Two greats of the art world who influenced an entire generation of artists to an extent that is hard to overestimate: What links these two exceptional artists?
Two giants whose influence on the development of painting and indeed on their audience cannot be measured in figures: On one side the New Yorker Jackson Pollock (1912-1956) and on the other Catalan-born and Mallorcan-by-choice Joan Miró (1893-1983). One affectionately known as “Jack the dripper” due to his famous painting technique, while the other professed to want to “assassinate painting”. From this “assassination” came an expansion of the concept; while they differed from each other in various ways and were both very autonomous in their work, the shattering of conventions was something they both shared. “Raw”, “original” and “powerful” are adjectives frequently applied to both Miró’s and Pollock’s works; the notion of a regression to the child-like and thus also to a great extent “unconscious” ways of painting also recurs time and again.
When Sigmund Freud, the now world-famous neurologist and founder of psychoanalysis, presented his book “The Interpretation of Dreams” on November 4, 1899, he most likely guessed how radically new the theses contained in it were, but he probably did not expect that not only modern psychology and psychiatry, but indeed a fundamental part of Western intellectual and art history would change as a result from that point onwards. The discovery of the unconscious (nowadays often mistakenly referred to as the “subconscious”) meant shock and humiliation for some, but a form of release for others.
Various artists and intellectuals studied these new theories or subsequently underwent analysis themselves – even during Freud’s lifetime psychotherapy was developed by various doctors with new aspects expanded and changed. Jackson Pollock himself consulted a doctor about psychoanalytical sessions between 1939 and 1940; his drawings and paintings became the means through which Pollock aimed to express his inner state to Dr. Henderson (which, incidentally, the doctor would publish after the artist’s death to much criticism and indignation).
Where Miró was concerned, the reception his works received was particularly influenced by psychoanalytical concepts and methods: When his grandson Joan Punyet Miró explains the images his grandfather created, words like “libido” and “death drive” crop up; around 13 years ago Annalisa Salvi completed a doctorate at Middlesex University that dealt entirely with the psychoanalytical aesthetic of Miró’s child-like (although as will be examined here, it is not child-like at all) painting style.
Whether or not Jackson Pollock and Joan Miró actually gained artistic access to their unconscious, no one of course will ever seriously be able to determine. The dilemma of the theoretical construct is that it can describe real phenomena, but can never be congruent with these. Similar as Pollock and Miró were in terms of fundamental questions and in their fascination for the power of the unconscious, both harked back to a more original form of painting, and so both worked continually on achieving this.
Stanley Meisner, who wrote an article for the “Smithsonian Magazine” on a visit he had made to Joan Miró’s studio 15 years before, figured out precisely this aspect: What appeared so easy and spontaneous in great artists was, in truth, the result of lifelong discipline. What’s more, he had no shortage of derision for clumsy psychologization: “What happens, happens within”, says Miró in the article, quoting the end of a Catalan saying, only to then quickly backtrack: “Within?” he chuckles with an affected hand gesture, “Uhh!”. Whereby he charmingly rebuffs those who always like to characterize him as an artist whose rich inner life is almost constanty revealed and accessible at all times.
Who painted it first?
In the case of Jackson Pollock and Joan Miró, the famous chicken-and-egg question is perhaps not really worth answering. This is not even simply because some ideas at very specific times appear to buzz through the artistic ether in particularly high concentration until they ultimately become physical on the canvas (in science this phenomenon is described theoretically as “multiple discovery”). Rather, primarly because in the recognition of the relevant other – to make use of psychoanalysis here once again – there is not least recognition of oneself, therefore there is no one without the other.
Jackson Pollock and Joan Miró also seem to have recognized in the work of the relevant other a form of play on their own way of working or even just a prospect of what might still be possible. Miró’s paintings like “Oiseau de feu / Firebird” or “Oiseau lune jaune / Yellow moonbird” from the early 1960s are strongly reminiscent of Pollock’s drip paintings, whilst Miró’s earlier works, on the other hand, with their colour surfaces running freely into one another (an absolute novelty at the time), provided important impulses for Jackson Pollock on the way towards complete abstraction and to entirely purpose-free painting. Before the discovery of the Surrealists, Pollock’s subjects were exclusively of an objective nature, as were those of Joan Miró, amongst others, at the time.
An eremitic existence
Another aspect the two artists have in common, however, is that they did not limit themselves to few role models and sources of ideas, but rather used virtually everything as a source of inspiration – from Japanese Indian-ink drawings and antique cave paintings on Miró’s side to the sessions of psychoanalysis that Jackson Pollock underwent. This was in contrast to the almost ermetic existence that both artists pursued for certain periods, almost as a counterpoint to the constant search for ideas, a necessary moment of collection and concentration.
Jackson Pollock enjoyed working in his summer house on Long Island, which he moved into with his wife Lee Krasner in 1945, and Joan Miró was considered very much a family man, who particularly in his later years preferred the tranquility of Mallorca to the big city and favored the exchange of letters with respected artists over continual exchange in artists’ bars. Incidentally, a few years ago Pollock’s work was actually hosted by Miró, or at least by the legacy he left to the world: In 2012 the Fundació Joan Miró in Barcelona presented “Explosion! The legacy of Jackson Pollock”, which covered not only the key works of Pollock’s oeuvre, but also his influence on an entire generation of artists, which is hard to overestimate. Simply another thing the two artists have in common.