Joan Miro - Self-Portrait, 1937-1938-February 23, 1960, oil and pencil on canvas, Collection of Emilio Fernández, on loan to the Fundació Joan Miró, Barcelona

Until August 12, 2012 – National Gallery of Art

When you hear the name Joan Miró (1893-1983), what springs to mind? Playful shapes in red, blue, and black, floating free of gravity? Stick figures, naked and distorted? Cursive letters moving across barely brushed canvases? Suns, stars, and flowers? Fields of color?

But there is another Miró – not Miró the childlike inventor, the daring Surrealist, the poet of few words, or the lyrical abstractionist (although they are all here), but rather Miró the artist of his times. In his 90 years, he lived through two world wars, the Spanish Civil War, and the rise and fall of Francisco Franco, the dictator who ruled Spain from 1939 to 1975. Through it all, he remained deeply tied to his homeland of Catalonia in northeastern Spain, a region with a distinct culture and proud spirit.

Joan Miro - Dog Barking at the Moon, 1926, oil on canvas, Philadelphia Museum of Art, A.E. Gallatin Collection, 1952

his exhibition traces the arc of Miró’s career while drawing out his political and cultural commitments. The first two rooms explore his early work, rooted in Catalonia and then transformed in the 1920s under the influence of Paris and the surrealists. A large middle section is devoted to the terrible years of the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) and its repressive aftermath, when Miró developed his mature vocabulary. The last two rooms cover the final decade of Franco’s rule, when Miró turned to making monumental paintings, both calm and explosive.

Joan Miró - Toward the Rainbow, March 11, 1941, gouache and oil wash on paper, Lent by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection, 1998

The story that unfolds is a complex one. Was Miró an activist, a fantasist, or both? Did his art emerge despite or because of difficult times? Miró always kept a figurative “ladder of escape” – one of his favorite images – with him, and he would scale it to flee from harsh conditions into the freedom of his imagination. Yet his ladder was firmly planted on the ground, and he often climbed down to decry oppression. These two impulses, however different, were resolved in Miró’s powerfully simple definition of an artist as “one who, amidst the silence of others, uses his voice to say something.”

This exhibition was organized by Tate Modern, London, in collaboration with Fundació Joan Miró, Barcelona, and in association with the National Gallery of Art, Washington.