Joan Miró painted Femme entendant de la musique on 11 May 1945—Germany had surrendered on 7 May, ending the Second World War in Europe. The western Allied democracies celebrated their V-E Day on the 8th, the Soviet Union the following day. Miró, residing in Barcelona, soon afterward received a letter from Henri Matisse dated Vence 8 May: “At last! Let us rejoice together” (quoted in exh. cat., op. cit., 1993, p. 337).
One may appreciate in the animated calligraphy of Miró’s figures in this painting the artist’s joy at this welcome, long awaited news. Imagine against the darkness of a cabaret stage, silhouetted in the beams of spotlights, a “hot club” quintet of musicians playing heart and soul amid patrons reveling in a copious flow of liquor and high spirits. Mars, the god of war, had been banished. Venus—goddess of love and the bringer of peace—is again ascendant. For Miró, however, events of the day were also a reminder of his own nation’s grim political reality. The whole of the Iberian peninsula—Spain and Portugal—remained under the fascist boot, subject to the dictators Franco and Salazar, men who had plenty of blood on their hands, and would remain in power for a long time to come.
Femme entendant de la musique has a companion work, a slightly larger canvas in a vertical format, which Miró completed a fortnight later, on 26 May 1945, whose title is more revealing about the specific source of the artist’s inspiration—Danseuse entendant jouer de l’orgue dans une cathédrale gothique (Dupin, no. 758). While painting both these pictures, the end of the war appears to have summoned forth in Miró’s mind powerful, abiding memories of his family’s odyssey during the German invasion of France in 1940, when he, his wife Pilar, and daughter Dolores fled from Normandy through southwestern France to the relative safety of their native Catalunya.
The arrival in their homeland, however, amounted only to a brief layover—Miró had good reason to fear for his freedom when returning to Spain. He had openly sympathized with the defeated Loyalist cause during the Spanish Civil War; he painted the anti-fascist mural Le Faucheur for the deposed government's pavilion at the 1937 Paris World's Fair (Dupin, no. 556; since lost), in which Picasso's Guernica was also on view. Fearing that his name was on Franco's secret police watch-list, Miró decided against turning up at his family homes in Barcelona and Mont-roig, and instead took the precaution of sailing to Palma, on the island of Mallorca, where they stayed with Pilar's parents. There during the late summer of 1940 Miró resumed work on his series of gouache Constellations, begun in Normandy at the beginning of the year (Dupin, nos. 628-650).
"I was very pessimistic," Miró stated in a 1978 magazine article. "I felt everything was lost. After the Nazi invasion of France and Franco's victory, I was sure they wouldn't let me go on painting, that I would only be able to go to the beach and draw in the sand or draw figures with the smoke from my cigarette. When I was painting the Constellations I had the genuine feeling that I was working in secret, but it was a liberation for me in that I ceased thinking about the tragedy all around me. While I was working, my suffering stopped" (M. Rowell, ed., Joan Miró: Selected Writings and Interviews, Boston, 1986, pp. 294-295).
“As I lived on the outskirts of Palma I used to spend the hours looking at the sea,” Miró recounted in a 1948 interview with James Johnson Sweeney. “Poetry and music both were now all-important to me in my isolation. After lunch each day I would go the cathedral to listen to the organ rehearsal. I would sit there in that empty gothic interior daydreaming, conjuring up forms…The cathedral seemed always empty at those hours. The organ music and the light filtering through the stained-glass windows to the interior gloom suggested forms to me. I saw practically no one all those months. I read at the time St. John of the Cross, St. Teresa, and poetry—Mallarmé, Rimbaud. It was an ascetic existence: only work” (ibid., p. 210).
During the year that Miró sojourned in Palma, working from his room overlooking the bay, he completed the eleventh through the twentieth of his 23 Constellations. When it appeared unlikely the civil authorities would give him any trouble, Miró, Pilar, and Dolores returned to the artist’s countryside family home in Mont-roig, about 80 miles southwest of Barcelona, where he completed the final three Constellations between 23 July and 12 September 1941.
The artist’s love of stargazing, as well as his fascination with the rippling reflections of sunlight on the waters, inspired the cosmic vision that filled the marvelous Constellations, widely acknowledged to constitute the finest concerted achievement of his entire career. While painting the initial sheets in Varengeville on the English Channel in early 1940, prior to the German invasion, Miró enjoyed listening to classical music on the gramophone. Up in the loft of La Catedral de Santa María de Palma, the organist might have performed the sublime, intricately contrapuntal toccatas, adagios, and fugues of Miró’s favorite composer—Johann Sebastian Bach. In many of the Constellations, heavenly bodies appear to dance about the page as if to the sounds of a musica celestis.
