‘Miró invents objects just as he invents signs. He does not rest contented with simply giving them a form and imposing a style upon them. With these objects, Miró begins with nothing, but creates something, still provokes examples, and pushes the limits of freedom still further outward.’
(J. Dupin, Miró, Paris, 1993, p. 371)
Conceived in 1967, Femme et oiseau is one of the first of a pivotal series of painted bronze sculptures that Joan Miró began to execute in this year. In the late 1960s, Miró wholeheartedly embraced sculpture in his continuing quest to expand the limits of art, and following an earlier suggestion by Alberto Giacometti, in 1967, Miró fused his sculpture with painting by adding colour to these works. Ranking among the artist’s greatest contribution to 20th Century sculpture, this series of playful, highly coloured and exuberant works are created from an array of ‘found objects’, which, once assembled, were cast in bronze and then painted with boldly contrasting primary colours. Femme et oiseau was originally composed from a piece of driftwood or a root, on top of which a metal lid stands with a long, thin piece of wood extending from the top and a piece of twisted metal seemingly balancing above it. Having been cast in bronze, Miró painted these parts using black and vibrant blue, red and yellow, transforming the objects into playful and highly original sculpture. From this group of disparate objects, both natural and manmade, Miró has created the figure of a woman, the large painted red circles indicating her large, staring eyes, the black, horizontal line below, her mouth and the handle of the lid, her nose.
Miró had first turned his attention to sculpture in the late 1920s, when, encouraged by his Surrealist colleagues, he executed a series of peintre-objets which utilised wood, metal and found-objects in order to challenge the conventions of sculpture, and indeed, of art as a whole. It was not until the years during and following the Second World War however, that Miró began to explore in earnest the possibilities of sculpture. Residing in Montroig, Miró once again found inspiration from the countryside that he loved so much, resulting in the formation of a new approach to sculpture that was to be rooted in the everyday world. ‘When sculpting, I start from the objects I collect, just as I make use of stains on paper and imperfections in canvases – I do this here in the country in a way that is really alive, in touch with the elements of nature’, Miró stated in a series of notes detailing how he would engage with sculpture, continuing, ‘in order to work in a more vital and direct way, work frequently out-of-doors’ (Miró, ‘Working Notes, 1941-41’ in M. Rowell (ed.), Joan Miró: Selected Writings and Interviews, London, 1987, p. 175). Experimenting first with small clay sculptures, by the late 1950s, Miró, spurred on by a commission from Aimé Maeght to create sculpture for the Maeght Foundation in the South of France, began to look seriously at the potentials of bronze, and by the late 1960s, sculpture had come to dominate his artistic production as he created an array of large, free-standing ‘Assemblage-Sculptures’ such as Femme et oiseau.
The ‘Assemblage-Sculptures’, as Jacques Dupin called them, were composed of different assortments of found objects, as exemplified by the array of both natural and man-made objects that constituted Femme et oiseau before it was cast in bronze. From the 1940s onwards, Miró had continued to amass a host of different objects, from bones, stones and tree trunks, to ironing boards and pieces of metal, trawling beaches and the countryside, as well as construction sites for objects that particularly caught his eye. Jacques Dupin accompanied Miró on many of the daily walks the artist took to look for objects, and recalls that his selection process was far from arbitrary: ‘Seizing a crushed old tin was for him an important act, a serious task. He was convinced that whatever his foot might stumble over on the edge of a path could very well overwhelm our world’ (J. Dupin, Miró, Paris, 1993, p. 374). ‘When I go for a stroll, I don’t search for things like one searches for mushrooms’, Miró stated when explaining how he chose the pieces that he would later use in his work, ‘There is a force – clack! – that makes me bend my head downward, a magnetic force’ (Miró, quoted in W. Jeffett, ‘The Shape of Colour: Joan Miró’s Painted Sculpture, Monumentality, Metaphor’ in The Shape of Colour: Joan Miró’s Painted Sculpture, exh. cat., Washington, D.C., 2002-03, p. 34).
The artist filled his studios both at Montroig and Palma with these pieces, laying them out on the floor whereupon he could mediate on them, often for long periods of time before he used them in a sculpture, allowing him to realise unexpected juxtapositions and unplanned combinations of elements. There is a photograph of the objects used in Femme et oiseau arranged on the floor of Miró’s San Boter studio – a space the artist had acquired in 1960 which was adjacent to his large Palma studio. Jacques Dupin poetically described this long, contemplatory working process, ‘[Miró] also kept his distance, staying on the side-lines, all the while listening to [the objects], espying them, catching a glimpse of their own secret desires. Before approaching and combining them, he would withdraw and let their energy run its own course, letting them deliver themselves from their own insistent or overly eloquent nature… Miró would confine himself to patience and waiting, until the found-object matured, found its own language, and confided its inner secret in this very language. An eternity passed, then the sculptor’s intervention was triggered, a lightning death-blow, or an eternal musical pause…’ (J. Dupin, ibid., p. 372).
Miró often conceived of the idea for a sculpture and envisaged the composition and structure of these works many years before their actual creation and subsequent casting in bronze. There are sketches dating from 1959 and 1963 which display the basic composition of Femme et oiseau, before the work was cast in bronze. Yet it was not until Miró discovered the perfect combination of found objects that the sculpture was realised in physical form. Unlike his painting, in which he poured imagined signs, symbols and forms onto the canvas, with his sculpture, he began with real, concrete objects which he constructed using his powerful and visionary imagination, resulting in the vital immediacy that is exemplified by a work such as Femme et oiseau.
Femme et oiseau and the majority of the other works of the series of painted sculptures of the late 1960s take women as their subject, conveying femininity with a playful, humorous and poetic approach. In Femme et oiseau it has been suggested that the piece of driftwood that serves as the woman’s torso reflects the idea of a woman’s body as a branch of a tree rooted in the soil of Catalonia, a concept that Miró was familiar with in the philosophical literature of Eugenio D’Or (Jeffett, ibid., p. 34). Throughout the series, Miró continues to examine different conceptions and symbols of femininity: using the plastic legs of a female mannequin to impart a sense of playful eroticism in Jeune fille s’évadant, deifying the figure with a red crown in Sa majesté and presenting male and female couples in works such as Homme et femme dans la nuit. It is with this group of joyously coloured, diverse and compelling sculptures that Miró truly succeeded in achieving his aim of creating ‘a truly phantasmagoric world of living monsters… that give you the feeling of entering a new world’ (Miró, ‘Working Notes, 1941-41’ in Rowell, ibid., p. 175), and Femme et oiseau encapsulates the irrepressible creativity and sense of joie de vivre that characterises Miró’s late oeuvre.