1. Life and work
Source: Oxford University Press
(i) Childhood and work, to 1919
Miró came from a family of craftsmen. His father Miquel, the son of a blacksmith, was a goldsmith from the vicinity of Tarragona in southern Catalonia; his mother, Dolors Ferrà, was the daughter of a carpenter from Mallorca. He initially obeyed his family’s wishes that he follow a business career by studying at the Escuela de Comercio in Barcelona from 1907 to 1910, but in 1911 an attack of typhus, coupled with nervous depression, enabled him to abandon the course. He recuperated in his parents’ country house at Montroig, south of Tarragona, a peaceful place to which he often returned in later life and in which his artistic vocation and devotion to nature were confirmed. Plants, insects, simple forms of life; the stars, sun, moon and sea, especially the Mediterranean; the cultivated countryside itself, together with elements of rural existence, all later found their way into his work.
In 1907 Miró began his artistic training in Barcelona at the Escuela de Artes y Oficios de la Lonja, where Picasso had studied 12 years earlier; his teachers were Modest Urgell (1839–1919) and Josep Pascó (1855–1910). In 1912 he entered the escuela de arte run by the great teacher Francesc Galí (1880–1965), and there met the potter Josep Llorens Artigas, with whom he formed a lifelong friendship. Galí noticed that Miró had an aptitude for colour but difficulty in delineating shapes, and therefore blindfolded him so that he would acquaint himself with the forms by touching them before drawing them or modelling them in clay. Miró’s first paintings date from this period, for example The Peasant (1914; Paris, Gal. Maeght, see 1981 exh. cat., p. 49). In 1915 Miró left the Escuela Galí and began attending drawing classes at the Círculo Artístico de Sant Lluc, where Artigas was again a fellow student and where he met Joan Prats (1891–1970), who became another great friend. In 1918 Miró became one of the first members of the Grupo Courbet, an association of artists founded by Artigas with other students from Sant Lluc.
Between 1915 and 1918 Miró briefly painted in a manner that he himself described as Fauve, using strong, bright colours. His tendencies, however, to geometry, broad brushwork and a clarity of construction distanced his work from the earlier movement. During this period he painted figures, as in his portrait of V. Nubiela (1917; Essen, Mus. Flkwang), as well as landscapes and views of villages in the province of Tarragona, for example The Road from En Güell (1917; New York, MOMA). 1918 was a decisive year: Miró held his first one-man show in the Barcelona gallery run by Lluís Dalmau, a key figure in the Catalan avant-garde, who in 1912 had dared to exhibit the Paris Cubist painters. It was vital to Miró’s development that Barcelona was then a very lively cultural centre that attracted foreign artists seeking refuge from World War I.
Miró remained faithful to the brilliance of colour of his early work, but under the influence of Paul Cézanne and Cubism he continued to emphasize the underlying construction of his pictures. In his works of 1918 to 1922 he introduced a meticulousness and precision of drawing, not out of an interest in illusionism or in a slavish adherence to perceived reality but as a means of concentrating attention on particular details. This new tendency is especially evident in paintings such as Vegetable Garden with Donkey (1918; Stockholm, Mod. Mus.) and Montroig, the Church and the Village (1919; Spain, priv. col., see 1986 exh. cat. by R. S. Lubar and others, no. 16). The self-portrait sometimes known as Young Man in Red Shirt (1919; Paris, Mus. Picasso) and subsequent works, such as Standing Nude (1921; Chicago, IL, Alsdorf Found.), display a stylization and flatness, which can perhaps be traced to the Romanesque paintings that had greatly impressed him in the Museu d’Art de Catalunya in Barcelona. The general sense is of containment, as opposed to the almost uncontrolled colour and violence of the previous period.
