Between March and June of 1933, Joan Miró created an extraordinary series of eighteen majestic paintings that are universally considered to be amongst the most accomplished of his career. Executed on 29 April 1933, Peinture is an important work from this much-celebrated group, one of only four of the eighteen in an imposing vertical format. Enigmatic biomorphic shapes float atop lushly modulated backgrounds of subdued, yet still radiant, color. Miró based these canvases, some of the largest he had created up to that point, on a parallel sequence of collages depicting mechanical instruments and tools. Jacques Lassaigne praised these fascinating and complex collage-based paintings:
"This group of pictures represents one of the peak points of his oeuvre; they are charged with a concentrated power, a plastic dynamism, that, surely, has never been surpassed. Without the least recourse to any anecdotal allusion that might distract our attention, the signs and figures they contain achieve a breath-taking expressiveness and fully justify the unusual procedure that went to their making" (op. cit., p. 71).
Miró painted the present work in a studio he had set up the previous year in his mother's apartment in the Passatge del Crèdit in Barcelona. The financial obligations of supporting a new wife and child in the economically precarious years of the early 1930s had forced him to leave Paris and return to his original family home, where he had been born almost four decades earlier. Having undergone a creative crisis in the late 1920s, when he questioned his own artistic ability and then famously set out to "assassinate painting," this move to Barcelona allowed him to concentrate on his work in relative peace and isolation, away from the distractions of the French capital and the political infighting that had come to plague André Breton's Surrealist circle.
Miró had spent important formative years in Paris. In the city's vibrant cultural milieu, he had immersed himself in poetry and had become well acquainted with Dada and Surrealist artists, writers and poets. Although he had exhibited with the Surrealists during the 1920s--his cycle of so-called "dream paintings" (circa 1925-1927) were heralded as fine examples of Surrealist automatism--he never actually became an official member of the movement. In his refusal to sign the Surrealist manifesto, he demonstrated the importance he accorded to maintaining his own particular and unique artistic voice and the independence of his creative spirit. In the year following the execution of Peinture, Miró outlined in a letter to the writer and publisher Christian Zervos: "Naturally I have no intention to settle down in Paris ever again... In my view an artist must remain fiercely aloof from all these sad fun games and above all else be in constant touch with his roots" (J. Miró, letter to C. Zervos, 25 March 1934, in op. cit., p. 366).
It was Miró's deep sense of connection to his native Catalonian roots that both inspired and pervaded so much of his imagery, including Peinture and the other oils in this monumental series. Indeed the artist suggested to his poet friend J.V. Foix, who was due to write an essay on his recent work, that it be brought "as near as you can to the Catalan landscape in its bright and vigorous aspects, or the national aspect of music or folklore and to the admirable people from Catalonia," adding that, "this recent period of mine has been done exclusively in Catalonia, as you know" (J. Miró, letter to J.V. Foix, 19 July 1933, in A. Umland, ed., Joan Miró: Painting and Anti-Painting, 1927-1937, exh. cat., New York, 2008, p. 121). James Johnson Sweeney, then curator of The Museum of Modern Art, New York, recognized this facet of the new paintings, observing how their color palette of olives, browns and blues related to Catalonia's early church murals, their simplified forms evoked the region's folk art, and their compositions echoed the severe rhythms of the artist's native landscape (see J.J. Sweeney, "La jeune peinture de Joan Miró" in Cahiers d'Art, 1934, vol. 9, nos. 1-4, p. 49).
To create Peinture and the other seventeen paintings in this remarkable series, Miró first clipped images--largely depicting machines and utilitarian objects--from local Catalan newspapers and sales catalogues. These were then used as materials for the eighteen preparatory collages that he proceeded to pin to the walls of his small studio. These collages, in turn, became the "models" for the paintings. He later explained this novel creative procedure as follows:
"Little by little I turned from dependence on hallucinations to forms suggested by physical elements, but still quite apparent from realism. In 1933, for example, I used to tear newspapers into rough shapes and paste them on cardboards... After the collages were finished they served me as points of departure for paintings. I did not copy the collages. I merely let them suggest shapes to me" (quoted in M. Rowell, ed., Joan Miró: Selected Writings and Interviews, Boston, 1986, p. 209).
