Composed of interpenetrating sections of blue sky and yellow mountains, L'Air is Miró's evocation of his native Spain, as well as Catalunya, the region in which he was born, raised and maintained his ancestral family home. The bright red aspect seen in the various personages and objects that inhabit this landscape join with the yellow earth to make up the traditional heraldic colors which compose the flags of both Spain and Catalunya. Deep blue, bright red, and vivid yellow--these primary colors raise their voices in celebration, as whimsical beings and odd objects float and tumble about. The artist's title suggests the joyous freedom of flight, a miraculous buoyancy that has lifted these creatures far above the events and cares of the world below. There is, however, an ominious subtext that informs these strange occurences. The time is 1938; Miró painted L'Air under the widening specter of civil war in Spain. Ranging across the yellow landscape is a slithering red serpent, whose mustachioed visage is perhaps a caricature of General Francisco Franco, El Caudillo, the leader of the fascist uprising that has torn Spain apart.
In his works of the late 1930s Miró employed the ingenious iconography of organic and figural signs, which he had begun to develop in his early surrealist work, to address the dire political events of the day--violence in the streets, the horror of internecine bloodletting, the spreading web of totalitarian subjugation and oppression, and the personal tribulations that each and every Spaniard, whichever side they took, was forced to endure. The struggles that Miró depicted in his paintings often took the appearance of a helter-skelter psycho-sexual narrative, drawn from a mythic dimension sunk deep within the human subconscious. Male and female creatures, human-like or otherwise, engage in a cosmic struggle between good and evil, seeking advantage and power, pursuing their own liberty and pleasure, or simply hoping to survive. They act out their primal dramas in austere and desolate settings that are characteristic of a universal surrealist landscape, a site that exists as much in the mind as in any recognizable geographic locale. This inscape is often elemental, as seen L'Air, with the scene sectioned into contrasting areas of earth and sky only. Spanish painters such as Miró and Dalí were at home in this landscape, having become well-acquainted with the desolate sea sides, barren plateaus and rugged mountains of their homeland. Here was the perfect stage set for the tragedy of contemporary Spanish history. Two spout-like peaks, the teats of mother earth, dominate the landscape in L'Air. They are perhaps volcanoes about to erupt, a motif echoed in the mushroom shaped protozoan at lower right which appears to be giving birth to a reddish offspring, as the lurking snake seems ready to pounce at the chance for a meal.
Miró painted L'Air during the second year of the Spanish Civil War. Franco's forces crossed from Spanish Morocco to the mainland in July 1936 in an effort to oust the democratically elected left-wing government in Madrid, and within a short time the fascist army and its Falangist allies had taken control of much of the country. The fate of Catalunya and Barcelona, a hotbed of leftist activity, lay in the balance. Miró had been spending most of his time since mid-1935 working in his family's residences in Barcelona and nearby Montroig. There had already been local outbreaks of factional violence, and Miró, who backed the loyalist, pro-government cause, was concerned that the situation would soon deteriorate. He left for Paris in October 1936, bringing with him some recent works he planned to ship to Pierre Matisse in New York. He left behind about a hundred works still in progress. By late November the situation in Spain had become so precipitous that Miró decided to remain in Paris, and he sent for his wife Pilar and daughter Dolores to join him.
The Miró family at first stayed in a series of hotels, and in March 1937 moved into a modest apartment at 98, boulevard Auguste-Blanqui. The artist was able to use one of his rooms as a studio. This space was barely adequate, a situation which Miró had experienced before, and addressed in an autobiographical article written for the May 1938 issue of the journal XXème Siècle, titled "I dream of a large studio." In April the Spanish government commissioned Miró to paint a monumental work for the Spanish pavilion in the Paris "Exposition internationale" (World's Fair), which was scheduled to open in July. Miró worked on his painting Le Faucheur (The Reaper, Catalan peasant in revolt) (Dupin, no. 556; fig. 1) during the early weeks of the summer, executing it in sections on celotex panels. He completed it in time for the inauguration of the pavilion.