(ii) Paris, 1920–39
The failure of Miró’s exhibition of 1918 caused him to reconsider his methods, particularly after his move to Paris in 1920 after a trial visit there in 1919. He worked initially in Pablo Gargallo’s workshop at 45 Rue Blomet. In 1921, thanks to Lluís Dalmau, he held his first exhibition in Paris at the Galerie La Licorne but failed to make any sales. Following the exhibition and in many succeeding summers, he returned to his refuge in Montroig. There, after a period of reflection, he began work on The Farm (1921–2; Washington, DC, N.G.A.), his best-known painting of the period, with which he seemed to return to the simple things that he found around him in the Tarragona countryside. The apparent ingenuousness of detail and innocence exuded by objects and organic forms alike masks only partly the growing sophistication of Miró’s conscious and carefully elaborated visual language. None of the dealers to whom he showed the painting was interested in buying it, but he later sold it to Ernest Hemingway, with whom he had struck up a friendship at a gymnasium where they both boxed.
In 1923 there were signs of another change. The Tilled Field (1923–4; New York, MOMA) is representative of this period, which follows on from The Farm in its mixture of recognizable natural forms with more or less invented shapes; colour is now treated with less restraint, freed from the demands of realism. The stylized realism of his previous portraits is still in evidence in the treatment of the woman and cat in the Farmer’s Wife (1922–3; priv. col., see 1986 exh. cat. by R. S. Lubar and others, no. 22), but the main direction of his work, already evident in Vegetable Garden with Donkey, was towards an explosion of form verging on abstraction. This development culminated in Harlequin’s Carnival (1924–5; Buffalo, NY, Albright–Knox A.G.), which can be regarded as Miró’s first characteristic image, in which the space is populated by fantastic shapes suggestive of living organisms, no matter how tenuously figurative they at first appear. Miró here established the limits of abstraction, to which he would remain faithful until c. 1960, characterized by an urge to retain at least vestigial references to perceived reality.
However resistant Miró felt to being part of wider artistic movements, he was influenced during the 1920s by the spirit of both Dada rebellion and Surrealism. André Breton himself remarked that ‘Miró is the most surrealist of us all’, in spite of the fact that Miró never officially joined the group. In Paris in 1925 Jacques Viot’s Galerie Pierre held not only a one-man show of Miró’s work but also an exhibition of Surrealist painting, which included Miró along with Picasso and Paul Klee.
Miró’s most abstract early paintings were virtually monochromatic canvases produced between 1925 and 1927, often dominated by a blue background, as in Painting (1925; New York, Guggenheim). These were to prove a powerful influence on the later development of abstract art, particularly in the USA, where the succeeding generations associated with Abstract Expressionism and colour field painting both owed much to his example. In works such as This Is the Colour of My Dreams (1925; priv. col., see 1986 exh. cat. by R. S. Lubar and others, no. 42), in which the title is inscribed next to a pool of blue paint, he used writing to change the significance of apparently abstract shapes, creating a kind of concrete poetry that recalled similar methods used in the previous decade by Guillaume Apollinaire and by Dadaists such as Francis Picabia.
Head of a Smoker (1925; Chicago, IL, Mr & Mrs M. G. Neumann priv. col., see 1986 exh. cat. by R. S. Lubar and others, no. 41) features the undulating biomorphic shapes that Miró was to favour in his subsequent work. In 1928, after a trip to the Netherlands, he produced a series of Dutch Interiors such as Dutch Interior I (1928; New York, MOMA), based on postcard reproductions of Old Master paintings. In these a greater curvilinear freedom was introduced to the sharp definition of shapes that had characterized earlier works such as The Farm. He reinterpreted other works by earlier artists in a series of Imaginary Portraits such as Portrait of Mrs Mills in 1750 (after Constable) (1929; New York, MOMA). During this period he also incorporated collage elements into paintings such as Spanish Dancer (1928; New York, Acquavella Gals, see 1986 exh. cat. by R. S. Lubar and others, no. 59) as a means of enriching the surface; a group of these was exhibited in 1928 at the Galerie Georges Bernheim, Paris.
