Born in Barcelona in 1893 to a family of craftsmen and tradesmen, Joan Miró’s unusual personality developed from early childhood. Attracted very early on by drawing, he entered the School of Fine Arts at La Llotja in 1907 while also taking courses at a business school to keep his father happy. The suffering he underwent during two years working as a clerk in a large company made him fall seriously ill and turned him completely against business. His parents sent him to the family home in Montroig, a village in Catalonia that lies between the sea and the mountains. There he quickly recovered and obtained their agreement that he could devote himself to art despite the little proficiency he showed in his school work:
“I was phenomenally clumsy. As for form, I was hopeless. I couldn’t tell a straight line from a curve”.
Despite Miró’s undemonstrative nature, his teachers, who were open to popular, modern and contemporary art and art with a spiritual dimension, had confidence in him, like Francesc Galí, who told Miró’s concerned father, “Your son will be a great artist”. This teacher had the intuition to encourage Miró to draw using his sense of touch as a basis, so that he would acquire “a ‘living’ sense of form”, and this practice became decisive for the development of both Miró’s painting and sculpture.
His use of the real world as the basis for his art, a need that would last all his life despite the abstract appearance of his works, was primarily anchored in his Catalan roots, as became fully apparent to him during his convalescence in Montroig: life there was of a hale and active people, fully egalitarian, independent, pragmatic and open-minded, who worked on rough land bathed by the Mediterranean light:
“The Catalan character […] is very down-to-earth. We Catalans believe that you have to have your feet firmly on the ground if you want to jump into the air” (1948).
Montroig remained a refuge for Miró all his life, far from the hubbub of the cities and social obligations that he found difficult to deal with, and each summer he returned there to be in contact with nature, solitude and silence where he could draw new inspiration to nurture his work. Like a countryman or craftsman, Miró worked laboriously and scrupulously to tame his wild imagination, going so far as to keep his studio clean and well organized and to dress perfectly even during periods of shortages. However, his natural reserve and modesty never stopped him from putting himself forward when friendship and solidarity demanded.
In addition, the ancient art of Catalonia impressed itself on Miró throughout his career:
“At the age of eight or ten, I used to go to the museum of Romanesque art at Montjuic where I was quite astonished. There were also Romanesque frescoes from Catalonia, and a room with prints of the wall decorations from prehistoric caves. I have never forgotten them”.
Immersed in the literary and artistic tumult of Barcelona that had its eyes on the avant-garde movements in Paris, Miró was immensely impressed when he saw the second-generation Cubist works exhibited in 1912 at the Dalmau gallery, long before he saw the retrospective of French art from Daumier to Matisse and Bonnard presented by Vollard in 1917. It was this that decided him to form a group with his friends:
“I think that within our ‘school’ there is the basis for what will become the painting of the future, stripped of all pictorial issues and imbued with the harmonious vibration of the Spirit […]. I believe that after the great French Impressionist movement – a hymn to life and optimism – and after the Post-Impressionist movement, the courage of the Symbolists, the synthetism of the Fauves and dissection of the Cubists and Futurists, after all that, art will reach a state of freedom and all focus will be placed on the vibration of the creative spirit. This modern movement of analysis will take the spirit to a state of luminous freedom” (1917).
Many of Miró’s works from this period reveal the influence of Cézanne, Cubism, Van Gogh, Matisse and in particular the Fauves, but his most original pieces are a number of landscapes painted around the four villages in the region of Montroig:
“The solitary life in Siurana, the primitive qualities of these admirable people, my highly intense work and above all my spiritual meditation and the chance to live in a world created by my spirit and soul, removed from all reality, like Dante, […]. I enclosed myself in myself and […] I drew near to everything that has a Spirit: the Trees, the Mountains and Friendship” (1917).
In mystical communion with the land, Miró produced the foundations of his art, which he investigated and developed as from 1916: “a vision of forms, rhythms and colours, all my spirit requires to be formed and nourished so that my artistic language becomes more powerful. And above all so that we do not lack holy Restiveness. It is by means of this that man makes progress” (1916).
