The symbolic vocabulary of color has many different languages. These languages allow the voyeur to understand their experience of art and the world within a variety of contexts. Color is a vocabulary of communication as well as a process of creating. It can be understood through techniques of degree but also articulated as modes of emotion in the lexicon of psychology. The relationship between color and symbol is particularly strong in the work of Joan Miró.
The question of how to interpret art, literature, music, politics, and basically everything is one that has been postulated, revised, and argued for millennia. Strategies focusing on form, content, source, and context are all relevant and successful methods for extrapolating meaning from experience and creation. There is an interpretation that happens on a personal level and works within the context of an individual’s unique world of perspective, and then there is an interpretation that is formulated in an aesthetic vocabulary that interacts with critical conversations taking place within a larger community. Though different in their origin, both personal and critical processes begin from a point of engaged response. The piece of art must create a unique experience. How this experience is interpreted within a given context becomes the grand debate.
The discussion of art on a personal level is directly connected to the therapeutic arts and may often be a guided strategy. The inner world of the individual is projected onto an external object to reveal metaphors that are challenging the development or health of the psyche. Once externalized the collective symbology of the art may be researched, concretizing internal abstract concepts into a visual vocabulary. While this description is brief and reduction, the process is intended to be organic and address both personal experiences and archetypal dynamics. Symbols contain both personal and collective meaning or relevance.
In contrast, a critical or aesthetic discussion of art focuses on an understanding of that those participating in the conversation have an understanding of what has been said in the past, how it has been said, and why it was or is no longer relevant. Critical interpretation accesses jargon specific to the medium, within the realms of both technique and content. The symbolism that is found in archetypes, geometry, color, and numerology all play a role within formal interpretations. In his book, Criticizing Art: Understanding the Contemporary, Terry Bennett summarizes the principles of interpretation. These principles are listed below, however central to the action of interpretation is that the piece of art demands an interpretation and that feelings are the guide. Whether the feelings are understood as a collective or personal analytical process depends on the forum.
This relationship between feeling, interpretation, and symbolism is particularly visible in the art of Catalan artist Joan Miró. Born in 1893 Barcelona, Miró was a part of the surrealist and Spanish Civil War Parisian ex-patriot communities. However, while his work has often been interpreted as Surrealism, he resisted being defined as a Surrealist artist. His objective was to “assassinate art” or to break from the historical interpretation of what art is, or should be. Being labeled as a Surrealist would work would limit his ability to explore new territory, methods, and forms of expression.
While Miró resists categorical interpretation, throughout his work he asks questions. These questions take the form of color and technique and meditate on what the symbol has to say within a set amount of space. Specifically, Miró worked with strategies such as automatic drawing (where the hand is allowed to move freely as an extension of the unconscious), Surrealism (which philosophically strove to reveal authentic thought through juxtaposing unexpected symbols and forms), Expressionism (which applies emotional subjectivity to evoke moods or ideas), and Color Field Painting (that meditated on combinations, and or fields of color symbology). While each of these methods is accompanied and motivated by methods of critical thought, Miró’s resistance to one mode of exposition is consistent.
Which leads us to ask, just how does Miró want his body of art to be understood?
If we take away interpretation, what is left? Experience. What is the experience of viewing Miró’s art? Does this experience change? How can this experience remain active? How does one assassinate this historical concept of art? By striving to avoid classification, and by engaging the imagination.
For example, what is the experience of viewing his 1978 painting “Personnage Etoile”? In English, the title is translated as Star Person, or Star Character. On an abstract textured field of bright sky blue, minimalistic symbols work together and disjointedly to engage the imagination. Circle, star, curve, red, yellow, what is the message? Is the blue the color of the Madonna? Does it relate to Haitian Santeria, or is it inspired by the expansive Mediterranean beyond the walls of Miró’s studio? In his theory of Deconstruction, Derrida argues that the experience of deconstruction is as if, while following the inward curve of a fixed point toward a center, we suddenly find that the center has moved elsewhere. The spiral is destabilized and the interpretation is disoriented. Likewise, the experience of Miró’s “Personnage Etoile” provides just enough information to stimulate the process of interpretation, but the same stimulation resists conclusions and continues to evoke questions.
Through the interpretive resistance of Miró’s artwork we are better able to witness our own processes of interpretation for what they are, reflections and projections of who we are—internally and as a community. And what we find is that who we are is just as unresolved as the image that we meditate upon.
Barrett’s Principles of Interpretation:
- Artworks have “aboutness” and demand interpretation.
- Interpretations are persuasive arguments.
- Some interpretations are better than others.
- Good interpretations of art tell about the critic.
- Feelings are guides to interpretations.
- There can be different, competing, and contradictory interpretations of the same work.
- Interpretations are often based on a worldview.
- Interpretations are not so much absolutely right, but more or less reasonable, convincing, enlightening, and informative.
- Interpretations can be judged by coherence, correspondence, and inclusiveness.
- An artwork is not necessarily about what the artist wanted it to be about.
- A critic ought not to be the spokesperson for the artist.
- Interpretations ought to present the work in its best rather than its weakest light.
- The objects of interpretation are artworks, not artists.
- All art is in part about the world in which it emerged.
- All art is in part about other art.
- No single interpretation is exhaustive of the meaning of an artwork.
- The meanings of an artwork may be different from its significance to the viewer.
- Interpretation is ultimately a communal endeavor, and the community is ultimately self-corrective.
- Good interpretations invite us to see for ourselves and to continue on our own.
Barrett, T. (1994). Criticizing Art: Understanding the Contemporary. Mountain View, California: Mayfield Publishing Company