While working on the Constellations in Palma, Miró sketched on 19 June 1941 a series of eleven drawings, as he described in his notebooks, “for a series of large canvases done after forms suggested by music—these drawings are done in the cathedral listening to the singing, one evening in which there was almost no one there and in which the light reflected on the stained-glass windows was magnificent, the canons saying their usual prayers accompanied by the sound of the organ. When I see these drawings again in Mont-roig on August 9, 1941, they seem poor and dead—the title of the canvases, 'Évasion musique' seems pretentious to me—these forms are repetitions, I have done them previously in a more lively way—eliminate, then, this series of canvases, what I can do is to look at the forms in these drawings when I do the large canvases to see if there are new forms and use them—when I do the large canvases what I can also do is think of the magical colorations inside the Cathedral of Palma and color the background in this spirit” (quoted in exh. cat., op. cit., 1993, p. 395).
The idea of “evasion music” stems from Miró’s image, seen in various Constellations, of l’échelle de l’évasion—“the ladder of escape”—which “signals his desire for withdrawal to his own artistic world,” as Marko Daniel and Matthew Dale have explained. “When he marshalled worldly affairs in his work, or less happily, was no longer able to resist their pressures…the ladder of his imagery is unavoidably grounded in reality, and escape is born of awareness. Within this context, his empathy with his fellow beings emerges all the more powerfully in works that convey anxiety and suffering as well as pride and defiance” (Joan Miró: The Ladder of Escape, exh. cat., Tate Modern, London, 2011, pp. 17-18).
Miró placed on hold the project of the large canvases. For the next two years, he instead worked exclusively in diverse media on paper. When he resumed oil painting on canvas in 1944, he employed formats that were rarely larger than the 15 x 18 inch (38 x 48 cm) Constellations. Having written Pierre Matisse, his New York dealer—who in January 1945 showed 22 Constellations to wide acclaim—that he was also creating ceramics and sculptures, the gallerist grew concerned that the artist might give up large easel painting altogether. Matisse need not have worried—Miró, encouraged by the response to his Constellations, finally commenced in late January 1945 the series of large canvases he had planned several years earlier. He painted the pictures in the large attic studio of his family’s Barcelona residence at Passage del Credit, 4. The group numbered nineteen in all when the final work was completed on 8 October 1945 (Dupin, nos. 743-761).
“The intimism of Miró’s entire production from 1939 on,” Jacques Dupin wrote, “and the invention of a new language which made it possible, led to the magnificent series of large canvases painted in 1945” (Miró, Paris, 2012, p. 266). These paintings were done on white or pale-colored grounds, save for the two paintings of women listening to music, with their imagery illuminated against the pitch-dark cathedral interior, which have become the best known and most widely illustrated of this group. Miró transformed the large, stained-glass rose window over the entrance altar into the concentric circles of the woman’s eye in each picture. Linking the imagery on the cross-sectioned, rounded lit forms in the present Femme entendant de la musique are zigzag, serpentine lines, with a ball shape at each end—signs which are related to Miró’s ladder of escape and signify the transformation of the real world through the flight of fantasy and the imagination into the essential values of poetry and art.
The first private owner of Femme entendant de la musique was the Russian-born conductor Vladimir Golschmann, who directed the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra from 1931 to 1958. When the picture became the property of the New York hotelier and philanthropist Evelyn Sharp, she displayed it—in keeping with the nightclub interpretation—in the barroom of her flagship Stanhope Hotel on Fifth Avenue, opposite The Metropolitan Museum of Art. In the catalogue for the 1959 Museum of Modern Art Miró retrospective—the artist’s second at this venue, which occasioned the third of his five visits to America—James Thrall Soby observed that “The Woman Listening to Music…has had the curious if harmlessly gratifying distinction of having some of its forms transferred to such appurtenances of the barroom as ashtrays, match covers, and paper coasters” (J.T. Soby, ed., Joan Miró, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1959, p. 118).
Such a location was not unusual for a Miró painting—the artist’s first American commission was a mural for the restaurant of the Terrace Plaza Hotel in Cincinnati, painted in 1947 (Dupin, no. 817; Cincinnati Museum of Art); the second, painted in 1950-1951, was for the Harkness Commons dining room at Harvard University (Dupin, no. 893; The Museum of Modern Art, New York). Miró—the master of a primordial, universal visual language of signs—would surely have been amused at the mingling of the sacred and profane, the spiritual aspect of art amid the casual conversations and connections taking place in everyday life within the Stanhope saloon walls.
“Miró’s personalization of a sign language gives his art its uniqueness and appeal,” Sidra Stich has written. “Although his language is shaped by anthropological ideas of primitive thinking and images inspired by prehistoric art, Miró assimilated the essence of these sources without imposing either dogmatic or aesthetic limitations on his own creativity. Ultimately, it was his ability to combine both a playful and serious spirit, and to produce an imagery which is at once visually and mentally provocative, which establishes the excellence of his art” (Joan Miró: The Development of a Sign Language, exh. cat., Washington University Gallery of Art, St. Louis, Missouri, 1980, p. 58).