Joan Miro  (1893-1983)
Joan Miro (1893-1983)

La caresse des étoiles

Joan Miro (1893-1983)
La caresse des étoiles
signed 'Miró' (center)
oil on canvas
23¾ x 28 7/8 in. (60.3 x 69.3 cm.)
Painted 22 July 1938
Galerie Pierre (Pierre Loeb), Paris (acquired from the artist).
Nathan L. Halpern, New York (acquired from the above, circa 1945); estate sale, Christie's, New York, 3 November 2004, lot 11.
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner.

Lot Essay

Jacques Dupin has confirmed the authenticity of this painting.

By any reckoning, Miró's La caresse des étoiles is a highly important painting by an acknowledged giant of European modernism, done when the artist was at the peak of his powers. It is a 20th century masterwork in the most profound sense, for in addition to its exceptional pictorial qualities as a work of art, it offers illuminating insight into the tragic drama of modern history in which it was created. No less remarkable is the fact that La caresse des étoiles possesses a most unusual and even astonishing history. This major picture has remained out of sight for most of the time since it was painted in 1938. It was hidden away in Paris during the Second World War to save it from falling into the hands of the German occupiers. After he acquired and brought it to America in 1945, Nathan L. Halpern, a sociable but discreetly private television executive and art collector, kept it in his home and showed it to his friends, but it otherwise went unexhibited and unpublished--it did not even appear in Jacques Dupin's catalogue raisonné of Miró's paintings, which came out in 2000. When La caresse des étoiles finally made its public debut in Christie's New York sale on 3 November 2004, it was as if a star had suddenly fallen from the sky, as depicted in the picture itself, and these storied circumstances lifted the painting to a price that far exceeded its presale estimate.

Miro painted La caresse des étoiles during the Spanish Civil War, which began in July 1936, when General Francisco Franco led an uprising of fascist and other right-wing elements against the elected left-wing government. 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 seemed so dangerous that the artist 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 a room as a studio (fig. 1). This space was hardly adequate, a situation which Miró had experienced before, and he addressed in an autobiographical article written for the journal XXe Siècle in May 1938, 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) (fig. 2) early in the summer, executing it in sections on celotex panels. He completed it in time for the inauguration of the pavilion.

Also on display 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 fascist forces. 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. Both murals shared an expression of violence and protest inspired by the dreadful events in the artists' homeland. 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, with results that utterly transcended their immediate propagandistic function. Similarities may be observed in the treatment of the suffering, beseeching victims in Guernica (especially in Picasso's studies, e.g., Zervos, vol. 9, no. 44; fig. 3) and in Miró's peasant-martyr in Le faucheur. While Picasso was unflinching in his pathos, however, Miró rarely failed to leaven his figures with a measure of humor and irony, an expression of his optimistic humanism. Picasso's Guernica, of course, went on to become a 20th century icon of anti-war protest. Miró's Le faucheur might have also become a memorable and enduring symbol of modern man's revolt against tyranny and oppression. Unfortunately, his mural was lost without a trace and presumably destroyed when the artist shipped the mural painting's component panels to Valencia following the close of the Paris World's Fair.

Miró painted La caresse des étoiles in July 1938, a year after he had completed and exhibited Le faucheur. Miró's Catalan peasant, wearing his customary red barratina (a beret with elongated sock-like crown) and a black smock, makes his reappearance on the left hand side in the present painting. As in Le faucheur, a blue star hovers above him, a symbol of his revolutionary ideals. His head is filled with universal symbols--a triangle, a black sun and moon. Clad in a white blouse and red skirt, his wife stands across from him, and between them, their two children, who appear anxious and apprehensive. An elongated red-tailed bird crosses in front the woman; as in so many Miró paintings, the bird is a spirit messenger from another realm. A second star, which controls their immediate fate, bursts like a shell above their heads and rains down upon their lives. The peasant tells of some news as his family gathers around and anxiously listens. His message might have represented the hopes of the artist himself, who on 7 April 1938 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).