Miró’s marriage in Palma de Mallorca on 12 October 1929 to Pilar Juncosa, a cousin on his mother’s side, followed by their move to Paris, provided him with the stability and concentration that he always needed for his work. Paradoxically this domestic tranquillity initiated a period of extreme rebelliousness in his art. Between 1929 and 1931 he sought to break all conventions including, on occasion, the very notion of painting itself; he even spoke of ‘the murder of painting’. He began to produce reliefs such as the wood and metal Construction (1930; New York, MOMA) and sculptural assemblages such as Sculpture-object (1931; Amsterdam, Stedel. Mus.), and he intensified his use of collage by incorporating unusual materials. His spirit of experimentation was especially evident in Drawing-collage (1933; New York, MOMA) and other similarly titled works made at Montroig in summer 1933, in which he combined humour with compositional freedom, and a series of collage paintings initiated in 1933, such as Painting-collage (1934; Philadelphia, PA, Mus. A.), in which he relied both on intuition and on a meticulous and rational examination of form.
From 1934 to 1936 Miró produced a series of Wild Paintings, such as Rope and People I (1935; New York, MOMA), which manifested a violence that had heretofore generally been kept under control. Aggression, sexuality and drama here took a deformed and grotesque human form which was emphasized by strange and unexpected materials and surfaces; in some cases paint was mixed with sand and applied to cardboard, while in others he scrawled graffiti on masonite or over paper prepared with tar.
A particularly important painting from this period, marked by a shocking conjunction of intense imagery and shrill colour, is Still-life with an Old Shoe (24 Jan–29 May 1937; New York, MOMA), painted at the beginning of the Spanish Civil War. The political tensions of the period are likewise reflected in The Reaper, also known as Catalan Peasant in Revolt (1937; lost, see Dupin, 1962, p. 329), which he painted for the Spanish pavilion of the Exposition Internationale des Arts et Techniques dans la Vie Moderne in Paris in 1937 but which disappeared when the pavilion was dismantled. The rage against injustice that it embodied was categorically expressed also in the poster that he designed for the Republican cause, Help Spain (1937; see Corredor-Matheos, 1981, pl. 2), in which the slogan ‘Aidez l’Espagne’ was emblazoned over the image of a figure with outstretched arm and clenched fist.
(iii) Paintings, 1939–c. 1950
In 1939 Miró settled in Varengeville, a small village in Normandy, where he sought refuge from the conflict in Spain and in Europe at large. There he produced a series of pictures named after the town, for example A Drop of Dew Falling from the Wing of a Bird Awakening Rosalie Asleep in the Shadow of a Cobweb (Dec 1939; Iowa City, U. IA Mus. A.), in which he made recourse to memories of his childhood and of the countryside of Montroig. In such works he expressed a poetic wonder at the universe in a solitary communion with objects and living things, by means of imagery of almost childlike innocence: skies filled with stars, birds and schematic female figures all engaged in a sacred dance. These are among the high points of Miró’s art and of his vision of the world.
On his return to Spain, Miró spent some years in quiet retirement because of his opposition to the Franco regime. Nevertheless his art continued to evolve. During 1940–41, in Palma de Mallorca and in Montroig, he painted a series entitled Constellations. These pictures, such as the Beautiful Bird Revealing the Unknown to a Pair of Lovers (1941; New York, MOMA), represent the culmination of the abstract tendencies of his early work. The first major retrospective exhibition of his work, held in 1941 at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, was of great importance in gaining him wider international recognition; the exhibition catalogue was the first major study of his work.
During 1942 and 1943 Miró developed elements from the Constellations in an intense burst of experimental activity. He worked almost exclusively on paper in a variety of media including oil, gouache, watercolour, pastel, coloured pencils, Indian ink, pencil and even blackberry jam. Works from this period, such as the watercolour Woman, Bird, Star (1942; Lucerne, Gal. Rosengart, see 1986 exh. cat. by R. S. Lubar and others, no. 125), are marked by great spontaneity and elegance.
