Joan Miró was born in Barcelona on April 20, 1893, into a family of skilled crafts-people. His mother's family were cabinetmakers and his father a goldsmith of note who kept a shop in the Old City. The young Joan (the name is the Catalan spelling of "Juan" and is pronounced the same way: hwan) had no inclination towards such stable professions and announced he wished to become an artist.
The family would have none of this and dictated that the boy, at age 17, take a job as an office clerk. So unhappy was he with this drudgery that his health was affected and his father was forced to accede, sending him to recuperate at his farm near Montroig, which means "red mountain" in Catalan, a locale of great importance in Miró's early uvre. After recovery, he entered art school in Barcelona, studying under Francisco Galí, a teacher of great insight who took his class into the mountains to draw saying "wear a crown of eyes around your head" and who put objects into their hands while they were blindfolded commanding them to familiarize themselves with the item by touching it, to the extent they could draw it afterwards without ever having seen it.
At age 22, he made the acquaintance of two fellow artists who would become his lifetime friends: Joan Prats and Joseph Llorens Artigas. A year later, the three young men would gain firsthand knowledge of something they had only heard about, namely the great artistic revolution going on in Paris, by attending an exhibit of French paintings brought to Barcelona by the famed dealer Ambroise Vollard. Miró's excitement was nothing compared to his elation several months later upon learning that Pablo Picasso was to return to Barcelona with the celebrated Ballets Russes. Although Miró's and Picasso's mothers were friends, Miró, twelve years Picasso's junior, was too shy to attempt access to the already celebrated artist. He remembers a visit to their household at that time and Picasso's mother showing him a drawing her son had made that morning in shaving cream on the bathroom wall.
But it was not only the avant-garde French art that filtered through to Barcelona during this time of World War I that entranced Miró, but the rebellious poetry by such writers as Reverdy, Apollinaire, Raynal, Eluard, Mallarmé, Lautréamont and Jarry. This convinced Miró that painting and poetry were inseparable.
It was only natural that Miró, one day, would head for Paris and, in 1919, he made the decision to investigate that hotbed of artistic anarchy first hand. But he would not be going to Paris as an unknown - he had already had his first showing at the Falerías Dalmau, presenting still lifes and landscapes strongly influenced by Fauvism to a public who, while recognizing the painter's ability, found his work unfathomable.
Miró did have one determination: finally to meet Picasso. His method was both charming and simple: he asked Picasso's mother if he might bring her son anything and she cheerfully baked a large cake. Of course, he presented this to Picasso as quickly as he could and the older painter took an immediate interest in his compatriot's work and tried to arrange for it to be seen in Paris.
The Louvre has two paintings by Miró from Picasso's personal collection and Miró, in his humble way, recently corrected the concept, heretofore believed, that Picasso had bought them from him for financial and moral support during that first Parisian visit. Not the frugal Spaniard. One was a gift from Dalmau, Miró's Barcelona dealer, who hoped to do business with Picasso and the other was from Pierre Loeb who had bought Dalmau's stock when the latter went bankrupt - who himself owed Picasso money and gave him the paintings in lieu of full payment.
Miró returned to Montroig both invigorated and reinforced from the experiences of his first visit (he would return nearly every winter for years afterward) and began work on a new development in his painting. Where before, he had relied upon vivid coloring and heavy brushstrokes, he now deployed a firmer outline, an almost realistic approach with roots in age-old Catalan painting, but imbued with Miró's particular brand of cubism - not the analytical or fractured cubism employed by Picasso and Braque but a firm, geometric structure designed to hold the work together.
The masterpiece of his period was The Farm of 1921-22, which Miró began in Montroig, took with him to Barcelona and finished in Paris, a total labor of nine months. So fastidious was he that he even took grasses from Montroig to Paris to assure exactness. He worked, at first, out-of-doors - "like Cézanne," he would say. "Everything you see (in the painting) was actually there even if I made changes or jumps in scale and rearranged things here and there." Miró at its completion, trundled the painting from dealer to dealer in Paris but no one liked it. One well-known marchand suggested cutting it up into smaller paintings because "people do not have room for such large pictures nowadays." (It measured 48¼ x 55¼ inches.)
In this painting were the seeds from which would spring many of the symbols Miró was to employ for years after, such as the ladder with a bird on it, which also looked like a capital A - evocative of Miró's later use of lettering on his canvases.
Finally, a young American expatriate writer saw it, loved it and purchased it. His name was Ernest Hemingway and he had met Miró at the American Center in Paris where they both went for exercise. They would often climb into the boxing ring - the tall American and the short Catalan - to the amusement of all onlookers. The Farm is still in the Hemingway family collection.
Miró had his first Parisian exhibit in 1921, arranged by Dalmau, at the Galerie La Licorne, with a catalogue preface by Raynal. It was a disaster.
