic abandonment as I walked through the exhibition rooms, viewing the paintings en masse. The rooms are arranged chronologically, but interpreted and explained thematically – each room focusing on a different period in the artist’s life, and the impact of politics, wider artistic developments and personal events upon his work. As a result, the exhibition presents an overview of Miró’s work filtered through the identity of Miró the man, rather than Miró the artist: his Catalan identity, his opposition to Franco, and his friendships with the Parisian avant-garde all acting as important influences on his paintings. This has the effect of making the artist a relatable, humane figure rather than some inaccessible giant of the Surrealist movement, eulogised and untouchable by modern audiences. The Miró of this exhibition is witty, charming and somewhat enigmatic; by the time I left, I felt that I would have rather liked to meet this man. I even bought a reproduction print in the gift shop, which is always a good sign (Commemorative fridge magnet, anyone?). So, if you are in London, do go and see the show while it’s on (until 11th September).

But now, back to the thread of thought that was prompted by seeing this exhibition. Many of Miró’s works are of the variety that some people dismiss as ‘not art’ – Blue II (1961), above, is a good example. Faced with an apparently simple abstract composition, the reaction of many is to assume that the simplicity of the work is equal to simplicity of intention – that is to say, a lack of talent and vision, poor draughtsmanship, intellectual pretension, and so on. I don’t dismiss this viewpoint, exactly, but I do recognise the fact that my immersion in ‘art’, academically and culturally, gives me the ability to articulate why an image like Blue II can and should be regarded as an important and meaningful work of art.

I don’t want to get into a debate on the ‘what is art?’ question, mainly because there’s no concrete answer to it, but also because I’ll get all worked up about Piero Manzoni’s 1961 work Artist’s Shit which is… exactly what it says it is. As I am far too refined to discuss matters scatological, it’s time to move onto my broader point, which is this: To what extent is the ‘meaning’ we see in images dependent upon our own acquired knowledge, prejudices and cultural context? Critical theory, particularly post-structuralist critical theory, has tended towards the belief that ‘meaning’ comes primarily from ourselves as individuals. Roland Barthes, for example, has posited the concept of the ‘idiolect’, which is essentially an individual’s ‘language’, composed of said knowledge, prejudices and context. The individual idiolect exists within the wider ‘sociolect’, or language of the wider group(s) to which the individual belongs; nonetheless it ensures that every one of has the capacity to interpret images and texts in a unique way. On the other hand, Michel Foucault’s notion of the episteme, or the historical conditions of possibility for a body of knowledge, would have it that there is no such thing as totally free interpretation – rather, we are all confined by the a priori conditions of our existence. Our language, and therefore the limits of our interpretive abilities, are constrained within the structures of knowledge and belief that constitute our society.

The Tilled Field - Joan Miró (1923) © Successió Miro

To illustrate what I mean (because I’m getting wordy again), consider another image from the Miró exhibition: The Tilled Field (1923). An early work by the artist, it represents an idyllic homage to his Catalan roots; a stylised depiction of Miró’s homeland as it existed in his imagination. The image is rich with symbolism: the ear on the tree, for example, is supposed to represent the notion that all objects possess a soul; while the positioning of the French, Catalan and Spanish flags indicate the artist’s allegiance to the Catalan cause and rejection of Spanish governmental repression. The question is, do these symbolic meanings exist because we will them into existence, or are they independent of us as individual viewers? Is the linguistic ability to interpret this image within us all? Is it bigger or better in some of us than it is in others? Furthermore, does it even matter what we think, or is there a received meaning, one which is intended by the artist and therefore not to be deviated from? The significance of the flags, for example, would be completely altered if nothing was known of Miró’s politics. It’s the aesthetic equivalent of the ‘tree falling in an empty wood’ conundrum.

For example: one of the first ideas that came into my head when I looked at this painting, was that the animals and plants reminded me of the work of Hieronymous Bosch, the 15th century Flemish painter whose work is distinctive for its fantastic and grotesque bestiary. While that idea might or might not have been unique to me, it could only come into my head as a result of its conditions of possibility – from the personal (I am an art historian who can make a comparison between artists) to the historical (Bosch’s works have been preserved and studied by art historians). And, if we privilege the intended or received meanings of the painting above audience interpretation, my Bosch comparison effectively becomes redundant, based on the assumption that Miró was not influenced by Bosch, or attempting an homage to his work.

This conundrum isn’t only specific to art, or literature, or any other cultural medium that invites serious, academic interpretation. Meaning is all around us, in the most banal of things, from the clothes we wear to the food we eat. Semiotics, or the study of signs, is something in which we unconsciously participate every day, decoding what we view and hear and feel around ourselves. At this everyday level, the question of whether we give things meaning, or whether that meaning is given to us, is essentially irrelevant. On a theoretical level (which, sadly, is the bit I have to master if I’m to produce a thesis), I suspect that the answer is a combination of the two – that we assign meanings individually, but that as individuals we are still constrained by a kind of universal language, or set of conditions, that make our idiosyncratic interpretations feasible.

1 Comment

Filed under Art, PhD, Reviews

One response to “On Miró and Meaning: A Review

  1. Christophe

    How very strange. You’re getting frightfully close to what the new critics called the intentional fallacy. And I think the notion of a sociolect is perfectly compatible with Foucault’s episteme.
    But I agree “that we assign meanings individually, but that as individuals we are still constrained by a kind of universal language, or set of conditions, that make our idiosyncratic interpretations feasible.”
    Although I shudder at the word ‘universal.’

    And somehow I don’t really like Miró, but it does fascinate me.

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