Artist as activist: UK's Tate Modern to show Miro

LONDON (Reuters) - Civil war was raging in Spain, bombs were exploding in Guernica, and Spanish artist Joan Miro, stranded in Paris, was painting “Still Life with Old Shoe,” where psychedelic colours spilled into everyday objects to create a scene of nightmare.

Puppets designed by Spanish artist Joan Miro parade across the Millennium Bridge with their entourage over the river Thames as part of Surrealist Saturday in London May 27, 2006. The puppets are exact replicas of those designed by Miro in 1978, and form part of a satirical play "Merma Never Dies" being preformed at the Tate Modern museum in London.

Miro’s engagement with, and sometimes savage reaction to, the world around him underpins Tate Modern’s “Joan Miro: The Ladder of Escape,” the first major exhibition of his work in London in almost 50 years.

The title of the exhibition, which opens in April 2011, is borrowed from Miro himself: the Ladder of Escape reappears in paintings and sculptures throughout his life as a ladder standing straight up and leading into the sky.

“We’ve chosen the Ladder of Escape in our title because ... it shows this ambiguity, the sense of being rooted in the world but trying to escape into something more ethereal,” said Matthew Gale, a curator at the museum.

“At certain moments, Miro is really engaged with political ideas. And at other times, he is seeking to escape from that reality.”

In his daily life, Miro was a far cry from the tortured, militant artist: born in Barcelona, he loved the insects and plants of the Catalonian countryside, and spent hours studying maps of the stars.

He is known for the brightly coloured canvases with simple black lines that he painted in the 1950s and 1960s, which often appeal to children.

But Miro’s strong sense of Catalan identity was under attack from General Francisco Franco, who ruled Spain as a centralised dictatorship for almost 40 years and sought to quash all remnants of Catalan separatism.

In the 1930s, Miro reacted to the violence of the time with paintings that capture a sense of militancy: tortured forms twisting in savage colours, paint-splattered like an explosion across the canvas.

“I want to assassinate painting,” Miro once famously said, and it is this militant impulse that is highlighted in the exhibition.

Miro’s savage artistic sense returned when he was an old man, said Marko Daniel, another curator of the exhibition.

Reacting to the trends of a new generation of artists, he created “Burnt Canvas” in 1973, slashing a hole in the painting, pouring gasoline on it, and setting it on fire.

A photograph shows him standing in front of the finished work at the age of 81, peering through the burned hole in the canvas.

“When you look at him, he looks like everybody’s favourite grandpa,” Daniel said. “He’s very neat looking, and the external conditions of his life are ... incredibly conventional. He marries, he has a family, he’s a really good dad, he’s got grandchildren.

“And all that passion that he’s got inside just comes out when he talks about things, and of course when he paints, when he takes his buckets of paint and just flings them at the canvas.”

“Joan Miro: The Ladder of Escape” shows at the Tate Modern from April 14 to September 11, 2011.