Joan Miró, “Help Spain!” (1937), pochoir sheet folded: 31.75 x 25.4 cm. The Museum of Modern Art, New York, Gift of Pierre Matisse, 1949 (© 2012 Successió Miró/Artists Rights Society [ARS], New York/ADAGP, Paris)

For a call for help, it packs a punch: an outsized yellow fist, raised in salute, all but leaps out of the blue background of Joan Miró’s color stencil “Aidez l’Espagne” (“Help Spain,” 1937). Open-mouthed, the stylized Catalan peasant who dominates the image is an emblem of strength and energy — a rooster crowing, a poet singing. In his paintings of the 1920s and 1930s, Miró achieved an unsettling power by delving into the unconscious, creating yawning expanses suggestive of colorful abysses and symbol-laden dreamscapes strewn with biomorphic forms. But in “Aidez l’Espagne,” he opted for the direct simplicity of graphic propaganda.

I wanted it to have great visual impact. That was the important thing,” Miró said of “Aidez l’Espagne” in 1978. “I was standing up against everything I considered antiquated and vesting my hopes in something that seemed to me more human, more genuine.

On the composition’s right side, balancing the peasant’s clenched fist, is the designation “1 Fr,” a key to the origins of “Aidez l’Espagne.” Created at the request of Christian Zervos, collector and founder of the journal Cahiers d’Art, the work was conceived as a design for a French postage stamp in an effort to raise funds for the Spanish Republic, at war with Franco’s fascists. First painted in gouache, then executed as a stencil, the design was never produced as a stamp. The stencil served instead as the basis for a limited-edition poster sold at the Spanish Republican Pavilion at the 1937 International Exposition in Paris, where visitors could purchase it after viewing Picasso’s Guernica and Miró’s own monumental (and now lost) mural, The Reaper.

“Aidez l’Espagne” is a crucial work in the Miró exhibition The Ladder of Escape now at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, a show that surveys the artist’s long and prolific career through the prism of his political entanglements — a few deliberately taken up by Miró, but most foisted upon him by unavoidable circumstance.

Beneath the image in “Aidez l’Espagne” are a few handwritten lines of stirring rhetoric: “In the present struggle I see, on the Fascist side, spent forces; on the opposite side, the people, whose boundless creative will gives Spain an impetus that will astonish the world.” Not much to object to here; even the underestimation of fascism’s “spent forces” can be chalked up to riled-up partisan spirit, rare for Miró. But “1 Fr” conveys a sobering reminder that the stamp never entered circulation. What if? we might ask. What if the rallying cry “Aidez l’Espagne” had been answered by the French authorities, and they had pursued a different course of action?

In its expression of official sanction, the humble postage stamp is a sign of a people’s will, though channeled through the narrow funnel of the state. The text and images on stamps are nearly always unobjectionable because they bear the imprimatur of approved consensus, or at least the illusion of shared values. The never-manufactured stamp reminds us of what failed to happen, with “1 Fr” carrying the hint of a reproach: support for the Republican cause might have been proffered at negligible expense, given the disastrous costs of the fascists’ victory. Knowing in hindsight that the Spanish Republicans did not receive sufficient help from the outside world, we come to Miró’s design with an awareness that those who saw it in Paris in 1937 cannot have possessed.

“Self-Portrait”, (1937-8–23 February 1960), oil and pencil on canvas, 146 x 97 cm. Collection of Emilio Fernández (© 2012 Successió Miró/Artists Rights Society [ARS], New York/ADAGP, Paris; click to enlarge)

Such a reading, even if it begins to exceed Miró’s original intentions, suggests that “Aidez l’Espagne” is less a relic of activism for a doomed struggle than an invitation to imagine an alternative history, a tale of solidarity and support that, had it been realized, might have lived up to the idealism of the lines written below the image. Seeking to understand the politics of Miró’s art, as the Ladder of Escape exhibition asks us to do, we discern Miró searching for unexpected means to confront, or sometimes simply to cope with, the difficult realities of Spain during the civil war and Franco’s dictatorship.

