The state of receptivity that Joan Miró required for the creation of his art—as he described in a statement for Tériade’s magazine Minotaure, published in December 1933—“is always born in a state of hallucination, brought on by some jolt or other—whether objective or subjective—for which I am not in the least responsible.” The artist completed earlier that year a series of eighteen large paintings, each titled Peinture, including the canvas offered here (Dupin, nos. 415-432). Within each of these pictures, mysterious biomorphic shapes—some of which are opaquely substantial, while others reveal their presence solely as the outlines of invisible apparitions—drift weightlessly within a seemingly boundless, yet cavernous inner space. The tonalities throughout the group are darkly nocturnal and dreamlike, though rich in hue. Miró achieved in these paintings the aims for his art that he proclaimed in Minotaure: “a maximum clarity, force, and plastic aggressiveness—in other words, to provoke an immediate physical sensation that will make its way to the soul” (M. Rowell, ed., Joan Miró: Selected Writings and Interviews, Boston, 1986, p.122).
These eighteen Peintures mark Miró’s commitment to resume oil painting on canvas, and on a large scale, following the period 1928-1931, when the artist had undertaken a campaign to instigate “the assassination of painting” and explore alternative means of expression. He had decided at that time to dispense with all the time-honored conventions of oil painting, and instead turned to creating rude, subversive collages and painting-objects assembled from base and insignificant materials, which Jacques Dupin described as “poisoned arrows let fly at ‘painting-painting’ and ideal beauty” (Miró, Paris, 2012, p. 152). This provocatively nihilistic impetus notwithstanding, Miró did not so much undermine the accepted notions of painting as he actually contributed to expanding the medium’s viable formal potential, while further broadening the inclusivity of content in his art. The present Peinture and its companion canvases are the direct outcome of this contest between painting and anti-painting, in which Miró revealed some of the most tantalizingly enigmatic, yet succinct plastic forms he had yet conceived.
The outward shared characteristics of the eighteen Peintures clearly proclaim their unity as a series. The uniquely defining impetus, however, for both Miró’s themes and imagery, lies far more deeply than meets the eye. The mechanism of the artist’s inspiration is revealed instead in the behind-the-scenes process through which he conceived these paintings. The “objective jolt” that led to their creation, whether such an event transpired in a state of hallucination or not, was Miró’s revelation of a procedure in which the means were ostensibly antithetical to his intended effect. He based each of the large Peintures on a collage of elements—“cultural artifacts,” as Carolyn Lanchner characterized them—culled from Catalan newspaper ads and commercial sales catalogues” (Joan Miró, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1993, p. 59).
“I used to tear newspapers into rough shapes and paste them on cardboards,” Miró explained to James Johnson Sweeney in 1948. “Day after day I would accumulate such shapes. 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” (M. Rowell, ed., op. cit., 1986, p. 209). The miracle of creation that the artist so innovatively achieved in the Peintures is the metamorphoses of modern mechanical devices and factory wares into signs that connote primordial natural and early human states, in which images of material reality in our own day have been translated into a prehistorical, even pre-mythical context. Hard, cold, 20th century steel evokes an elusive dream of humankind’s most distant past.
The world-wide Depression had cast the vibrant Parisian art scene of the Twenties into in the doldrums. To save on living expenses, Miró, with his wife and their two-year-old daughter, spent the first six months of 1933 staying with his mother in her apartment at Passatge de Crèdit, 4, in Barcelona. The artist was also relieved to escape the intrigues hatched by his Surrealist confrères as they fought amongst themselves. He turned his mother’s attic into a makeshift studio.
Between 26 January and 11 February 1933, Miró fabricated the eighteen preliminary collages, at the rate of about one per day. While the choice and placement of each cut or torn element on the pure white paper sheet may appear calculated and by design, Roland Penrose stated that Miró pasted the images “at random,” while nonetheless displaying the “wit and evidence of [his] innate sense of composition” (Miró, New York, 1969, p. 73). Apart from dating each sheet on the reverse, Miró added nothing to the collages in his own hand. The act of creating the Peintures, in response to the “jolt” of the collages, would become, by comparison—even amid the frisson of spontaneous inspiration—a more deliberative and meditative process.
This sudden interest in mechanical imagery is unprecedented in Miró’s oeuvre. Francis Picabia had concluded his Dada phase of mechanomorphic production more than a decade previously. Miró’s recent preoccupation with objects as accessories in his conspiracy to “assassinate painting” may be regarded, nevertheless, as a self-willed and personally rebellious demonstration of a lingering Dadaist attitude. He continued to investigate further means of “anti-painting” to broaden the scope of pictorial resources at his disposal, and to kindle alternative faculties of inspiration that would embolden his art. Miró’s own history of painting embraced both prehistoric and modern forms of expression. His fascination with mechanical elements appears to have developed out of the point-counterpoint in his mind of modern versus primitive man; he sought to understand the culture and consciousness of one antipode in the chain of human development in comparison with the other, across the vast gulf of time.
Miró completed the final collage on 11 February 1933. These pasted papers became child to the man, the large Peintures, the first of which Miró commenced on 3 March. He derived, invented, and fashioned forms from the pasted images, while also employing the collages as a guide in establishing the spatial relationships between these elements on the new, much larger picture plane. “The forms of these collages suggested other forms to him,” Christian Zervos wrote, “even as clouds often suggest fantastic images to us” (quoted in exh. cat., op. cit., 1941, p. 53). The artist worked from the collages, he recalled, “as if d’après nature” (W. Rubin, Miró in the Collection of The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1973, p. 60). Miró painted the canvases in precisely the same order in which he had executed the collages.