Although the houses in his paintings have a particular realism, the elements in the surrounding landscape are characterized by a geometrical lyricism, formed by chevrons, curves and ovals in autonomous, saturated and clashing colours that together generate a powerful plastic rhythm.
The exhibition of his works at Dalmau’s in early 1918 stimulated him to question his art, which he materialized at Montroig the following summer:
“When working on a landscape, I begin by liking it with a fondness that is the outcome of slow comprehension, the slow comprehension of the great and concentrated wealth of shades generated by the sunshine. The feeling of happiness in the countryside when I reach the understanding of a blade of grass – why look on it with condescension? – a blade of grass as beautiful as a tree or a mountain. With the exception of the Primitives and the Japanese, nobody has really ever considered this divine thing. We only search out and paint the great masses of trees and mountains, without lending our ear to the music given off by minuscule flowers, blades of grass and tiny pebbles from the ravine” (1918).
“What interests me above all is the calligraphy of a tree or the tiles on a roof, leaf by leaf, branch by branch, blade by blade…” (1918).
Inspired by Franciscan thought and Far Eastern art, Miró adopted a miniaturist style and the personal script of naïf art (in the spirit of Douanier Rousseau, whom he admired). Whereas the repetition of details – which he took from the Primitives – produced freedom from unrealistic rhythms, the unity of his compositions was the outcome of an inner and ecstatic vision of reality.
During a stay in Paris in spring 1920, he struck up a solid friendship with Picasso, visited the Louvre and the Luxembourg Garden, and took an interest in all the latest works of literature and art. In the wake of the poets Apollinaire and Reverdy, the Dada movement – which Miró came to know in 1917 through Picabia, whose sense of humour he liked – violently scourged the hypocrisy of society that had made it possible for the butchery of the Great War to occur and rebelled against art as an expression of idealism. Strongly appreciative of this wish to sweep everything away and start anew, Miró was present at the Dada festival in the Salle Gaveau but the shock of the event was too great for him to be able to easily restart work.
On his return to Spain, he focused on still-lifes made during the summer in which he combined realist precision with a decorative form of Cubism realized with clashing colours. But novelty appeared in a Large Standing Nude painted against a geometric ground with vigorous and extreme stylization that heralded future developments, such as the knee and breasts which were independent elements.
Miró decided to leave Barcelona for Paris where “you have to involve yourself in the struggle and not just go to be a spectator” so as to “become an international Catalan”. He left in March 1921 hoping that he would soon be in a position not to depend on the money sent to him by his parents and selling all his paintings to Dalmau for a thousand pesetas plus an exhibition in Paris. The latter, however, turned out to be a disaster.
Ensconced in Montroig during the summer, he began on The Farm, a masterpiece and the distillation of his détailliste period which, by means of the restrained geometric but strongly individualized stylization of each element (influenced by Cubism and Romanesque art), contains the longing for an imminent transmutation of reality. Indeed, in 1922-23 realistic representation posed a problem to Miró due to the narrowness of the possibilities it offered: beyond the almost abstract essentiality of his still-lifes, the disproportionate enlargement of the feet of the The Farmer’s Wife, worthy of a child’s painting, opened the way to the unreal.
In Paris Miró lived in poverty – “I could only afford one lunch each week” – but, thanks to the Catalan sculptor Gargallo, who offered him the use of his studio in winter, he was able to live at 45 Rue Blomet, which was a crucible of new ideas revolving around André Masson and his painter and poet friends Yves Tanguy, Jacques Prévert and Raymond Queneau, among others. This was the period of gestation of Surrealism, which would emerge officially with André Breton’s manifesto presented in 1924. Their practice of the methodical exploration of imagination offered the young Miró a way to overcome the blockage he had arrived at that meant he ended up destroying many of his works.
“Surrealism opened a universe to me that justified and soothed my torment. […] A silent revolt was taking place in me. Surrealism allowed me to go much further than just plastic research, it led me to the heart of poetry and joy…” (1968).
