Joan Miro (1893-1983)
Property from an Important American Collection 
Joan Miro (1893-1983)

L'arête rouge transperce les plumes bleues de l'oiseau au pâle bec

Joan Miro (1893-1983)
L'arête rouge transperce les plumes bleues de l'oiseau au pâle bec
signed 'Miró' (lower right); signed again, dated and titled 'Miró. 1951 L'ARÊTE ROUGE TRANSPERCE LES PLUMES BLEUES DE L'OISEAU AU PÂLE BEC' (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
18 x 14¾ in. (45.7 x 37.5 cm.)
Painted in 1951
Pierre Matisse Gallery, New York.
Mr. and Mrs. Maurice R. Culberg, Chicago (by 1961).
Franka Culberg Vlack, New York (by descent from the above).
Richard Feigen Gallery, Chicago.
Charles Yalem, St. Louis.
Dr. Richard W. Levy, New Orleans (by 1966).
Richard L. Feigen & Co., New York.
Mark Goodson, New York (by 1995).
Pace Wildenstein, New York.
Acquired from the above by the present owner.
J. Dupin, Miró, Paris, 1961, p. 543, no. 781 (illustrated).
J. Dupin and A. Lelong-Mainaud, Miró, Paintings, 1942-1955, Paris, 2001, vol. III, p. 179, no. 896 (illustrated in color).
Chicago, The Arts Club, Joan Miró, Works from Chicago Collections, February-March 1961, no. 39.
Tokyo, National Museum of Modern Art and Kyoko, National Museum of Modern Art, Joan Miró, August-November 1966, p. 173, no. 73 (illustrated in color, p. 69).
New York, Pace Wildenstein, The Mark Goodson Collection: Modern Masters from the Collection of Mark Goodson, October-November 1995.

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Brooke Lampley
Brooke Lampley

Lot Essay

L'arête rouge transperce les plumes bleues de l'oiseau au pâle bec stands out as a highlight in a group of expansively titled paintings that Miró commenced in 1950 and continued into 1953. He had recently brought to a conclusion a series of pictures that he called, very simply by contrast, Peintures. The artist probably painted L'arête rouge shortly after he completed, on 16 January 1951, a gigantic canvas he titled Peinture murale (Dupin, no. 893; fig. 1), which Harvard University had commissioned for the Harkness Commons building of the graduate center, at the recommendation of the architect Walter Gropius. Despite the great difference in size between the two paintings, Peinture murale is in its essential elements a close cousin to L'arête rouge, with both pictures sharing the artist's use of luminous color in the ground, and a similarly realized integration of figures--which Miró rendered as signs--and ground. The Museum of Modern Art, New York, acquired Peinture murale from Harvard in 1963. In a letter to MoMA written the following year, Miró stated the Peinture murale was "highly representative," and called it "a capital work that summed up all my research" (quoted in W. Rubin, Miró in the Collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1973, p. 87). Much the same could be said of L'arête rouge, which moreover possesses the advantage for the collector of its manageable size, while retaining the impressively graphic character and resplendent color of the large mural.

The title of the present Miró painting is, in its length, noticeably dissimilar from the brief appellations of a simple generic variety, such as femme, étoile et oiseau or merely peinture, that the artist often attached to his works. It is, in its relationship to the imagery in the painting, far more evocative and vivid. Miró stated in a 1959 interview with Yvon Tallandier; "I begin my paintings because something jolts me away from reality... I need a point of departure... This form gives birth to a series of things... When I give it a title, it becomes even more alive. I find my titles in the process of working, as one thing leads to another on my canvas. When I have found the title, I live in its atmosphere. The title then becomes completely real for me, in the same way that a model, a reclining woman, for example, can become real for another painter. For me, the title is a very precise reality" (quoted in M. Rowell, ed., Joan Miró: Selected Writings and Interviews, Boston, 1986, p. 249).

