Dispatches from Abroad: Miro Museum will be happy to see you

Young Girl Escaping By Joan Miro

Young Girl Escaping
By Joan Miro

Jay Stone stops to smell the flowers, and use the washroom, en route to the Miro Museum, where he was greeted by the likeness of E.T. with an erection

By Jay Stone

Barcelona, Spain — There’s a mountain on the west side of Barcelona that would probably be the signature site in most cities, but is kind of afterthought in Barcelona. It’s called Montjuic, and all it has is a castle, the Joan Miro museum, the stadium from the 1992 Olympics (the one where Ben Johnson almost won a medal), a terraced park filled with flowers and wild parrots, and the Catalan art museum, with its attendant waterfalls and dancing fountains. At the bottom is the old bull ring which has been converted to a shopping centre now that bullfighting has been banned in the city on the grounds of animal cruelty. We say “olé!” to the city fathers, and award them two ears and a tail. Oops. Wait a minute…

Montjuic means “Mount of the Jews” for reasons I can’t easily determine. However, it seems that Jewish people often choose higher ground — Forest Hill, Westmount, the Golan Heights — and it may have something to do with defensible positions, or just real estate savvy. I also think that good drainage is important in homes that rely heavily on wall-to-wall carpeting, but I may just be projecting.

You can easily kill an afternoon by taking a city bus to the top and walking back down, stopping to take hundreds of photographs of every flower that grows in the park and visiting all the bathrooms along the route. However, it also pays to stop at the Miro Museum to see the work of the Catalan artist (1893-1983, which was very mathematical of him) whose playful way of colours and shapes is delightfully simple and frequently joyful.

There’s a statue at the front entrance that looks like E.T. with an erection — he must have posed shortly after the opening weekend box-office take was announced — and also a sculpture by Alexander Calder, whose abstract shapes and artistic sense of balance make him a natural ally. Calder was forming intricate mobiles; Miro put his stars, squiggles and colourful blotches on canvas. Both of them had an innate sense of harmony.

The museum itself has a feast of paintings, sculptures and constructions, many of them featuring umbrellas, a particular Miro fixation. Having left more than one umbrella at an art gallery myself, I felt an immediate kinship.

As in much of Spanish culture, there’s a dark side as well, expressed in the work Miro did during the country’s civil war: exhibit A would be the 1935 work “Man and woman in front of a pile of excrement.” In the outdoor sculpture garden — which provides a splendid view of the city spread out below — the motto “La democrazia e illusione” is carved on a well. Other works have the strained pain of Picasso’s Guernica, which was exhibited at the 1937 World’s Fair in Paris along with a Calder mobile called Mercury Fountain that commemorated the town of Almaden, home of much of the world’s mercury and a target of Franco’s forces.

Miro reminded me of the work of Saul Steinberg, the New Yorker artist whose people had a similar way of sproinging along on springed feet or punctuation marks for faces. It also reminded me that it was time to eat again, so we headed off to a little sidewalk cafe near our apartment that serves lovely coffee and apple tarts that elicit, in one’s companion, noises that sound eerily like the soundtrack from Fifty Shades of Grey. Not all art is in the galleries.


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