Through his friendship with André Masson, with whom he shared a studio on the Rue Blomet, he met many of the poets who were his heroes. He was to say they interested him more than any of the artists he had encountered since coming to Paris. Surrealism was in its infancy and the poet André Breton, captain of the literary "division", was enthralled with Miró - his imagination and his ability to produce common but disturbing images.
Miró's work was to take another turn in the mid-'20s. These were years of great hardship for him and he would sit in his studio, racked with hunger, and make drawings in which he attempted to express the hallucinations he was feeling. (This led to Harlequin's Carnival now at the Albright-Knox Gallery in Buffalo.) His earlier precise portrayal of objects and people gave way to an expressionist approach that led to the eventual adoption of a sort of shorthand or set of symbols depicting exactly the same subject matter. Thus, in Maternity of 1924, the woman's head is conceived as a profile of what could be a milliner's block, her skirt a simple funnel shape - one breast is two concentric circles similar to a target and the other, seen in profile, a half-moon shape; both suckling little anthropomorphic beasties.
In 1925, he enjoyed his first success after a showing with Pierre Loeb. Script began to appear in his work and forms were further distilled, almost to the minimal he switched from Loeb to dealer Jacques Viot and moved to a studio in Montmartre on the Rue Tourlaque. He befriended Magritte, Ernst, Arp and the poet Paul Eluard, the latter who was instrumental in smoothing over a rift between Miró and the other Surrealists when, at Picasso's suggestion, Ernst and Miró collaborated in designs for sets and costumes for Lambert's Romeo and Juliet for the Ballets Russe. Breton denounced the two in Le Révolution Surréaliste saying "it is inadmissible that thought should be at the command of money."
Miró, as has been said, was returning each summer to Catalonia and in October of 1929, married Pilar Juncosa, whose family was from Majorca. Their only child Dolores was born two years later in Barcelona.
He created some witty interpolations of Dutch paintings from postcards brought back from a previous trip to Holland and, following a declamation somewhat flamboyant for him: "Painting has been in decadence since the age of the caveman," moved on to collage. If hatpins, springs, feathers and string attached to canvas would shock us today - imagine the outrage these objects caused in the early '30s. One person who was not shocked was the choreographer Léonide Massine, who commissioned Miró to design the sets and costumes for his ballet Jeux d'Enfants, to be performed in Monte Carlo.
The collages then became maquettes for actual paintings. Pictures from a catalogue of machinery parts assembled on paper were enlarged by Miró with oil on canvas into superimposed floating forms. The 1933 Paining in the Museum of Modern Art is such an example.
The tragic civil war of 1936 in Spain which so moved Picasso to create his Guernica had as shattering an effect on Miró. Ebullience and light gave way to terror and foreboding and a series of work categorized by Miró's biographer, Jacques Dupin, as "peintures sauvages." Large paintings followed done with crude materials on masonite.
At the outbreak of the Second World War, Miró left Paris and took a cottage in Normandy near another good friend, Georges Braque. Due to the constant bombardments, Miró had to blacken the windows and, depressed one night, picked up some sheets of paper upon which he had cleaned his brushes. The blotches evoked images of the heavens-stars, suns and moons, and he painted over them with gouache, creating the well-known Constellations series. Their titles were pure poetry: Women Encircled by the Flight of a Bird, Woman Beside a Lake whose Surface has been made Iridescent by a Passing Swan, The Nightingale's Song at Midnight and Morning Rain. He was able to save them in a hurried move back to Barcelona, a scant eight days before the area was overrun by enemy troops. They were sent to New York via diplomatic pouch and shown at the Pierre Matisse Gallery.
The year 1939 saw the beginning of Miró's total immersion in the lithographic arts to create the famous Série Barcelone, fifty works done in black and white - allowing him an unhindered presentation of the purity and beauty of his drawing. (See The Graphics of Miró for more details on his important division of his uvre.)
After the death of his mother, Miró accepted an invitation to visit the United States. In 1947, he came to New York, meeting Marcel Duchamp and finding his old friends Sert and Calder. The Museum of Modern Art had given him a successful retrospective in 1941 so his welcome was cordial indeed. He was commissioned to do a mural for a hotel (now the Hilton) in Cincinnati and, later, one for Harvard.
But Miró had been away from Paris for nearly eight years and in 1948 he returned to an enthusiastic reception from his European colleagues. He began a series of paintings, creating works containing unbelievable detail and simpler, sparer oils done with vigorous spontaneity. The Guggenheim Museum commissioned a painting from him in 1953 and, six years later, he again visited New York for a second retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art and at Los Angeles. He was awarded the Grand Prize for Engraving at the 1954 Venice Biennale and the Grand International Prize of the Guggenheim Foundation, which was given by President Eisenhower.