Revealed to him by Masson, the painting of the German Swiss artist Paul Klee, which was very advanced in this field, seems to have played a decisive role:
“Klee made me feel that there was something else, in any form of expression in the plastic arts, besides painting for painting’s sake; that it was necessary to go beyond that to reach zones that are more moving and profound”.
This marked the start of six years in Paris that were rich and varied:
“Rue Blomet was a place, a moment that was decisive for me. It was there that I discovered everything that I am, everything that I was to become”.
“Rue Blomet was above all friendship, exchange and exalted discovery through a group of marvellous friends. The usual people at these meetings in Masson’s studio were above all Michel Leiris, who has remained my best friend, and Roland Tual, Georges Limbour and Armand Salacrou. We talked and drank lots. […] They generally arrived on the Metro on the famous Nord-Sud line that connected the Surrealists of Montmartre with the stragglers on the Left Bank”.
He continued to spend summers in Montroig where he could draw on nature and peace to recharge his imagination:
“When I am not working, I lead the life of a savage. Almost naked, I do my gymnastics and I run like a devil in the heat of the sun and I skip. In the evening, when I finish working, I swim in the sea […]. Each day I become more demanding of myself, to the point that I make myself redo a painting if one of the corners is a millimetre too much to the right or left. In the room I use as a studio, I always have books that I read during breaks from my work. That demands a continuous spiritual vibration” (1922).
Enclosed in the intimacy of Montroig, following the long maturation of the novelties he encountered in Paris which he treated with increasingly imperious discipline, in summer 1923 the mutation suddenly occurred that led to Miró’s discovery of the plastic language he would use in the creation of a unique poetic and personal world. It was a world that he would continue to enrich in the decades that followed in an atmosphere in which doubt did battle with his countryman’s determination:
“I have managed to escape into absolute nature, and my landscapes have nothing in common anymore with outside reality. Nevertheless they are more ‘Montroig’ than if they had been done from nature. I always work in my house and only keep nature as a reference […]. I know that I follow a dangerous path and confess that often panic takes hold of me, the panic of a traveller who is walking on unexplored byways; I react thanks to the discipline and strictness that I impose on my work and then I am once again caught up by the confidence and optimism that drive my work” (1923).
“Monstrous animals and angelic animals. Trees with ears and eyes and a peasant in a barretina [a traditional peasant cap] with a rifle, smoking a pipe. All pictorial problems resolved. We need to explore all the golden sparks of our soul. What an extraordinary thing! The Acts of the Apostles and Brueghel […]” (1923).
This is his description of The Tilled Field, a first dip into his imaginary version of nature, in which reality becomes a poetical metaphor through the metamorphosis of living beings, and objects reduced to finely drawn schematized figures painted in flat tints. Scorning scale and proportions, they seem to float in an open and almost monochrome space where perspective plays no role but are separated by a fine horizon (which would continue to symbolize terrestrial space in his work) and laid out with great precision.
The combination of this alchemical process and his personal universe immediately resulted in an atmosphere of lightness and humour. In Catalan Landscape (1923-24) the tree is reduced to a circle with a leaf attached and the farmer to just his attributes – a beard, moustache, pipe and barretina. The theme of the woman, who in Catalan tradition is a vital power that links the sky and land, began a long presence in his work in the form of a set square with a schematic design of her breasts, one seen frontally and the other in profile (an approach initiated in the Large Standing Nude, 1921) (Maternity, Portrait of Mme K., 1924).
“When I did the Portrait of Mme K (for which she posed), I had planned to do something realist but I started on a process of elimination to the point that it became completely anti-Cubist” (1928).
Whereas for Miró Cubism had been a “working discipline to get a closer grip on form” (Jacques Dupin), from this time Miró had in mind a form of expression that had nothing to do with reality. Nature, however, remained his absolute reference, as is attested by his notebooks filled with preparatory drawings that are initially very realistic and then increasingly stylized, with the canvas eventually welcoming the extreme and spontaneous representation at the end of the process of his imagination.
