'The more I work, the more I want to work. I would like to try... in as much as possible, to go beyond easel painting, which in my opinion has a narrow goal, and to bring myself closer, through painting, to the human masses I have never stopped thinking about'
(Joan Miró, 'I dream of a Large Studio', May 1938, quoted in M. Rowell, ed., Joan Miró: Selected Writings and Interviews, London, 1986, p. 162)
‘The evil powers are shackled here; the curse has been lifted. The hellish figures are somewhat neutralised by being seen more clearly. Ultimately, the only way to get free of the monsters was to succeed in painting them well, not just to give them their head…. [Miró] had freed himself from their grip. This very beautiful series of canvases illustrates this logic, which for all its being unconscious is no less unmistakable.’
(J. Dupin, Miró, Barcelona, 1993, p. 230)
A vividly coloured, searing expression of pathos, Femme devant le soleil belongs to a small series of seven paintings created by Joan Miró in a moment of intense creativity in July 1938 while he was staying in Varengeville-sur-Mer, on the Normandy coast of France. Painted on 7th July, Femme devant le soleil is the third of this hauntingly powerful group, in which hallucinatory visions of women, presented both singularly and in groups, dominate. Appearing monstrous and omnipotent, beautiful, hopeful and optimistic, or vulnerable and terrified, these figures, painted against the backdrop of impending war, are some of the most vivid and powerful of the artist’s career. With its luminous, rich colour and the glowing red orbs from which the figure is constructed, Femme devant le soleil can be seen to radiate a sense of hope and strength, a powerful image of vitality and resilience.
Painted as the Spanish Civil War raged on, and the rest of Europe stood on the brink of the Second World War, Femme devant le soleil dates from a period of terrible turbulence in European history as well as in the life of Miró. At the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936, Miró had been forced to flee his beloved homeland and would not return there until 1940. Living in Paris however, he was not freed from the terrors of war, but instead found himself in a city in the clutches of an ever-mounting anxiety and fear at the inevitable likelihood of all-out conflict. ‘Unconsciously,’ Miró later recalled of this period, ‘I was living in an atmosphere of anxiety characteristic of when something grave must surely take place. Like before it rains: heaviness of head, aching in the bones, and an asphyxiating dampness. It was more a physical than a moral distress. I sensed a catastrophe and I didn’t know what it would be: it was the wars, the Spanish Civil War and the World War. I tried to portray this tragic atmosphere that tormented me and that I felt inside me’ (Miró, quoted in exh. cat., Joan Miró 1893-1993, Barcelona, 1993, p. 313).
As a result of this growing sense of unease and apprehensive anguish, Miró’s work became the site of a subjective outpouring of emotion as he turned to the human figure to express his deeply felt fears. As Jacques Dupin, friend and biographer of the artist, wrote, ‘Miró was now to experience and express the collective tragedy as an inner torment. Miró's works would then give expression to all this in the form of an assault upon the human figure, disintegrating it utterly, submerging it in a tidal wave of unleashed elemental powers’ (J. Dupin, Miró, Barcelona, 1993, p. 185). Beginning in 1934 with his celebrated series of pastels, the peintures sauvages or ‘savage paintings’, terrible creatures – distorted images of a tormented, violated humanity – filled Miró’s work, potent and prophetic symbols of tragedy and death. Acutely sensitive to these unstable, tragic times, over the following years Miró let the fearsome, monstrous creations that his angst-ridden subconscious ceaselessly conjured flow from his hand onto the canvas. Terrorised by an unseen assailant, the female figure in Femme devant le soleil is, like the nightmarish peintures sauvages, distorted, transformed into a disquieting vision, her neck elongated and arms morphed into pincer-like forms, an animalistic, hybrid creature. Though the title suggests a daytime scene, the turbulent, stormy ground of deep blue, black and clouds of powdery white exudes a nocturnal, disquieting ambience. The glowing, blood red sun fails to illuminate the dark background, unable to expel the ominous darkness that pervades the composition.
However, in contrast to the biomorphic, metamorphosed, and monstrous creations that populate these earlier works, there is undoubtedly a renewed sense of structure and control in the construction of the protagonist of Femme devant le soleil. Each part of the figure’s body is reduced to a simplified and essential form. These pictorial elements are repeated throughout the composition: the red orb of the sun finds its equivalent in the trunk of the woman. Likewise, the black, comma-shaped marks that define her breasts are used again to represent her hands and her tongue. Though imbued with the same explosive energy and expressive, spontaneous vigour as many of the earlier ‘savage’ paintings, in Femme devant le soleil, Miró has used a limited selection of colours, applying them in bold, unmodulated planes that unify the composition, imparting a sense of control onto the frenzied, fearful images that dominated his subconscious.
Writing about Femme devant le soleil and this summer series of paintings, Dupin explained this stylistic change in Miró’s work: ‘Miró succeeded in subjecting the richness of his dramatic expression to the powerful discipline of masterfully austere form. The anguish of metamorphosis is still at the root of these works, but now it is restrained, dominated by a formal discipline… The intensity of these paintings springs from the tension between what remains of tortured morphology in the figures, the hallucinatory modelling, the murky palpitation of the backgrounds, the tumultuous play of the pigments, on the one hand, and the masterful line, the rigorous delimitation of the forms, and the active harmonies of the pure colours on the other… the artist is much more in control here, the role of chance and the unconscious is much slighter, and this attenuates and tempers the frenzied character of these works’ (Dupin, ibid., p. 230). This increasingly refined and purified style – what Dupin has described as, ‘the crystallization of the sign’ – would come to dominate his work of the coming years, evidenced most notably in the famed Constellations series that the artist began a few years later, in 1941.
Though painted in the midst of terrible trauma, an undeniable sense of life radiates from Femme devant le soleil. The female figure, with the tears that pour from her eyes, is the very embodiment of distress and sadness. Yet, the flaming red sun that hangs in the sky radiates colour, light and ultimately life, with an unfailing power. This glowing circular form is also used in the construction of the female figure herself, serving as her torso; a symbolic indication perhaps of women’s own capacity to create new life. Mirrored in the figure’s body, this elemental, omnipotent life-giving force imbues her with a primordial strength and an unconquerable power. Regarded in this way, Femme devant le soleil can be seen as an image of resilience and strength in the face of the seemingly interminable darkness that Miró found himself and his world plunged into, a beacon of defiant hope. ‘The situation is Spain is very agonizing,’ he wrote to Pierre Matisse in April 1938, a few months before he painted the present work, ‘but far from being desperate; we have the firm hope that some event will take place to tip the balance in our favour’ (Miró, quoted in M. Rowell, ed., Joan Miró Selected Writings and Interviews, London, 1986, p. 159).