In 1956, he commissioned Sert to create for him his long time dream: a large studio in Palma de Majorca. Where before he had worked in the most meager of quarters, now, under a fabulous vaulted roof, he had the luxury of space. He could give vent to long desired projects such as ceramics, to be executed with Artigas. He would have room for his sculpture, at which he was brilliant - creating works out of objets trouvrés: found sticks, pots, garden implements, etc. - later to be cast in bronze. He could plan his public monuments such as the two magnificent ceramic walls at UNESCO in Paris and the one at Fondation Maeght, and the impressive 10 x 50-meter mural for the airport at Barcelona, a city that boasts of many public works by Miró. And few pieces are as well known as the large tapestry in the new East Building of the National Gallery in Washington.
A mosaic mural was unveiled in 1978 at the Ulrich Museum of Art in Wichita, this last installation pleasing him greatly.
"From what I hear, thousands of students go by it every day. What I want is for my work to become part of the consciousness of those young people, the men and women of tomorrow. One of them - who knows? - may become President of the United States and will have been touched by my mosaic. That is what makes it worthwhile. It's the young people I'm working for, not the old dodos. I'm working for the year 2000 and the people of tomorrow."
The Graphics of Miró
In his preface of the catalogue for the famous 1974 retrospective of Miró's graphics at the Musée d'Art Moderne of the city of Paris, Alexandre Cirici, director of Barcelona's Museum of Modern Art, coined a phrase both beautiful and eminently applicable to Miró's work: "a song with many voices. " This is one of the most poetic but succinct summaries of his career for indeed he utilizes almost every medium possible to further his "melodies": oil painting, watercolor, collage, sculpture, ceramics, mosaics and graphics. This last category is one to which he has dedicated himself more and more fervently over the years, delighting in not only the printmaking but also the search for rare papers and the climactic signing of his name with a fusillade of flourishes.
Miró did not do a signed and numbered lithograph until 1930, when he was 37 years old. It was published by Zervos in an edition of seventy-five and unimaginatively entitled Lithographie I. This initial effort was followed by two others that year (which were not to be printed until 1973) and were called, as you might expect, II and III. He did not touch a lithograph stone until nine years later when, as if to make up for this dormancy, created over the next five years the Série Barcelone, published by Joan Prats, a suite of fifty works which, due to his troubled finances, were only printed in an edition of five. One can only guess at their value today. Another hiatus lasted until 1948 when he produced eleven lithographs. The techniques of color did not engross him until 1950 when, over the next few years, he would create several dozen works of great charm, delicacy and wonderfully contagious joyfulness.
Considered one of the masterpieces of the lithographic arts, the series Ubu Roi, or King Ubu, is a suite of thirteen works to a text by Surrealist writer Alfred Jarry. Published in 1966 by Tériade and printed by Mourlot, the lithographs were created for inclusion unsigned in a limited edition art book and planned by Miró and Tériade to be further pulled in a deluxe edition of seventy-five, with full margins, to be signed and numbered. In a brilliant demonstration of graphic artistry, it was further decided to include a separate printing from the black stone of each lithograph, which Miró initialed, and an impression from the color stones, which were simply numbered. Thus the viewer is treated not only to thirteen breathtaking lithographs, but also to what might be considered two progressive stages in the evolution of the masterworks.
His first etching, Daphnis et Chloé, was done in 1933 and published also by Tériade. Again another pause until 1938, he was persuaded by Pierre Loeb and Pierre Matisse to do nearly twenty etchings and drypoints for them.
Miró's graphic work, particularly in the field of aquatint, that tonal process which imparts a watercolor-like effect to etchings , underwent an abrupt change after a trip to Japan in the mid-'60s. So inspired with oriental calligraphy was he that a series of majestic aquatints imbued with that same elegant monumentality and timeless simplicity appeared which formed the nucleus of the well known showing given him at New York's Museum of Modern Art, curated by Riva Castleman. Works such as the 1967 L'Astre du Marécage and L'Astre du Labyrinthe (the first aquatint catalogued as employing the embossing effects of carborundum, that technique so loved by Miró, which allows him to paint onto a metal plate with a viscous liquid which hardens to become an embossing surface) through the 1968 Le Grand Sorcier and Le Samourai, became forever a part of the annals of modern graphic masterworks through this important exhibition.
The massive retrospect at the Musée d'Art Moderne in Paris, displayed nearly every graphic created by Miró from 1930 to 1974. So comprehensive was this exhibit that its catalogue remains a veritable catalogue raisonné of his printed work. All of the pieces illustrated in this newsletter were a part of that impressive exposition.
To begin to appreciate the work of Joan Miró, one might consider his own philosophies and concepts regarding it. "For me," he said, "a form is never something abstract; it is always a sign of something. It is always a man, a bird, or something else. For me, painting is never form for form's sake."
Abraham Lerner, director of the Hirshhorn, said of him, "Miró's place is alongside the most fertile of those giants - Picasso and Matisse."