This extreme purification of form that resulted in the creation of pictograms is based on geometrization to form black or coloured disks, cones, spirals, triangles and set squares (probably influenced by Dadaism and its automatons) endowed with vibratile appendices (hair, ears, eyes). In conjunction, objects were reduced to a straight line or arabesques. This vocabulary of figures and signs would be a constant and increasing feature juxtaposed with words and even phrases that, like Dada, formed a combination of poetry and painting (his ‘painting-poems’).
The Surrealist group, which was officially founded in October 1924, was enchanted by the freedom of Miró’s imagination. André Breton considered the Catalan the best artist among them and invited him to the group’s exhibition in 1925. Miró also took part in the international Surrealism exhibition in 1947. However, Miró was not interested in intellectualizing or politicizing his art and would always keep a polite distance between himself and the group’s dogmatism.
In spite of that, his Harlequin’s Carnival, a painting dating from winter 1924-25 that brought together his most recent discoveries, was perceived by his friends as an important manifesto of their ideas:
“I painted it in my studio in Rue Blomet. My friends were then the Surrealists. I was hungry and tried to capture the hallucinations that the hunger caused me. I didn’t paint what I saw in my dreams, like Breton and the others said was the way to do it. But hunger put me into a sort of trance like Easterners experience. I made preparatory sketches for the general composition so as to have each element in its place. Then, after thinking about what I wanted to do, I began to paint and introduced changes as I went along […] The picture contains elements that would be incorporated into later works: the ladder, representing a vanishing point and escape but also elevation; the animals, primarily insects, which have always interested me. The dark sphere on the right is a representation of a globe as I was then fixated by the idea of ‘I must conquer the world’; the cat, which always kept me company when I painted. The black triangle in the window is the Eiffel Tower. You have to investigate the magical side of things” (1978).
Relying on his familiar world, Miró produced a new pictorial and poetic language like a personal fantasy world that had remained buried since childhood. When it had been developed, his gestural language driven by inner pulsions generated a dimension of forms and colours that unify the entire composition with stunning harmony.
The masterful use of Miró’s miniaturist language in the Harlequin’s Carnival was followed during the period 1925-27 in a series of essential paintings in which an all-powerful ground – a moving, infinite space that is almost always monochrome and in natural colours ranging from blue to earthy tones – is stained by rubbing it with a cloth and marked by uncertain forms, taches, paint runs and rapidly formed graphic signs. Directly related to dream states and the subconscious, these paintings dive into the opaque world of our origins: they are a descent into the emptiness and silence, like the spiritual journey undertaken by John of the Cross and St Teresa of Jesus, great Spanish mystics whose writings Miró read with fervour. Combined with this was the impact of the intellectual circles he frequented in the 1920s, which were concerned with the archaic and sacred, and it was perhaps under the influence of his future friends Georges Bataille, Carl Einstein and Michel Leiris – future editors of Documents, a review that broke with Surrealism – that at the end of 1927 he verged on vacuity in his painting, at times leaving the canvas bare or occasionally simply splattered with paint and marked with a few rare signs.
At this stage in his development, the fundaments of his art had already been established, on which a constant flow of creativity built until the mid-1970s, which he experienced like a succession of perilous as well as imperious adventures.
“What interests me is a permanent revolution”.
“I very often change my style of painting, searching for new means of expression, always this burning passion drives me and makes me search in all directions” (1929).
The contrast between painting that is slowly developed and painting that is spontaneous, associated with contrasting techniques (described above), was enhanced by the fluctuation between light and shadow, between the primordial world of vital, telluric forces (represented by a rich sexual symbolism) and the desire for evasion and purity (the force of ascension represented by the motif of the ladder, the direction of the lines, and the rhythm given by the composition).
For Miró, no hierarchy exists between the elements that exist in the invisible or invisible worlds, however small or large they might be, even on an infinite scale that goes beyond human comprehension, representing “the most perceptible aspect of the omnipotence of God”.
“The smallest element in nature is a world unto itself. I find all my sources of inspiration in the fields and on the beach”.
“Everything is contained in reality”.
