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Artist Miro, Once Rejected by His Hometown, Is Now Its Favorite Son and Marketing Draw

CATALONIA this year is celebrating Joan Miro as an example of what people here like to call the "Catalan genius." But the artist was not a man always in love with - or loved by - his home.

In 1918, at what was the first major exhibit in Barcelona of the then-young artist's work, detractors stormed the gallery and slashed a number of his paintings.

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A few years later, as he prepared to leave his native Catalonia to join the circle of avant-garde artists and poets in Paris, he wrote, "I like a thousand times more ... to be absolutely a failure, a mortal failure in Paris, than to ply the stinking waters of Barcelona."

This year is the centenary of the birth of the Catalan painter and sculptor whose contribution to 20th-century art was artwork based on what he saw through his mind's eye. Mirs use of primary colors encased in black, his signature spider-like stars, vivid suns, and stripped-down figures now say "Spain" even to those who may not know his works.

But even as Catalonia celebrates an extravagant "Miro Year" in homage to one of its most prolific sons, the contradictions of the relationship between the artist and his native land are apparent.

At the huge exhibition at Barcelona's Joan Miro Foundation that is the flagship of a fleet of Miro exhibits, most of the artist's prized works are on loan from outside Catalonia and Spain - a sign that others appreciated him before his own. After the exhibition's run through Aug. 30, another huge retrospective opens in October at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which sent 22 Miro works to Barcelona.

At the same time, visitors to the main exhibition learn that, despite Mirs ambivalence toward his home, he called the small Catalan village of Mont-roig where he spent many summers "my religion."

"He would say that one must remain firmly attached to his land to become universal," says Rosa Maria Malet, the Miro Foundation's director and exhibition organizer. "You can see what he meant in his constant use of the basic elements of his Mediterranean world: the sun, the moon, fire, the land, fertility, the Catalan peasant. They were his roots," she adds, "but they have a universality."

Noting that the Barcelona mentality of Mirs youth was "a little closed," Ms. Malet says, "If he had remained fixed on a folkloric Catalan landscape his work risked becoming a caricature. He needed the separation," she adds, "to establish his sense of universality."

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The sheer size of Barcelona's "Miro Year" - the Catalan government published a 200-page hard-bound guide of countless exhibits, poetry readings, and musical performances celebrating the centenary - seems ample evidence that the Catalan capital has reconciled with its famous native son. Parks hold his fanciful sculptures, the airport boasts one of his famed ceramic murals, and IBM Spain's Barcelona headquarters, which has housed another of the murals since 1977, is opening its doors to the public this sum mer so another local example of the artist's work can be enjoyed by all.

Mirs integration into the Catalan fabric can be seen in corporate and advertising symbols that are either Miro creations or inspired by his iconography. Catalonia's Caixa Bank's symbol and the Spanish tourism board's "Espana" logo are two examples. "Advertisers have come to understand what children have long recognized, that the simplicity and color of Mirs work communicate directly and rapidly," Malet says. But what would Miro have thought of becoming a vehicle of civic renewal?

"If you realize that the artist's interest is to communicate with others, then I think he would see all this as a success," says Malet, who came to know Miro before his death in 1983. "There is the risk of going too far and deforming the work, but I think he would have found the spotlight positive."

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