The words in Miró's complete title, L'arête rouge transperce les plumes bleues de l'oiseau au pâle bec, comprise, in effect, a very succinct and musical poem; the artist's language recalls the synaesthetic, scented Symbolist verse of Verlaine, Laforgue, Mallarmé and Rimbaud, tinged moreover with a suggestion of violence--L'arête rouge transperce--that one may associate with the convulsive imagery of surrealist poetry. While in its length this title does not quite meet the precise syllabic criteria of the Japanese haiku (the French title contains 14 syllables, not the requisite 17 on in the strict practice of the form), it nonetheless possesses a similarly terse unity of form and content. The artist surely calculated the alliteration of sounds stemming from the repetition of the letters r, p and b, which may be heard in the English translation as well: "The red fishbone pierces the blue feathers of the bird with a pale beak." The internal balance of the images in the poem--l'arête and l'oiseau, plumes bleues and pâle bec--is evidence that Miró possessed the verbal imagination of a skillful poet. Margit Rowell has written:

"Miró's use of evocative poetic titles became more systematic in the late forties and early fifties. In the late twenties and throughout the thirties--the artist shunned titles almost completely. The Constellations of 1940-41 marked the beginning of the use of long poetic titles as an accompaniment, like words to music, perhaps inspired by music itself. In the late forties, Miró showed a great interest in titles conceived as distinct poetic phrases. Again it would seem that Miró felt the need for a verbal accompaniment so that his motifs would not be taken at face value but as allusive poetic images" (ibid., p. 228).

From his early years in Paris, Miró sought out and enjoyed the company of poets: he knew Max Jacob and Pierre Reverdy, and moved in the circle of the young surrealist poets Antonin Artaud, Robert Desnos, Paul Eluard and Raymond Queneau. During the late 1920s Miró developed his concept of "peinture-poésie," in which he investigated the reciprocity of visual and linguistic structures, using line to create complementary forms of pictorial elements, writing and surface inscription. The poet André Breton became a close lifetime friend, and in 1959 composed a series of prose poems to accompany the facsimile folio publication of Miró's Constellations. Jacques Dupin, who chronicled Miró's life and work, became a leading poet in France following the end of the Second World War. "The painter works like a poet," Miró declared in 1951, the year in which he executed the present painting (quoted in ibid., p. 219).

The imagery in Miró's title does not correlate entirely or directly with that in the painting; it is, for example, difficult to detect in the picture the great bird's "blue plumage" or the "paleness" of its beak. Miró does not necessarily intend that his titles should be specifically descriptive, and instead they stand on their own as a poetic analogue, serving as a point of departure from which one may muse upon the configuration of signs in the picture, and the ambiguities therein.

The mystery in Miró's imagery, and his striking use of language, find covalent expression in the remarkable coloration that the artist has imparted to this canvas. The large black bird stands starkly against a smoky, veiled half-light, perhaps nocturnal, lit by the glow of a brilliant yellow crescent moon, or perhaps this is the eerie light that descends when the sun undergoes a partial eclipse. Miró has suffused this otherworldly environment with an exquisite rosy pink aura, against which the flashes of primary and binary color--yellow, red and green--radiate with heightened intensity. Miró does not instantly come to mind when asked to summon up the names of the indisputably great colorists of the twentieth century, beginning of course with Matisse and Picasso. Kandinsky was perhaps foremost among abstract painters in effecting the marriage of marvelous color with the continuous invention of non-representational forms. Miró, who actively pursued a self-declared agenda of "anti-painting" in his work during the late 1920s and 1930s, was most characteristically a minimalist when it came to the use of color; he usually preferred to project the expressive potential of color through the sheer strength and brilliance of a few pure unmixed tones, such as the luminous blue grounds in his oneiric paintings of the mid 1920s-"blue is the color of my dreams," he stated in one of these pictures.

