In this marvellous encounter of humankind with nature and the cosmos, two immense avian creatures – appearing to share a single head – astonish a trio of female passers-by, one of whom is a tall beanpole of a girl, as they travel along the rippling contours of a landscape setting, under the horns of a blue crescent moon. The bird is typically the magical catalytic agent in a Miró picture, serving as a celestial emissary, the oracular bearer of a message from beyond, the active creator spirit, and as such – like the bird Loplop in the work of Max Ernst – it is the alter-ego presence of the artist himself.
The story of Miró’s stylistic evolution during the late 1940s and the beginning of the 1950s takes place within the bookends of two murals, landmark works which proclaimed his growing stature on the post-war international art scene. The first is the panoramic Mural Painting, stretching nearly thirty feet from end to end (935 cm.), that Miró created for the Terrace Plaza Hotel, Cincinnati, in 1947 (Dupin, no. 817). Miró executed Painting (Women, Moon, Birds) as he was about to begin work on the second of his cardinal post-war wall-size commissions, Peinture murale, for Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, in October 1950 (Dupin, no. 893; see illustration in the note for lot 6, another Miró painting of 1950 from the same private collection).
This prodigious period of production commenced with a momentous, revelatory journey: Miró’s first trip to America, a stay which lasted from early February through mid-October 1947. The artist spent most of this time working on the Cincinnati mural, a project his dealer Pierre Matisse had arranged for him, in a New York studio space lent for this purpose. Miró’s American sojourn brought to an end the previous six-year period which the artist had spent working in his native Catalunya in relative solitude and seclusion. He had been an ardent supporter of the defeated Republican cause during the Spanish Civil War, and needed to shield himself from the threat of possible retribution while continuing to live and paint under the victorious dictator Franco’s regime.
Pierre Matisse had scheduled an exhibition for the artist in his 57th Street gallery to open in May 1947. Because the dealer had been showing Miró regularly since 1932, the work of the painter was actually better known in America than it was at that time in Paris and the rest of Europe. James Johnson Sweeney, the director of The Museum of Modern Art, New York, had long been an admirer, and gave Miró his first retrospective in November 1941-January 1942. Although the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor in December dampened the public’s interest in this exhibition, American painters and critics had taken notice.
The exhibition of sixteen of the twenty-two gouaches in Miró’s Constellations series (Dupin, nos. 628-650) at the Pierre Matisse Gallery in January 1945 was the first major exhibition of recent work by a leading European avant-garde painter held in New York since America entered the war. ‘It was a great joy for us to see your works again after these long years of silence,’ Matisse reported to Miró. ‘The opinion was unanimous and the public has found your exhibition very moving’ (quoted in C. Lanchner, Joan Miró, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1993, p. 337).
American vanguard painters took valuable lessons from both the retrospective of Miró’s pre-war surrealist work and the subsequent Constellations. ‘Many artists saw in Miró’s painterly, tactile surfaces and swinging, organic rhythms a key to loosening up the tight geometric style that had dominated the cubist art of the American abstract artists,’ Barbara Rose observed. ‘His apparent solution to the problem of reconciling figuration with the flatness demanded by modernist painting suggested an avant-garde alternative to abstract art that was eagerly explored by the New York School’ (Miró in America, exh. cat., The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1982, p. 5).
The opening of the Miró exhibition in New York on 13 May 1947, with the artist present, proved to be a timely event, further affirming his growing prestige on the post-war American art scene. ‘The first representative showing anywhere outside Spain of the work Joan Miró has done since 1939 (at Pierre Matisse’s) is an event whose importance to the American art world cannot be overestimated,’ Clement Greenberg declared in his review of the exhibition, published in The Nation, 7 June 1947.