Although in 1933 his use of organic forms reduced to archetypes (prepared using collage) meant his painting verged on abstraction, he refused categorically to join the Abstraction-Creation group, which he considered “an enormous foolishness”: “They invite me into their empty house as though the signs I transcribe onto canvas […] had no foundation in reality, were not part of the real!” (1937).
Nothing that exists was hidden or isolated for this shaman of modern times:
“Each speck of dust has a marvellous soul. But, in order to understand it, we have to find the religious or magical sense of things, the sense understood by primitive peoples” (1936).
“Like symbols of a pure religion, which each line and point experiences like an organic being and makes the spirit vibrate like a harp string” (1940).
“Forms are generated by being transformed. They exchange between themselves and in doing so create the reality of a universe of signs and symbols in which the figures pass from one kingdom to another. They touch on the roots, are roots themselves and lose themselves in the tangle of the constellations. It is like a secret language composed of formulas of enchantment, that came before the existence of words, where what men imagined and felt was truer, more real than what they saw” (1958).
But how to touch on this subtle reality?
“What counts is to bare our soul. Painting and poetry are created in the same way that love is made; an exchange of blood, a total embrace, without any caution or protection” (1937, to Georges Duthuit).
“I find it very difficult to speak about my painting as it is always brought into being in a state of hallucination brought about by some shock – objective and subjective and for which I am not at all responsible” (1933).
“When I take up my brush, most of the time I don’t know what I am going to paint. Nor do I always know when I have finished. For example, on some paintings I have added letters using a stencil. I still don’t know why but I know that there is a deep and powerful reason” (1968).
With the passing of time, his creative process was occupied increasingly by Eastern techniques. In reference to the triptych Blue I, II, III (1961), he said:
“I took a long time to do them. Not to paint them but to think them through. It took an enormous effort and a very great inner tension to arrive at the emptiness desired. The preliminary stage was intellectual […]. It was like before the celebration of a religious rite, yes, as though entering a monastic order. Do you know how Japanese archers prepare for competitions? They begin by putting themselves into the right state: exhaling, inhaling, exhaling. For me it was the same thing” (1961).
During the 1970s, Miró invested all his being in the creative gesture, pressing his painted hands on the canvas – like a caveman on the walls – and throwing buckets of paint. From as early as 1938 he expressed his desire to “go beyond, to the extent that it is possible, easel painting which, in my opinion, has a very limited ambition, and to bring myself closer through painting to the human masses that I have never ceased dreaming about”.
It is a question of putting across an ancestral message that is accessible to everyone:
“A profoundly individual gesture is anonymous. If it is anonymous, it can achieve universality…” (1964).
“…first of all provoke a physical sensation and then arrive at the soul” (1933).
“…have the conviction that all these pure realizations of my spirit will influence – through magic or a miracle – the spirits of others” (1940-41)
Miró explained how his works evolved after the initial burst:
“The forms become real in me during the course of the work. […] while I paint, the painting begins to take shape and suggest itself to my brush. A form might become the sign of a woman or a bird as the work progresses” (1948).
Like Far Eastern calligraphers, he continued in his creation with the concern that his “work might be like a poem put to music by a painter”.
“Achieve the state of music” he wrote in one of his notebooks in 1934: after poetry in the 1920s, the music of nature then began to “play a larger role in the suggestion of [his] paintings”.
However, his search for harmony and rhythm continued to be an essential feature of his painting:
“What I am searching for is static movement, something the equivalent of the eloquence of silence”.
Silence is the mother of emptiness which, from his dreamlike paintings of 1925-27, continued to attract the artist along an ascetic path: increasingly wide-open space became an immense magnetic field populated by minimal signs in the triptychs he produced during the 1960s and ’70s.
Among the many paths of development in Miró’s painting, a central aspect is the continual elimination of all that is non-essential:
“Gradually I got to the point of using only a small number of forms and colours […]. The frescoes from the tenth century are painted like that. For me they’re magnificent.”
“My characters have undergone the same simplification as colours. […] If they were painted with all their details, they would lack the life invested in them by our imagination that ennobles everything”.
