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Joan Miró and the deep history of art

Joan Miró and Josep Llorens Artigas visit the Altamita cave in 1957

In 1957 when Joan Miró was searching for inspiration to develop the murals for the UNESCO headquarters in Paris, he visited Altamira Cave with his friend and collaborator, the celebrated ceramicist Josep Llorens Artigas. Seeing how the ancient artists had utilised the space and form of the rocks to create their masterpieces had a lasting influence on Miró’s work that went beyond the sun and moon walls completed in 1958. His subsequent preference for working off the easel on larger format works painted against a wall or on the ground, as well as his use of ochre pigments and earth tones developed from this visit. Altamira touched Miró’s own love of the Catalan landscape and engagement with the natural world, as well as his sentiment that painting is a spiritual medium expressing the mystical communion between humans, nature and God. This evocation of the conscious mind is what connects us so fundamentally with art in the age of Altamira

Miró’s understanding of cave art is seen in his two print series Els Rupestres and Grans Rupestres (1977) both created in 1977. With their vivid colours and forms reminiscent of children’s drawings and graffiti, these works express the infancy of art. This metaphorical childhood reflects the influence of ideas about the beginnings of art current among the intellectuals and artists to whom Miró was exposed during his visits to Paris in the 1930s. As published in journals such as Minotaure and Les Documents these theories were especially nourished by the surrealists. Writing in the former in 1933, Brassaï spoke of his photographs of Parisian graffiti as being universal and timeless like the art of cave walls and the drawings of children, developing an analogy between human childhood and human origins. Such views were stimulated by the writings of psychologist and philosopher Georges-Henri Luquet on both subjects and encouraged the sentiment that there was a time when humanity was in the spiritual prime of life.

Archaeologists work with excavated facts rather than metaphors and have traditionally preferred to describe even non- functional figurative and decorative works simply on the basis of their manufacture and use. Similarly, art history with its origins in the 18th century Enlightenment set classical works as the highest attainment of the civilized, literate societies and separated it from the work of savage others. Miró’s work in Rupestres confront such ideas and bring the history of art and the history of humanity back together through their metaphors of infancy and graffiti.

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