Completed in September, the Cincinnati mural ‘made a strong impression,’ according to Miró, in private studio previews before he sailed home to Barcelona in mid-October (quoted in C. Lanchner, op. cit., 1993. p. 338). The painting was shown in the spring of the following year at The Museum of Modern Art before being shipped to its destination in Cincinnati. Its success led the architect Walter Gropius in early 1950 to recommend Miró for the project of creating a mural for the dining room of the newly built Harkness Commons Graduate Center of the Harvard University Law School. ‘I have just sent the model to Gropius,’ Miró wrote to his friend the architect Josep Lluís Sert on 22 February. He had decided on the quintessentially Spanish subject of a bullfight. ‘I put all my heart and enthusiasm into it’ (quoted in ibid., p. 339). His design was approved, and on 8 October the artist began to paint the mural, on a canvas nearly 20 feet wide (593 cm.), in his Barcelona studio at 4, Passatge del Crèdit.
Upon finishing the Harvard Mural on 29 January 1951, Miró declared to Sert, ‘I think it is the most powerful thing I have ever done’ (quoted in ibid.). He assessed it as ‘a capital work that summed up all my research’ in a letter to MoMA offcials (quoted in W. Rubin, Miró in the Collection of The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1973, p. 87), after they acquired the painting from Harvard in 1963. The condition of the mural had deteriorated in the highly trafficked university environment, and Miró created a more durable ceramic version of the composition which was installed in its place.
The exemplary aspect of Miró’s art for younger painters lay in the development of his profoundly intuitive creative method, in which he reached deeply into his inner, subconscious self, summoning forth powers comparable to those which he had found in the art of the prehistoric past. From these sources Miró evolved a highly personal language based on the invention and deployment of pictorial signs, images conjured in their most primal state. During the late 1940s and early 1950s the artist perfected what might be characterised as a vintage classical style, in which he synthesized various tendencies he had been exploring since the mid-1930s and distilled from his wartime production.
Miró described his working process during an interview he gave to James Johnson Sweeney, published in February 1948: ‘First, the suggestion, usually from the material; second, the conscious organization of these forms; and third, the compositional enrichment… Forms take reality for me as I work. In other words, rather than setting out to paint something, I begin painting and as I paint the picture begins to assert itself, or suggest itself under my brush. The form becomes a sign for a woman or a bird as I work. Even a few casual wipes of my brush in cleaning it may suggest the beginning of a picture. The second stage, however, is carefully calculated. The first stage is free, unconscious; but after that the picture is controlled throughout, in keeping with that desire for disciplined work I have felt from the beginning’ (M. Rowell, ed., Joan Miró: Selected Writings and Interviews, Boston, 1986, p. 211).
The artist’s approach to painting Painting (Women, Moon, Birds) followed this practice. Miró began the composition by freely brushing the nebulous clusters of reddish and green pigments that create the suggestion of distant space in the background; the swirling shape at lower left appears to spin off birds that spread their wings and take fight. The next stage was to ‘organize’ the picture – ’work with a sharp incisive line as though it were an engraving,’ as Miró described this step, ‘do it as spontaneously as possible… Keep working on it, always controlling the medium’ (‘Working Notes, 1941-42,’ in ibid., pp. 185 and 187). In the present painting these linear elements depict the outlines of the birds, the crescent moon and three figures. The addition of two stars at upper right is a reminder that this visionary confluence of signs is taking place in a preternaturally cosmic dimension.
The final ‘enrichment’ phase commenced as Miró applied opaque colours to give body to the moon, figures, and parts of the birds, especially their shared phallic beak. The concentric eye motifs and the blue moon betoken female sexuality and fertility. These varied elements generate a lively effect while attaining a classically poised and serenely timeless air. The paintings of the immediate post-war period, done between the Cincinnati and Harvard murals, represent a significant consolidation of imagery and technical means, the most significant development in Miró’s painting since the completion of the Constellations.
Miró’s 1947 sojourn in America, and the completion of the Cincinnati and Harvard murals, broadened the extent and impact of his influence in America, which would endure into the next decade, as Abstract Expressionism entered its heyday. Miró, for his part, came away enriched as well (see lot 106). ‘The artist’s visit to the United States thus marked an important date in his life,’ Jacques Dupin explained. ‘It was there he found confirmation of the importance of his work and evidence of the widespread interest it aroused… Above all, he discovered that the primitive magic of his art was consonant with the most dynamic of modern societies’ (Miró, Paris, 2012, p. 277).