Due to the restricted space in his makeshift studio and the grand scale of canvases like Peinture, once a painting had been finished, it was taken off its stretcher and rolled, allowing Miró to begin work on the next painting in the series (see W. Rubin, Miró in the Collection of The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1973, p. 60). In a highly systematic and methodical fashion that was characteristic of his fastidious and exacting nature, he annotated each collage with the canvas size of the finished oil and the date the preparatory work was made; the chronology of the paintings follows exactly the order in which the original collages were executed.
Miró based Peinture on a collage executed on 6 February 1933, which he bequeathed to the Fundació Joan Miró in 1976 (FJM 1299). This very spare, minimal work features one tiny printed black-and-white illustration of lathes, a grinder and a vice which was pasted to the centre of an otherwise empty sheet of Ingres paper. In selecting this mechanistic imagery, Miró was perhaps referencing Dada artists such as Francis Picabia and Max Ernst who, in the 1920s, had appropriated technical diagrams from scientific publications and presented them as fine art in their so-called "mechanomorphic" pictures. Miró's collages of mechanical instruments, however, were merely a preliminary step towards the creation of the oils. He chose not to exhibit them, suggesting that he did not consider them as works of art in their own right, unlike the other collages and inventive assemblages he had made in the preceding years when he had turned away from painting and towards less conventional ways of making art. The forms in Peinture are, moreover, certainly not instantly recognizable as the utilitarian objects on which they were based. Rather than registering as any Dadaist gesture of anti-art, or a criticism of modern commodity culture, Peinture and the other oils in the series can be seen as the culmination of a concentrated investigation into form and space that Miró had initially embarked upon the previous summer.
Some art historians have interpreted Miró's working from mechanical imagery as a meditation on the relationship between mass-produced and unique images, but for Jacques Dupin, the late Miró scholar, these industrial clippings, existed at "the very opposite pole from his own world", were selected as his starting point so as to better test, strengthen and discipline his own inner world of organic forms (see op. cit., 1961, p. 252). Lassaigne endorsed this view, having written: "Thus from a series of experiments which at first sight seemed negative, incoherent and all but incomprehensible, Miró derived the sources of what is perhaps the most 'classical' manifestation of his genius, and a means to the creation of a purely plastic language" (op. cit., p. 72).
In moving from the collage to executing Peinture itself, Miró enacted a radical transformation. While the painting loosely preserves the configuration of the elements in the collage, the small, sharp-edged, inanimate objects of modernity have been transmuted into meticulously rendered, mysterious, hypertrophied shapes that recall the rounded biomorphic forms pioneered by the Surrealist artist Jean Arp. Miró fashioned these shapes into a series of balanced and carefully orchestrated relationships with one another. Opaque primary colors contrast with the thinner washes of blended pigment in the mystically worked background where the fine weave of the canvas has been allowed to show through. The finely contoured forms, painted as both outlines and colored shapes that playfully change colour at their point of intersection, suggest a looming portrait, an impression that is reinforced by the vertical orientation of the canvas. The addition of hair-like strokes, a "pupil" to the blue circle in the upper left and "eyes" to the splayed and contorted form in the center, enhances this overall sensation of a mysterious life force. There are allusions to the primordial markings in the primitive cave paintings that so fascinated Miró, which Roland Penrose pointed out in his discussion of the paintings:
"As the political atmosphere darkened, and Miró's painting became prophetic of approaching catastrophes, he found in the great compositions of 1933 the means of enveloping the spectator in an atmosphere of primeval night. We are led into vast caves inhabited by magic animals, a twilight in which creatures of darkness float and dance, not on the ground but among the stars" (Miró, London, 1970, p. 186).