As first and foremost an inventor and practitioner of a visual language of signs, Miró ordinarily had little use for subtly graded chromatic mixtures, such as is usually the province of representational painters, those who paint the flesh, fruits and finery of the world as we know it. In the earliest of the gouache Constellations, signs cast in small patches of pure, brilliant color float in a cosmic dimension that is dun and brackish, which Miró generated by cleaning his brushes on the sheets of paper he used for these compositions. The backgrounds in the Constellations lightened and began to take on more vivid tints as the series progressed toward its conclusion, reflecting Miró's own passage from a spiritual condition of darkness to light in the early months of the Second World War. It was not until the war was nearing its end that Miró finally resumed painting in oils on canvas after several years of working exclusively in various media on paper. During the late 1940s he arrived at a powerful synthesis of graphic gesture, the drawing of signs, and a more expressive role for color (Dupin, no. 824; fig. 2). With the completion of the Harvard Peinture murale in 1951, and the smaller paintings that followed (L'arête rouge; Dupin nos. 897 and 903, figs. 3 and 4), Miró had truly come into his own as an astonishing and very individual master of color.

These developments in Miró's painting stem in good part from his exposure to the American art scene, at a time when abstract expressionism was entering its most expansive and heroic stage. In 1947 he travelled to New York to work on his first postwar mural, a composition for the Terrace Plaza Hotel in Cincinnati (Dupin, no. 817; Cincinnati Art Museum). During his seven month stay in the United States, Miró was delighted to learn that his work had been exerting a strong influence on the young American artists who had seen his 1941 retrospective, which James Johnson Sweeney organized for the Museum of Modern Art. Miró's intuitive and poetic impulse provided a promisingly viable alternative to the ideas, derived from Cubism and Die Stijl, which had fostered a prevailing taste in America during the 1930s for geometric abstraction, a movement that had by the mid-1940s run its course. His use of a visual vocabulary of primitive signs, arising from a deeply animistic spirit and executed in spontaneous, energetic gestures, strongly appealed to a new generation of American painters. By his example, Miró helped guide them toward authentically instinctive forms of abstraction, in which they were encouraged to draw freely on a spiritual and an emotional core within their own lives. Barbara Rose has written:

"Miró's dictum, quoted by Sweeney in his catalogue, that 'painting or poetry is made as we make love, a total embrace, prudence thrown to the wind, nothing held back,' provided a rationale for the intense abandon and total emotional involvement demanded by the group that included personalities as troubled and desperate as Pollock, Gorky [fig. 5] and Rothko. They, like virtually every ambitious New York School artist, were profoundly affected, to an extent that altered the course of their art, by the 1941 Miró retrospective" (Miró in America, exh. cat., The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1982, pp. 19-20).

"The artist's visit to the United States thus marked an important date in his life," Jacques Dupin has written. "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, Barcelona, 2004, p. 277). The exchange of ideas that transpired during his American sojourn was reciprocal: Miró came away enriched as well. His graphism, his drawing in paint, took on even greater vigor and assertiveness, leading to the powerful conception of the sign figures that populate L'arête rouge and other paintings of the late 40s and early 50s. And it is no coincidence that following his return from America, Miró celebrated in his painting the power and richness of color with a freedom he had never shown before.

Artist photo:
Joan Miró, September 1956. Photograph by André Ostier.
Barcode: 28851134

(fig. 1) Joan Miró, Peinture murale, 1950-1951. Formerly in the collection of Harvard University, Cambridge; The Museum of Modern Art, New York.
Barcode: 28851127

(fig. 2) Joan Miró, Le soleil rouge ronge l'araignée, 1948. Sold, Christie's New York, 1 November 2005, lot 39.
Barcode: 28851110

(fig. 3) Joan Miró, Libellule aux ailerons rouges à la poursuite d'un serpent glissant en spirale vers l'étoile-comète, 1951. Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid.
Barcode: 28851363

(fig. 4) Joan Miró, Les jasmins embaument de leur parfum doré la robe de la jeune fille, 1952. Formerly in the Collection of Joseph H. Hazen; sold, Christie's New York, 30 April 1996, lot 15.
Barcode: 28851356

(fig. 5) Arshile Gorky, Garden in Socchi, circa 1943. The Museum of Modern Art, New York.
Barcode: 28851349

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