Also on view in the same building was Picasso's celebrated mural Guernica (Zervos, vol. 9, no. 65; Museo Nacional Centro del Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid), which in allegorical form recounted the bombing several months before of a defenseless Basque town by German warplanes flying in support of Franco's army. Brought together for public viewing on this occasion, the works of Miró and Picasso--the two greatest Spanish artists then living--show striking similarities in their outlook, even if the two men were very different in temperament, led dissimilar lives and had each arrived at very personal styles in their painting. The dreadful events in Spain had moved both painters to sympathize with the loyalist cause and protest the brutal character of the fascist menace. By mining the resources of their decade-long engagement with Surrealism, both Miró and Picasso created a monumental visual style that mingled mythical archetypes, private fears and catastrophic events taken from the headlines, producing results that utterly transcended their immediate propagandistic function.
Miró conceived his figures as flattened signs that exist in an equally flat pictorial space, a practice that he perfected in the small paintings on masonite and copper of 1935-1936 (e.g., Dupin, no. 504; fig. 2). The artist rendered these compositions in startling color harmonies, using paints brushed on straight from the tube, only rarely mixed together or tinted with white. The artist explained in a 1978 interview: "The drawing alone didn't create a dramatic enough atmosphere: I got the maximum feeling of aggressiveness through my use of color" (quoted in M. Rowell, ed., Joan Miró: Selected Writings and Interviews, Boston, 1986, p. 292). These works anticipate the irrepressible sense of movement, the great aerial commotion, that fills the canvas in L'Air. The chimerical figure floating between the two mountain peaks possesses dangling breast-like appendages and a serpent's tail. A bird at upper left attempts to soar upward, but Icarus-like it has lost a wing feather, as it passes in front of a darkening blood-red orb. In the place of the black star, a symbol of revolutionary ardor and ideals that hovers beside the head of the peasant in Le Faucheur, a shooting star drops in on the flying personage in L'Air, ostensibly a good omen, or perhaps not--Miró may be reflecting on the opening of the Sixth Seal in the Revelation of Saint John the Divine. John's visionary prophecies bear an uncanny relevance to the tragic situation in Spain:
"There was a great earthquake, and the sun became black as sackcloth of hair, and the moon became as blood; and the stars of heaven fell unto the earth, even as a fig tree casteth her untimely figs, when she is shaken of a mighty wind. And the heaven departed as a scroll when it is rolled together; and every mountain and island were moved out of their places. And the kings of the earth, and the great men, and every bondman, and every free man, hid themselves in the dens and in the rocks of the mountains" (Chapter 6; 12-15).
The "air" as suggested by the title is both the figurative and narrative premise of the present painting. Miró has said: "The spectacle of the sky overwhelms me. I'm overwhelmed when I see the crescent of the moon or the sun in an immense sky. In my paintings, as a matter of fact, there are tiny shapes in great empty spaces. Empty spaces, empty horizons, empty plains, everything stripped down has always made a great impression on me" (quoted in exh. cat., Joan Miró 1893-1993, Barcelona, 1993, p. 423). The spaciousness indicated here by the uniform blue of the sky, and the unmoored disposition of the figures implies freedom and possibility, or optimism for the future. On 7 April 1938 Miró wrote to Pierre Matisse in New York: "The situation in Spain is very agonizing, but far from being desperate; we have the firm hope that some event will take place to tip the balance in our favor" (quoted in M. Rowell, ed., Joan Miró: Selected Writings and Interviews, Boston, 1986, p. 159).
Miró had been dealing with turbulent themes as far back as 1934, many months before the eruption of civil strife in Spain. Jacques Dupin described the transformation in Miró's work that occurred in that year, leading to the creation of the works that the artist called his 'savage paintings': "The serene works of the years devoted to concentration on plastic concerns and to spiritual control of figures and signs gave way to a new outburst of subjectivity, to an expressionist unleashing of instinctual forces. The volcano which for some years had been dormant suddenly erupted. What seems to have changed was not as much Miró as the course of modern times around him. Liberated by art from personal conflicts, 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 then form of an assault upon the human figure, disintegrating it utterly, submerging it in a tidal wave of unleashed elemental powers [Dupin, no. 492; fig 3]. It is as though the Spanish tragedy and, later, the horrors of the Second World War had first broken out in the works of the Catalan artist, long before setting ablaze his country and the rest of the world" (Miró, Barcelona, 1993, p. 185).
