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Ever the contrarian, the Catalan painter Joan Miró rebelled by turning to the old masters. And not just any old masters: he started with the homely genre scenes of Jan Steen and Hendrick Sorgh, with their stock characters of misbehaving maids, soused guests and impish children. In the Metropolitan Museum’s “Miró: The Dutch Interiors,” these presences become floating, Surrealist apparitions unmoored and ambiguous but still mischievous.
This intimate exhibition, which comes to the Met from the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, zeros in on a fraught time in Miró’s career: 1928. His third solo gallery show in Paris that winter had been a hit, winning him a strong collector base and accolades from André Breton. But Miró, characteristically, was alarmed.
“I understood the dangers of success and felt that, rather than dully exploiting it, I must launch into new ventures,” he wrote later that year. “I feel a great desire to put off those who believe in me.”
So when his friend the artist Jean Arp (also known as Hans) had an opening in Brussels, Miró took the occasion to visit the Netherlands for the first time. He went to the Mauritshuis, in the Hague, and the Rijksmuseum. There, as he later wrote, he was “seduced by the ability of the Dutch painters to make dots as tiny as grains of dust visible and to concentrate attention on a tiny spark in the middle of obscurity.”
Yet he gravitated not to the pearl earrings and pregnant stillnesses of the Vermeers, but to the raucous, disorderly genre scenes of Sorgh and Steen. He particularly admired Sorgh’s “Lute Player” and Steen’s “Children Teaching a Cat to Dance,” and returned home with postcards of both works.
In the Sorgh, a seated man and a woman exchange meaningful glances during a strenuous music-making session. In the Steen, four unruly children stand a yowling cat on its hind legs as a yapping spaniel looks on. (We might interpret the action as animal cruelty, but Steen’s contemporaries would have perceived the scene’s combination of beasts, pipes and dancing as sexual innuendo.)
Back in Spain, at his family’s farm near Barcelona, Miró decided to make his own versions of the Sorgh and Steen (“Dutch Interior I” and “Dutch Interior II”). He also made a third (“Dutch Interior III”) that appears to combine elements from several Dutch paintings. All three are on view, along with the old master works that inspired them.
Also in the Met show are some of Miró’s small pencil drawings, along with the postcards he had pinned to his easel. From all of these he synthesized a larger, final study, in charcoal and pencil, for each “Dutch Interior.”
The drawings show how swiftly and strategically Miró arrived at the large elements of his composition: the Humpty Dumpty-like lute player in the first painting, or the amoebalike child’s profile in the second. Some shapes, like the musical instruments, make the transition more or less intact; others undergo an unnerving “mirómorphosis,” to borrow the apt term of the Rijksmuseum essayists Panda de Haan and Ludo Van Halem.
Miró transposed some of Steen and Sorgh’s figures and, perhaps looking out at the farm, introduced new ones: a bat, a spider, a frog, a fish, a swan. (You can compare his versions with the originals in two diagrams, which the museum helpfully provides.)
Each of his paintings has its own personality, one that doesn’t have much to do with its source. His “Dutch Interior I” is a giddy fantasia in green and orange, with the lute player as a kind of Pied Piper to various birds and beasts. The woman from Sorgh’s painting has vanished, and with her all suggestions of intimacy.
“Dutch Interior II” is a little bit looser; its hovering, genielike blobs show the influence of Miró’s friend Arp, and possibly that of Calder, whose “Circus” performances he had recently seen in Paris.
By “Dutch Interior III” Miró was getting too comfortable, and he knew it; in this painting you can see him resisting the temptation to settle into Sorgh and Steen’s cozy spaces, which by then he knew intimately. This canvas is significantly larger than the others, with an arresting background of subtly differentiated yellows. The shapes are harder to read too, without the facial expressions and architectural planes that anchor the earlier works.
Miró called this canvas a “résumé” of the other paintings in the series; the Rijksmuseum seems to agree. But the Met show’s curator, Gary Tinterow, has a more persuasive interpretation. He’s placed “Dutch Interior III” (which the Met owns) in close proximity to another work by Steen, “Woman at Her Toilet,” from the Rijksmuseum’s collection.
The correspondence is striking. Miró appears to have taken note of the red stockings of Steen’s woman (probably a prostitute), as well as the clogs on the carpet and the dog curled up on the bed. The Steen was in a Swiss private collection at the time, but Miró probably saw a reproduction.
Bookending the “Interiors” are four canvases from Miró’s 1928 Paris show and two portraits of women that also date from his stay on the farm. Together, they tell you just how much he got out of his weeklong trip to the Netherlands. Suddenly, the artist who had declared painting his mortal enemy was poring over the old masters.
Was it all part of his scheme to “assassinate painting”? If so, this show suggests, then Miró briefly fell in love with his target. Certainly the moral finger wagging of the Dutch scenes wouldn’t have been of much interest to a Surrealist. But the connections between the figures, the codes and cues and gestures that could be subtle (in Sorgh) or flagrant (in Steen) left a strong impression. So, one imagines, did the paintings’ down-to-earth, everyday subject matter.
Miró being Miró, though, he pulled the trigger after just three paintings.
“When I finish a work, I see in it the starting point for another work,” he wrote. “But nothing more than a starting point to go in a diametrically opposite direction.”