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Joan Miro (1893 – 1983) is one of the most important artists of the 20th century and a key figure in the Surrealist movement. Theatre of Dreams is a sensitive profile of the great artist, written and narrated by his long-time friend Roland Penrose, and directed by Robin Lough. The film was made in 1978 for BBC Television and contains footage of the sprightly 85-year-old Miro in his studio in Majorca. Roland Penrose, himself a respected English artist, identifies Miro as the last of the great surrealists. His generation was that of Picasso, Dali and André Breton – those who made their names in the artistic ferment of Paris in the 1910s and 20s.
Penrose finds Miro working with a company of actors in the rehearsals for a new piece of experimental theatre, La Claca. The play centres on the theme of tyranny, which resonates particularly with the history of Spain and the life of the artist. The actors are in costumes that might have come straight from a Miro painting, with the performance taking inspiration from the street theatre and music of his native Catalonia. At the end of the film the work is performed in the Barcelona Lyceum to a rapturous response, confirming Miro as the “grand old manâ” of Spanish contemporary art.
The documentary touches on many of Miro’s most important works, beginning with The Farm from 1921. In this painting Penrose identifies several of the prevalent symbols in his friend’s work: the ladder, women, birds, the sun dominating a clear blue sky. The farm itself was owned by Miro’s father and is where he was packed off to as a depressed young man, after being told he should go in to business rather than art. The film goes on to explore Miro’s innovative use of scale in his paintings, notably The Farmer’s Wife (1924), as well as the importance of the unconscious and dream imagery. This concern with the subconscious, and invocation of magic, lead to comparisons with cave painting and an age when, according to Penrose, to be a painter was not to be a “slave to representation”.
The 1930s see a darkening in his work, which can be linked explicitly to the deteriorating situation in Spain and the rise of the far right across Europe. Miro was staunchly anti-Fascist but, as his father was a landowner, he still found himself at risk from some of the Anarchist Republicans and felt compelled to return to Paris during the civil war. It was here in 1937 that his The Reaper was exhibited alongside Picasso’s iconic Guernica. Miro returned to Franco’s Spain only after the war was over, but just as World War II was beginning. His sense that we live in a “monstrous age” continues to the time of filming. ‘I am by nature tragic,’ he says, ‘and if there’s humour in my work it’s involuntary’.
The footage of Joan Miro, fingers splattered with paint, in conversation with Penrose, is a fascinating glimpse of the mind of one of the greatest 20th century artists.