Miró's "assault upon the human figure" involved a process that few would have expected in an artist of his maturity and accomplishment--he attended life-drawing classes, seating himself among students less than half his age, at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière in Paris. The drawings he made, however, in no way resembled the studied efforts of his classmates: torsos and limbs bend and twist about in fluid, looping lines. He drew models singly and in mixed groups, in exercises that helped him to hone the linear counterpoint and compositional rhythms that enliven the masterly paintings of this period. This is especially observable in L'Air, in which the creatures are drawn in this spontaneous and freewheeling manner, yet they interact with one another with the perfect timing of a well-rehearsed comedy routine. The vivid imagination which Miró brought to L'Air, as seen in the rendering of the figures and abstract symbols, coupled to the artist's desire to deal with topical events, underlines the degree to which Miró was emotionally engaged with the fate of his homeland during the civil war. Dupin has called the paintings of this period Miró's "tragic realism" (ibid., p. 207; fig. 4), a term that refers to the artist's acceptance of the fact that both national and private destinies in such terrible times were inextricably joined, as events unfolded with an inevitability that seem fated in the stars.
In the summer of 1938 Miró painted in Varengeville, a coastal town in Normandy (Dupin, no. 595; fig. 5), in a house lent by Paul Nelson, an architect who had commissioned the artist to execute some murals for his own residence there. The present painting displays certain stylistic characteristics that anticipate the great achievement of the constellations (e.g., Dupin, no. 641; fig. 6), the celebrated series that Miró commenced in Varengeville in January 1940, during the early months of the Second World War. The untethered, flying forms in L'Air prefigure the floating signs of Mirós work in Varengeville. From the time Miró completed L'Air to the earliest of the constellations, he continued a process in which he increasingly stylized and abstracted the swirling linearity of his figures, so that certain components--eyes, noses, mouths, stars--come to be read as disembodied signs, which mingle to generate their own compositional dynamic. The confrontational narratives and violent protest of the late 1930s paintings gave way by stages to a more visually harmonious and contemplative esthetic in the constellations. The uniform blue background of L'Air has its counterpart in the stained and tinted backgrounds in the constellations, and by 1940 Miró had furthered the process begun here, divesting this boundless space of almost all drama and turbulence, instead evoking a fathomless cosmic infinitude.
During the Spanish Civil War, Miró protested against disengagement and held that "retreat and isolation are no longer permissible" (quoted in M. Rowell, ed., op. cit., p. 166). Picasso was no less vehement is his pronouncements. By 1940, with conflict having taken on global proportions, Miró felt he had no choice but to seek a personal refuge from the events of the day. Dupin observed that "Art became for him a kind of spiritual exercise, an escape from reality, capable of leading to ever deeper exploration of inner reality. His was an inward flight" (op. cit., p. 242). This perspective was perhaps foreshadowed and allegorized in the fantastical figures that take refuge in the boundless etherworld of L'Air. In the three years between the completion of L'Air and the first Constellations, the dialectic in Miró's art had swung from one side to the other, just as it had back in 1934, but this time in reverse, moving from engagement with the world and its issues toward a private contemplation and purification of his art. Nevertheless, it becomes apparent when taking an overview of Miró's long career, that one aspect has always existed in tandem with the other, and it is in this unity of self, work and the world that Miró fulfilled his admirable completeness as a man, and achieved absolute mastery in his art.
(fig. 1) Joan Miró, Le Faucheur (The Reaper, Catalan Peasant in Revolt), 1937. Location unknown, presumably destroyed.
Barcode: 2800 0180 FIG
(fig. 2) Joan Miró, Figures devant un volcan, 9-14 October 1935. Private collection.
Barcode: 2800 0211 FIG
(fig. 3) Joan Miró, Deux personnages, 10 April 1935. The Kreeger Museum, Washington, D.C.
Barcode: 2800 0235 FIG
(fig. 4) Joan Miró, La Caresse des étoiles, 22 July 1938. Sold, Christie's, New York, 6 May 2008, lot 33.
Barcode: 2800 0204 FIG
(fig. 5) Joan Miró, Figure devant de la mer, 1 August 1938. Ikeda Museum of 20th Century Art, Shizuoka.
Barcode: 2800 0228 FIG
(fig. 6) Joan Miró, La Poétesse, 31 December 1940. Sold Christie's, New York, 10 May 1995, lot 16.
Barcode: 2800 0198 FIG 001