At first glance Joan Miró’s painting from 1924, “The Hunter, Catalan Landscape”, looks like a doodle. Imagine it in biro rather than oil paints, and it’s something you might have scribbled during a particularly boring meeting. More than that, it is what people scrawl when they can’t draw: a stick-man, wobbly waves and V-shaped birds, surrounded by blobs, geometric shapes, a bit of lettering. Miró paints these things better than we might, but it remains a doodly mess.
But there is method – a story of sorts – in his mess. Miró helpfully drew up an explanatory list of all 58 items in his picture. Gallery blurbs will tell you that they include the hunter (the stick-man), with his rifle (black cone), heading off to cook his rabbit (red-and-yellow whiskered creature), on his grill (squiggly thing with the little flame on the right-hand side). That lettering – sard – at the bottom is for “sardine”, because there’s a sardine skeleton there too, which the hunter has just eaten. And that blob with an eyeball is a carob tree, naturally.
This analysis shouldn’t distract from the fact that this painting is about the fun of mess and childishness. Look on the left and you will see element no.28: that little brown-black coil. It is a turd. Its appearance is unexpected – we tend to assume art will be serious. But it is an in-joke from Miró, a Catalan painter working mostly for snooty French buyers. Educated art-lovers don’t expect to pay good money to see literal crap, so most will miss it, but it would catch the eye of any Catalan peasant. In Catalonia, nothing is so serious or sacred that it can avoid contact with the human bowel. Nativity scenes traditionally include a figure called “El Caganer”, or “The Crapper”, squatting and straining while the Son of God lies fresh in his manger.
Most importantly, though, there is loveliness in all this playful doodling. Look again, and you see how carefully the “mess” of it all is done, how neatly and beautifully the colours and shapes fit and float together. This is what you get when you take silliness seriously.•
More Miró: highlights from “JOAN MIRÓ: BIRTH OF THE WORLD” at MoMA
Joan Miró: Birth of the World is on at the Museum of Modern Art in New York until July 6th