The lower part of the composition in La caresse des étoiles is given over to a fluid blood red and stormy black, creating an ominous atmosphere for the scene. 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 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 the form of an assault upon the human figure, disintegrating it utterly, submerging it in a tidal wave of unleashed elemental powers (fig. 4). 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" (in 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 studious 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 La caresse des étoiles, in which four figures 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 Miro brought to La caresse des étoiles, as seen in the rendering of the figures and abstract symbols, coupled to the artist's desire to deal with topical events, underline 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), a term that refers to the artist's acceptance of the fact that national and private destiny in these terrible times were inextricably joined, as events unfolded with an inevitability that seem fated in the stars. The use of a beaded or dotted line in the present painting--seen elsewhere only in one painting done in April 1938 (Dupin, no. 579) and a handful of others, also completed that summer (Dupin, nos. 589-591,593 and 595 (fig. 5))--suggests that Miró's figures move about their daily lives in a fragile and tentative state of being, and they are liable to being dissolved or obliterated in an instant if fate has thus decreed it.

There is, nevertheless, in these paintings a projection of an irresistible and unconquerable life force that manifests itself above all else, and surges from the very heart of Miró's character and outlook. La caresse des étoiles was possibly painted in Varengeville, a coastal town in Normandy, in a house lent by Paul Nelson, an architect who had commissioned Miró to execute some murals for his own residence there. The present painting displays numerous stylistic characteristics that prefigure 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. From the time Miró completed La caresse des étoiles to the first 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 have begun to mingle and 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 aesthetic in the Constellations. The nebulous, multi-hued background seen in La caresse des étoiles has its counterpart in the stained and tinted backgrounds in the Constellations, although by 1940 Miró had divested this space of almost all its ominous drama and turbulence, and instead made it evocative of 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 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). In the three years between the completion of La caresse des étoiles 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 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.

Nathan L. Halpern, the first owner of La caresse des étoiles, acquired the painting in 1945, during the months following the liberation of France. While working in the Office of Strategic Services in London, he had participated in the planning of the D-Day landings. He subsequently served in the U.S. Information Services based in France, and undertook covert operations behind enemy lines. Following the liberation of Paris in August 1944, Mr. Halpern and a fellow soldier, the artist John Ferren, were among the first Americans to arrive at Picasso's studio and greet the famous artist. Mr. Halpern later met Pierre Loeb, and in a deal that could have only taken place against the backdrop of war, the young American soldier and art lover swapped his overcoat and other sundries for La caresse des étoiles. When the war ended, Mr. Halpern returned to the USA on a military transport plane, with his prized Miró painting wrapped in a blanket and cradled in his lap. Mr. Halpern went on to work for CBS television under William Paley, and subsequently founded Theatre Network Television, where during his 45-year tenure he pioneered many developments in television entertainment and global communications. Mr. Halpern died in April 2004, and his heir sold the Miró La caresse des étoiles and other works in the November sales at Christie's New York.

(fig. 1) Miró in his studio at 98, boulevard Auguste-Blanqui, Paris, circa fall 1938. Photograph by D. Bellon (coll. Nicholas Huguet, Paris). BARCODE 26015354

(fig. 2) Joan Miró, Le faucheur (The Reaper, Catalan Peasant in Revolt), 1937. Location unknown, presumably destroyed. BARCODE 26015361

(fig. 3) Pablo Picasso, Etude pour 'Guernica', 3 June 1937. Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid. BARCODE 26015378

(fig. 4) Joan Miró, Deux personnages, 10 April 1935. The Kreeger Museum, Washington, D.C. BARCODE 26015330

(fig. 5) Joan Miró, Figure devant de la mer, 1 August 1938. Ikeda Museum of 20th Century Art, Shizuoka. BARCODE 26015347

(fig. 6) Joan Miró, La Poètesse, 31 December 1940. Sold, Christie's, New York, 10 May 1995. BARCODE 26015385

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