“Joan Miró: The Ladder of Escape” is at the National Gallery of Art through August 12. The conceit of the exhibit is that Miró was no sequestered surrealist but an artist readily engaged with politics and society—“an artist of his times,” as a wall caption puts it. Visitors reading that caption might well wonder how Miró could be anything but of his “times,” for they surely were interesting ones.

As a young man he moved in 1920 from his home in Catalonia to a Paris staggering in the fumes of World War I. The Spanish Civil War forced him to stay away from Spain, and World War II forced him to return to it; he lived for decades under Franco’s rule. Were Miró’s art unaffected by the seismic world events he experienced so directly, it would have been astonishing.

Indeed, he acknowledged as much. In 1962 an interviewer posited that some of Miró’s paintings have “a kind of brutality and violence” to them, to which the artist responded that those paintings “mark the beginning of the cruel and difficult years the world lived through.” Miró called them his “savage paintings”—they were formed, he said, from his feelings about fleeing his country’s civil war.

So yes: There is absolutely political comment in the art on display in “The Ladder of Escape.” On the whole, though, there is relatively little of it, and probably not enough on which to base an exhibition (not that this or any showing of Miró’s work requires a “base”). Perhaps Miró was just temperamentally ill-suited for canvas pamphleteering. Despite his expressed desire to “assassinate painting,” he was never a doctrinaire surrealist, no pure revolutionary. What he really wanted, in the end, was to change painting—and that, of course, he did.

Liam Julian is managing editor ofPolicy Review.

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