Joan Miro, who died almost 30 years ago, is one of the great European painters of the twentieth century.  The Spanish artist is most famous for his whimsical abstractions.  But less known is that some of his work was a reaction to the Spanish Civil War, World War II and General Francisco Franco's 36-year rule that ended in 1975.  Now, a large exhibit of Miro's work is at Washington's National Gallery of Art.

But for the first time, a museum in the United States is showing what's less known about Miro, that many of his paintings were a response to history - especially Spain's Civil War and the long rule of General Francisco Franco.   

Miro was born in the Catalan city of Barcelona in 1893. He spent summers on the family farm. One of his early masterpieces is called The Farm.

"There are some artists who really are in the pantheon and Miro is one of them, and there are some works that are in the pantheon of his art and this is one of them," explained Curator Harry Cooper.

Cooper adds that the painting was originally owned by the author Ernest Hemingway. The writer's widow donated it to the National Gallery.

The exhibit is organized chronologically to show the artist's evolution into abstraction starting in the 1920s.

"It's a whole series of paintings he is doing of the Catalan peasants, just at a time when the Spanish government is saying to Catalonia, 'You cannot be so independent anymore, don't use your own language, don't use your own flag,'" Cooper noted.

In 1936, Spain plunged into civil war. Miro moved to France, and his work turned dark.

As World War II loomed, he returned to Spain, now under Franco.  These small paintings known as Constellations are seen as expressing his need to escape.  

"With these constellations, this really makes his name in America, because shortly after he made them he managed to send them in a diplomatic pouch to America where they were shown in New York in a private gallery," Cooper explained.

A series done in 1940 called The Ladder of Escape became the name of this exhibit.   

"I think it has to do with this double movement of climbing up the ladder into rooms of imagination and fantasy and then he climbs down the ladder to become politically engaged at various times," Cooper said.

Miro's work remained dark.  Àlex Susanna is deputy director of the Institute Ramon Llull, which promotes Catalan language and culture.

"The first years of the dictatorship of Franco were really very hard because Catalan language and Catalan culture were completely forbidden, and I can suspect that for Miro that was showing the kind of deep darkness that was falling into that defeated society," Susanna noted.

The exhibit ends with the Burnt Canvas, done shortly before Franco's death, a sober close to a different take on Miro.