“I feel the need to achieve maximum intensity with the minimum of means. That is what has led me to reduce my painting to the minimum possible. The same reasoning makes me seek the noise hidden in the silence, movement in immobility, life in the inanimate, infinity in the finite, forms in emptiness and myself in anonymity” (1959).
This quest for original simplicity would not follow a direct path. After having created biomorphic forms in 1926-27, like that of the “broad bean” in the Imaginary Landscapes with its precise design and dazzling colours, Miró had to pass through a period of depression in the years 1928-31, which pushed him towards the “assassination of painting” (previously extolled by Dada) by using recuperated materials and creating object-paintings, an idea that he would take up again at the end of his career in a much more joyous form. Then, starting in 1934, in a premonitory vision of the Spanish Civil War, followed by World War II, Miró relieved himself of his anguish through his “savage paintings” made at times from raw materials (string, tar, sand, etc.), which he bathed in a chiaroscuro setting peopled by monsters and denatured human figures in scatological and sexual scenes that represented a regression to bestiality. And he returned to the explicit representation of everyday objects seen in funereal lighting conditions.
Although collages of photographs cut out of newspapers were a sign of the negation of painting, in 1933 they inspired large canvases with archetypal forms that heralded the transmutation of certain figures into signs in his series of Constellations (1940-41). The states of exile and isolation caused by the wars prompted Miró to “shut [him]self up even more in the palace of [his] mind in purest contemplation” (1941) and poetic escapism. Following the simplification of forms and colours, figures, signs, stars and planets linked by a fine net proliferated harmoniously on a vibrant ground (delicately altered by rubbing and erosion) in a rhythmic jubilation that glorified Earth’s place in the cosmic order, whose perfect harmony would eventually win Man over.
This repertoire of “mythological” symbols gave an important place to the foot, “with which man made contact with the earth”, to the large eye watching over the worlds (a symbol taken from Romanesque frescoes) and above all by woman, who can be recognized by her breasts and sex (represented by the set square or assimilated to a ciliated eye), and increasingly associated with a bird as a symbol of the male sex and the theme of escape-elevation (like the motif of the ladder) and stars: illustrated in this way, she has the sacred power to fecundate the terrestrial and cosmic orders like a goddess of fertility in prehistoric times.
The year 1945 marked the start of Miró’s international success. He had gained full mastery of his personal language of essential signs but was still aiming at greater economy of means by giving unrestrained freedom to his imagination. He created figures from precise waving lines or with a heavy brush, or he would drown them in the colour, use unusual supports (either in format or material) or materials so as to play around with the matter and demythologize the traditional means of painting.
The first retrospective of Miró’s work was held at the MoMA in New York in 1941 and proved a shock for the young generation, which discovered a unique form of modernity that had no derivation from Cubism or geometric abstraction. These same young artists, who were to become the champions of abstract expressionism, would in turn provide Miró with a new creative impulse during his visit to the United States in 1959. Soon he would free up the chromatic space under the influence of the color field painting of Rothko and company, and the power of the line and tache inspired by the action painting of Pollock, among others.
As the American composer George Antheil wrote in 1934, Miró succeeded in once again imbuing modern materialism with a magical dimension, for example, by associating the recently discovered notion of the expansion of the universe with the rhythm of the spiral, which was a recurrent element in his work. He attempted to re-establish the link between the earth and the cosmos through the magical reconquest of our origins to make the future more productive:
“What I want is to be a point of departure for all those who will come after me”.
Jacques Dupin, Joan Miró, catalogue raisonné des peintures (vol. I, 1908-1930 ; vol. II, 1931-1941 ; vol. III, 1942-1955 ; vol. IV, 1959-1968 ; vol. V, 1969-1975 ; vol. VI, 1976-1981, 1999-2004)
Jacques Dupin, Miró, 2012 (nouvelle édition)
Agnès de La Beaumelle, Joan Miró, 1893-1983, 2013
Miró vers l’infiniment libre, vers l’infiniment grand : catalogue de l’exposition au Musée Paul Valéry de Sète, 2014