The painstaking process of creative metamorphosis undertaken by Miró in Peinture is analogous to the method by which he arrived at his seminal 1929 painting, Queen Louise of Prussia. The initial inspiration for that work came from two advertisements: one for a Junkers diesel engine and one for a shirt collar, which he translated into an exquisite "imaginary portrait" of simplified, rhythmic lines. Describing this creative process in an article that was originally intended to accompany Miró's 1933 exhibition of the collage-based paintings, Zervos succinctly defined it as making "the world of things relive in his world" (C. Zervos, quoted in C. Lanchner, Joan Miró, exh. cat., New York, 1993, p. 60).
In the summer of 1933, Miró wrote to a friend that he intended to show his recent paintings in Barcelona before taking them to Paris (see exh. cat., op. cit., 2004, p. 364). Although it is not known precisely which paintings he exhibited, it is very likely that Peinture was among them. Between October and November later that year, the complete series of collage-based paintings was then exhibited at the prestigious Galerie Georges Bernheim in Paris. While the ongoing economic depression prevented the show from being a commercial success, the works were nonetheless much admired. The distinguished art critic André Warnod remarked that these paintings "denote an uncommon temperament. The hand that drew these lines, the mind who spawned these singular figures, are not any old hand and mind, and those harmonies coloured, orchestrated with a steadfastness, and authority, a delightful fantasy are those of a great painter" (ibid., p. 365).
When ten of the eighteen paintings travelled to New York for an exhibition at the Pierre Matisse Gallery that winter, Sweeney referred to their "ripe individuality and assured rhythms," seeing them as the fruit of all that had gone before; they were "easily the most mature distillation of sensibility he had yet offered" (op. cit., pp. 48-49). Miró himself was in no doubt whatsoever about the importance of these paintings, whose conception and exhibition heralded "a great success that might mark a red letter day in my career" (Miró, letter to P. Matisse, 5 November 1933, in E. Turner and O. Wick, exh. cat., op. cit., Basel, 2004, no. 27, p. 82).
The significance of Peinture and the other great canvases of 1933--and the dramatic impact they made--can be attributed to the intriguing working procedure Miró used to generate them, their originality and grand scale and, as Dupin has noted, the "spellbinding power" of their remarkably refined and balanced compositions (Miró, Barcelona, 1993, p. 178). In Peinture, Miró shows not only the extent to which he had absorbed ideas from Dada and Surrealism, but how far he had moved beyond them to create a work of unique visual poetry whose roots still remained in ancient art forms and the land of his birth. The complex web of influences and associations, and its relationships to his past work, make Peinture a signal work in the artist's oeuvre and, by extension, the whole canon of Modernism. Representing the pinnacle of an intensive and systematic exploration by Miró of two-dimensional form and space, these canvases, as well as suggesting to him a style that he would explore in the murals and tapestries that followed, were to influence future generations of artists. Peinture was included in Miró's first major retrospective, held at The Museum of Modern Art, New York in 1941. This exhibition had an enormous impact upon the group of artists who would become known as the Abstract Expressionists. Barbara Rose has written that it was, in particular, "the inclusion... of four of Miró's large 1933 Compositions" that "helped persuade American avant-garde artists to pursue monumental art" (B. Rose, exh. cat., op. cit., 1982, p. 37).
Ten of the eighteen paintings in this landmark series are now housed in major public collections, including The Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Philadelphia Museum of Art; the Kunstmuseum Bern; the National Gallery, Prague, and the Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris.
(fig. 1) Joan Miró, Peinture, 1933. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. BARCODE: 28854623
(fig. 2) Joan Miró, Peinture, 1933. Musée national d'art moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris. BARCODE: 28854609
(fig. 3) Joan Miró, Peinture, 1933. Philadelphia Museum of Art.
(fig. 4) Joan Miró, Peinture, 1933. Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, St. Louis, Missouri. BARCODE: 28854630