The success of Miró’s New York retrospective and of his 1945 exhibition at the Pierre Matisse Gallery, also in New York, led to a commission for a mural measuring 3×10 m for the Gourmet Restaurant, Terrace Hilton Hotel, Cincinnati (1947; Cincinnati, OH, Thomas Emery’s Sons, see Dupin, 1962, p. 404). In 1946 he exhibited for the first time in the Galerie Maeght in Paris, with which he thereafter maintained a close relationship.
The fullness of Miró’s art emerged in the 1940s. Bullfight (1945; Paris, Pompidou) is typical of this period in its graphic style and rounded forms, by which colour masses are contrasted with line drawing. Women at Sunrise (17 June 1946; Kansas City, MO, Nelson–Atkins Mus. A.) relies on a similar combination of drawing and coloured shapes on a neutrally coloured background. One of the major works of this period is The Red Sun Gnaws at the Spider (2 April 1948; New York, Stephen Hahn, see 1986 exh. cat. by R. S. Lubar and others, no. 135), in which the characters are almost completely abstract, and two of the shapes appear surrounded by a halo, the whole set against a uniform green background.
In general Miró established a dialogue between two or more figures. Occasionally he linked the separate elements with a line, as he had done in the Constellations, for example in Dragonfly with Red Pinions in Pursuit of a Snake Gliding in a Spiral towards a Comet-star (1951; Barcelona, Fund. Miró), although the festive atmosphere of the earlier series is now less in evidence. In other works such as The Little Blonde in the Amusement Park (1950; Berlin, Neue N.G.), colour is the decisive factor in defining the principal shapes. It could be said that a certain coarseness creeps into the joy and gaiety of the early 1940s, although one can still enjoy the play of pure colour in such witty works as Mural Painting for Joaquím Gomis (oil on fibro-cement, 1948; Barcelona, J. Gomis priv. col., see Dupin, 1962, p. 555).
(iv) Experiments with printmaking, ceramics, sculpture and painting in the 1940s and 1950s
Having thus completed the elements of his artistic vocabulary and self-contained world of imagery, Miró nevertheless sought new challenges by introducing further techniques in a continued defiance of accepted conventions. He returned to printmaking and in 1944 completed a series of 50 black-and-white lithographs entitled Barcelona , which he had begun in 1939: aggressive images full of monstrous, threatening characters, a private denunciation of war.
Miró also began at this time to work with ceramics in collaboration with his friend Josep Llorens Artigas. Having produced his first vase in 1941 (Paris, Pompidou), from 1944 to 1946 he decorated irregularly shaped fragments of pots, which had been broken during the firing process. Typical of these were the Plaques completed in 1945–6 (see Corredor-Matheos and Pierre, 1974, nos 13–45). Miró again worked with Artigas from 1953 to 1956, this time on a series collectively known as Lands of Great Fire: cups, plates and extremely varied shapes, in which Miró, with Artigas’s technical assistance, explored the sculptural possibilities of clay. The French title, Terres de grand feu, made punning reference not only to the firing process and to the medium (terre cuite, Fr.: terra cotta) but also to the prevalence of natural shapes in works such as Monument (1956; Hamburg, Mus. Kst Gew.). Architectural forms also feature in large-scale works such as Portico (h. 3.6 m, 1956; New York, Guggenheim).
Prior to 1950 Miró had exhibited a series of sculpture-objects in Paris, but it was only after his involvement with ceramics that he began to produce sculptures on a larger scale. In 1954 he carried out a series of seven Projects for a Monument (Barcelona, Fund. Miró), in which he combined bronze, stone, wood and cement with more unusual materials such as porcelain, leather and even a telephone bell.
