Cumbersome prose mars study of Miro

December 26, 1993|By Daniel Grant

Title: "The Roots of Miro"

Author: Pere Gimferrer, translated from the Spanish by Elaine Fradley

Publisher: Rizzoli

Length, price: 440 pages (285 color illustrations, 276 black-and-white illustrations), $150 Sketches in pencil, chalk or pastel, drawings in watercolor or crayon, are sometimes complete and satisfying works of art in themselves. Other times they are used by an artist to work out compositional and tonal problems in a major piece, such as an oil painting.

The sketches of Joan Miro (1893-1983) had that latter purpose. Most of the 4,556 drawings and preliminary sketches examined by Pere Gimferrer, a Spanish poet and essayist on such surrealist painters as Max Ernst and Rene Magritte, are primarily of interest in relation to the final painting.

Considering those paintings and the importance of Miro in 20th century art, however, these preliminary drawings are of no small consequence, as they reveal what the artist was thinking as his work progressed in stages.

In every instance, Miro made a large jump from the very hurried-looking sketches to the slower medium of oil paint on canvas. The artist was clearly more at home with paint, in his mature work, than with pencils and chalk.

While many of his biomorphic shapes look like they were drawn on top of an abstract painting, as though these figures were performing in front of a multicolored curtain, it is the vivid quality of the solid colors within those shapes that catches one's eye. Colored pencils just don't come close in intensity.

Miro did scrupulously work out on paper where everything should go in a given painting, and he apparently made numerous preliminary sketches for many of them. In a number of instances, the artist drew more than he finally would paint, simplifying the image as he moved to the canvas. Mr. Gimferrer diligently has tracked down what drawings in which order were made for major paintings.

Unfortunately, Elaine Fradley's translation of Mr. Gimferrer's prose often makes the reading slow going. Perhaps she relied too heavily on a dictionary and too little on how English-speaking readers regularly talk. Words like "concretion," "hypertrophied," "indifferentiation" and "rectification" as well as coinages, such as "plurimember," "reinterpretational," "monumentalistic," "imaginistic" and "materialisation," are jarring regardless of how often they are used (and they are used often).

Perhaps Mr. Gimferrer's own prose is naturally opaque and long-winded. Make sense of this:

"So, the evolution of the theme of The Family is that of a microcosm which reflects the process of purification and expressive simplification which characterizes Miro's trajectory, an example of which is also given by the transit from the realistic sketch of the head of a farm worker with his traditional cap to the bare axial scheme of the subject Head of Catalan Peasant which we saw before -- from the form to the idea of the form -- diversified in both sketches to two of the pictorial versions of this theme."

For a book selling at $150 a pop, Rizzoli should have at least hired an editor.

For those who want to see the finished paintings without the cumbersome prose, a retrospective of Miro's art is on display at the Museum of Modern Art in New York through Jan. 11.

Mr. Grant writes frequently about art. He lives in Amherst, Mass.

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