These paintings are among the largest Miró had done to date; only a few earlier works surpass them in height or width. Miró might have liked to carry out some of the Peintures on an even more ambitious scale; the height of the attic ceiling in his mother’s apartment, however, placed a limit on their size. Realizing there would be insufficient room to store the completed canvases, he moreover decided to paint the large works only one at a time, pausing to unstretch and roll the completed canvas, and then reuse the stretchers for the next Peinture. Each picture would take several days, a week, or sometimes even fortnight to complete. Miró had become engaged in a thread of continuous, serial creation, which lasted until he completed the eighteenth and final Peinture on 24 June 1933.
Jacques Dupin viewed the eighteen Peintures of 1933 as “the culminating point of this stage in his development,” a phase which he termed “plastic concentration.” He discerned that “a spirit of austerity presides over them all... Miró wanted to test himself, to demonstrate his plastic mastery in the field of pure painting in large scale works. To block off his natural spontaneity, to forestall direct expression in color and line, he resorted to the intermediate medium of collage. His preliminary work in this medium set up a barrier between his creative enthusiasm and the actual execution of the canvas. This distance in space (or slowing up in time) was used to refine and to concentrate form, to reduce it to the essential, to trim off all excrescences ruthlessly, so that in the end there were left only the naked archetypes from which form springs” (op. cit., 2012, p. 174).
The eighteen Peintures of 1933 were first exhibited, as the complete group, at Galerie Georges Bernheim, Paris, in October of that year. The impact of the Depression prevented any sales; however, as Miró wrote to Pierre Matisse in New York, “from the morale standpoint, it was a great success” (exh. cat., op. cit., 1993, p. 331). The preliminary collages were not shown. Miró never hid the fact of their existence; he kept them, and late in his life gave them, together with numerous sketches and notebooks, to the Fundació Joan Miró in Barcelona. Even when Christian Zervos discussed their significance in relation to the paintings in the 1934 issue of Cahiers d’art, which featured Miró, he did not illustrate the collaged studies. It is only in recent years that it has become common practice in museum exhibitions, and in the scholarly literature, to show the collage alongside its related Peinture.
None of the imagery in the Peintures is abstract, Miró insisted. In a letter to Pierre Matisse dated 12 October 1934, regarding the titles of paintings to be included in a forthcoming New York exhibition, the artist pointed out “something I want to avoid completely: ‘composition,’ for example (which evokes the Abstraction-Creation group)” (M. Rowell, ed., op. cit., 1986, p. 124). Miró had recently refused an invitation to join this group. “Have you ever heard of anything more stupid than abstraction-creation?” he complained to Georges Duthuit. “And they ask me into their deserted house, as if the marks I put on a canvas did not correspond to a concrete representation in my mind, did not possess a profound reality, were not a part of the real itself?” (quoted in op. cit., 2012, p. 178). Miró often used the title Peinture to assert his stance that he was creating “pure painting,” in which his expression was in fact a reality in and of itself.
“The tools and machines chosen by Miró, though modern, correspond to objects created by prehistoric man to serve his basic needs and activities,” Sidra Stich, a professor of art and archeology, has written. “Alternatively, they show the ‘advancements’ of ‘civilized man’ in what seems to be a spirit of parody... In the translational process the motionless, rigid contrivances are magically revitalized as primordial forms and biomorphic beings. Though the painted images are unnameable and undefined as particular things or creatures, they escape being mere formal abstractions. They are invigorated by an inner life force. They float with the self-sustaining buoyance of their own generative potential... This is the ‘religious essence, the magic of things’ that Miró so sought to capture. A pervasive, mystical atmosphere prevails...not unlike the spiritual ambiance of prehistoric caverns, which were thought to be sacred sites for meditation or ritual observance” (Joan Miró: The Development of a Sign Language, exh. cat., Washington University Gallery of Art, St. Louis, Missouri, 1980, pp. 29 and 32).
James Johnson Sweeney chose the present Peinture, together with four others of the series (Dupin, nos. 416, 424, 430, and 431), for inclusion in Miró’s first retrospective—most excitingly for the artist, one of international stature—held at The Museum of Modern Art, New York, which opened on 18 November 1941. The occasion was momentous; the timing, however, proved unfortunate—Japan bombed Pearl Harbor on 7 December and the United States entered the Second World War. This choice overview of Miró’s oeuvre to date nonetheless left a deep impression on the nascent New York art scene, and planted the seeds of his influence in the gardens of an entire generation of young American artists, who would emerge as leading figures in the new avant-garde of the post-war era.
“Miró employed these images derived from the collage forms to set in motion a series of reflections,” James Johnson Sweeney wrote of the present Peinture and its four companion pictures in the 1941 retrospective catalogue. “These in turn endowed the images that provoked them with a rich and often extremely intimate associational life. As a result, in the eventual transcription of these visual forms, Miró was able to give them all the intensity of the emotion his images had aroused. If we examine these forms closely we will clearly distinguish discernible sexual motives in many of these compositions; in others we recognize various elements familiar from earlier work... Nevertheless, for all this emphasis on subject matter, Miró’s memory of the material character of his collage inspiration always prevented his phantasy from carrying him too far from the strictly formal. The consequence is a group of compositions surpassing in austere richness and suggestive mystery every phase of Miró’s work up to that date” (exh. cat., op. cit., 1941, p. 54).