Between 1949 and 1950 in Barcelona, Miró produced 55 paintings and approximately 150 drawings, sculptures, objects and prints reflecting two distinct and contrasting approaches: on the one hand carefully wrought and reflective, on the other extremely spontaneous. He continued in the 1950s to develop the methods he had used in the previous decade, but in works such as Personage on Cloudy Background (1953; Paris, Gal. Maeght) he began to favour a less precise line, as if to dissociate the figures from the more abstract signs that came progressively to dominate his painting. His activities as a printmaker, which had heretofore been limited to etchings and lithographs printed in black, from 1948 included a wider range of media such as colour lithographs, colour etchings, drypoints, woodcuts and later carborundum prints; on occasion he added hand-coloured elements, as in the Parchment series (1953), in which he superimposed bold designs in bright watercolour on to etchings printed in black on irregularly shaped sheets.
(v) After 1960
Miró’s work underwent a profound change in 1960, when he began to use black both to outline shapes and to fill them in. His later work is dramatic, even tragic, with colour often suppressed or counteracted by the weight accorded to black, as in Woman and Bird (1964; Saint-Paul-de-Vence, Fond. Maeght). His faith in abstraction was expressed during this period with particular eloquence in large canvases such as Blue II (1961; Paris, Pompidou), in which broad strokes of colour are set against sensuously painted backgrounds, as in his paintings of the mid-1920s; the simplicity of gesture and boldness of scale and handling make these among his most impressive and influential later works.
In his last years, before old age began to limit his apparently irrepressible vitality, Miró continued to experiment with different techniques. He collaborated with Joan Gardy Artigas (b 1938) on ceramics, with Josep Royo (b 1945) on tapestries and with the Barcelona theatre group Claca on the presentation of a play, Mori el Merma, inspired by Alfred Jarry’s Ubu roi (1896). He worked prolifically during his later years as a printmaker, notably in a series of highly inventive livres d’artiste printed in a variety of techniques, such as A toute épreuve (1958, with 77 woodcuts accompanying poetry by Paul Eluard), Ubu roi (1966, with 13 colour lithographs illustrating Jarry’s text) and Journal d’un graveur (1964, 15 drypoints and one colour etching published in 1975 in three volumes). Many of the books that he illustrated were of poetry by writers whom he knew personally, such as Jacques Prévert, Michel Leiris, André Breton, Tristan Tzara, René Crevel, René Char, Robert Desnos, Jacques Dupin and Georges Ribemont-Dessaignes. Miró also produced a large number of posters, often for his own exhibitions but also in response to political causes, at a time of strong popular pressure against the declining Franco dictatorship, for example Amnesty International (1976, see Corredor-Matheos, 1981, pl. 93).
Miró’s experiments with ceramics were succeeded from 1960 to 1963 by a group of sculptures, some very large, for the gardens of the Fondation Maeght at Saint-Paul-de-Vence, and by ceramic murals on which he collaborated with Josep Llorens Artigas, beginning with The Sun and The Moon (both 1958; Paris, UNESCO), for which he was awarded the Guggenheim Foundation’s Grand Prize. These were followed by a number of commissioned ceramic murals such as those for Harvard University (1960), the Guggenheim Museum in New York (Alicia, 1966), Barcelona Airport (1970) and the Kunsthaus Zürich (1971). His use of cement and ceramic fragments recalled techniques used in the Parque Güell (Barcelona) and other architectural works by Gaudí, a cultural hero in Catalonia.
From 1966 Miró worked intensely on sculptures based principally on small objects, often objets trouvés, which he joined in surprising ways. Stones, branches and other objects discovered on his walks along the beach at Montroig, as well as manufactured items, were wedded in a spirit that still owed something to Surrealism but that also revealed his need for contact with nature and simple things, as also in bronzes such as Lunar Bird (1966; Philadelphia, PA, Mus. A.). An element of fun remains, particularly in brightly painted bronze sculptures cast from juxtaposed objects, such as Seated Woman and Child (1350×600×350 mm, 1967; Barcelona, Fund. Miró), in which an ordinary chair acts as a stand-in for a figure. Miró’s final work, completed posthumously, was the monumental sculpture Woman and Bird, which was installed in gardens on the former site of the Barcelona abattoir.
From Grove Art Online