The forthright statement made by “Aidez l’Espagne” is one such unpredictable gambit, because it comes from an artist not usually inclined to speak out so explicitly about politics. “He did not, overtly at least, subscribe, sign up, support and march,” concede the exhibition’s curators. His Guernica, in the view of the poet Jacques Dupin (a longtime friend and author of an essential monograph of the artist), is the monumental Still Life with Old Shoe (1937), a modernist reimagining of the Spanish Baroque that might plausibly be read, as Picasso’s painting never can be, in exclusively formal terms.

During the Franco years, a period of growing worldwide renown for the artist, Miró adopted an exquisitely evasive stance toward the regime while living and working in productive isolation on the island of Majorca. He refused, for example, to lend works for the Spanish submission to the Venice Biennales of 1950 and 1952 and to other international venues, and when accepting a prize in 1954 he declared (mostly but not entirely accurately), “Never ever have I presented myself at any official exhibition.” Such defiance notwithstanding, some accused Miró of quietism, even accommodation with the regime: Eduardo Arroyo’s 1967 series Miró Made Over, or The Misfortunes of Coexistence created refashioned versions of several Miró paintings in order to call him out for complicity with the repressive status quo.

Miró rightly brushed off this rebuke as naive. But such criticism also misses the mark because it refuses to acknowledge the broad scope of Miró’s politics, which is often indistinguishable from his ethos of exploration, restlessness, invention, and rebelliousness as an artist, the latter quality most famously captured in his remark “I want to assassinate painting.” And to do so by painting: Miró was always committed to keeping open varying possibilities, often in tension with each other. This is why we can speak of his art’s freedom and vitality without these words sounding like platitudes.

His resistance to being pinned down comes across in the aptly titled 1969 exhibition Miró otro (Other Miró), mounted in Barcelona by a group of young architects as a rejoinder to a more conventional retrospective that had opened the previous year. Whereas he had stayed away from the retrospective’s opening, offering the transparently lame excuse of “doctor’s orders,” Miró made a vigorous contribution to Miró otro, painting on a large temporary mural against the regime splashed across the windows of a building beneath a concrete frieze created by Picasso in 1962. Photographs from the installation show him cheerfully applying thick black brushstrokes and, when the work was dismantled (to some outcry, because many wanted the mural preserved), attentively scraping his paint from the glass.

“Burnt Canvas 4,” (December 4–31, 1973), acrylic on burnt canvas overall: 130 x 195 cm. Fundació Joan Miró, Barcelona (© 2012 Successió Miró/Artists Rights Society [ARS], New York/ADAGP, Paris)

In his latter years Miró continued to oscillate fruitfully between creation and destruction, art and anti-art, nowhere more dramatically than in his five Burnt Canvases (1973), three of which are on view in the last room of the National Gallery show. These mutilated canvases might seem to be victims of nihilist mayhem, but each was forged from a fastidious controlled burn: Miró submitted all the canvases to the same careful defacement, involving multiple stages of cutting, puncturing, burning, treading on the canvases, and painting and repainting. The arc of the process upends the more usual story of artistic creation, as the methodical technique serves to replicate rather than tame the originary violent impulse.

Miró’s notes reveal that the Burnt Canvases took inspiration from a newspaper clipping of some youthful vandalism against the Madrid Stock Exchange; he later told an interviewer that in these works he relished “the joy of being able to say merde! to people who only see art for its commercial value, who think these paintings are worth real fortunes and go around telling everyone so.” The thread of provocation in Miró’s late phase returns us to the boldness of expression put forth in “Aidez l’Espagne.” In the intervening decades the terms and stakes of the politics have changed, but Miró’s capacity for boldness and audacity remain very much in evidence. In the voids of the scorched canvases we sense the ghost of the upraised fist.

Joan Miró: The Ladder of Escape is on view at the National Gallery of Art (National Mall between 3rd and 9th Streets at Constitution Avenue NW, Washington, DC) until August 12.

James Gibbons is an associate editor at the Library of America and a frequent contributor to Bookforum.