One of the best exhibits I have ever seen was at the Metropolitan Museum of Art: Mirό: The Dutch Interiors Exhibition. Joan Mirό was a Spanish surrealist painter known for his collages and whimsical style. The exhibition linked a May 1928 visit by Mirό to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam to four of his early works. While in Amsterdam, he viewed works by Dutch Golden Age painters such as Hendrick Martensz Sorgh and Jan Steen, whose works we also viewed at the Met. The exhibition put Mirό’s works in context by showing the post cards that his paintings were based on, his preliminary sketches, the two original works that provided the basis for the paintings, and side-by-side comparisons that illustrate how Mirό reinterpreted these works.
The exhibition was curated by the Rijksmuseum which provides the following background:
In May 1928, Miró travelled from Paris to the Netherlands and included the Rijksmuseum in his itinerary. He also took two home two postcards, which were colour reproductions of paintings from the Rijksmuseum collection: The lute player by Hendrick Martensz Sorgh (1661) and Children teaching a cat to dance better known as The dancing lesson by Jan Havicksz Steen (c. 1660-1679). Both paintings feature a musician, surrounded by one or more listeners, a cat and a dog. In the Dutch interiors, the scenes undergo a complete metamorphosis, as Miró captures these figures in his own surreal fantasy world.
In summer 1928, during a visit to his studio on the family farm Montroig in Catalonia, Miró drew inspiration from these two picture postcards, creating the three paintings later entitled Dutch interiors. Rather than working spontaneously as he usually did, he prepared an extensive series of sketches and drawings. The paintings are currently part of the collections of the Museum of Modern Art (New York), the Peggy Guggenheim Collection (Venice) and the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York). The postcards, sketches and drawings were donated by Miró to the Museum of Modern Art and the Fundació Joan Miró (Barcelona) in the seventies. This study material offers a unique insight into how Miró transformed the original 17th-century works.
By working in this way, Miró subscribed to a long tradition of ‘creative copying’, whereby artists reinterpreted the masterworks of predecessors, using them as a source of inspiration for new artworks.
It is interesting to see how Mirό transformed Sorgh’s The Lute Player into Dutch Interior (I) and Steen’s The Dancing Lesson into Dutch Interior (II). The bored woman in Sorgh’s painting has been minimized, probably because she was not dynamic enough. He also chose to emphasize the earthy elements in the paintings. For example, the dog in Dutch Interior (II) has visible genitalia and an anus, and appears to be going to the bathroom, something that dogs often do at inappropriate times. The dog in the original Steen painting looks too friendly and eager to please to do such a bad thing.
Although there were only four Mirό paintings on display in this exhibition, I learned more about these paintings and the artist who created them than I learned from other exhibitions showing numerous works of a particular artist.