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

Personnages et oiseau dans la nuit

Joan Miro (1893-1983)
Personnages et oiseau dans la nuit
signed, dated and titled 'Miró. 1944 "personnages et oiseau dans la nuit"' (on the reverse)
oil and pastel on canvas
8¼ x 11½ in. (21 x 30 cm.)
Executed in 1944
Bresler Galleries, Milwaukee.
Mr. and Mrs. Everett N. Carpenter, Milwaukee (acquired from the above, 1956).
By descent from the above to the present owner.
J. Dupin, Miró, New York, 1961, p. 532, no. 636.
J. Dupin and A. Lelong-Mainaud, Joan Miró, Catalogue raisonné. Paintings, 1942-1955, Paris, 2001, vol. III, p. 64, no. 738 (illustrated).
Milwaukee Art Center, Wisconsin Collects, September-October 1964, no. 46 (illustrated).

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Brooke Lampley
Brooke Lampley

Lot Essay

"A painting must be fertile. It must give birth to a world. It doesn't matter if it depicts flowers or people or horses, as long as it reveals a world, something alive" (J. Miró, quoted in M. Rowell, ed., Joan Miró: Selected Writings and Interviews, London, 1987, p. 251).

In its combination of simplified characters, emphatic black lines and bright primary colors set within a white ground, Personnages et oiseau dans la nuit epitomizes the pictorial language that Miró perfected during the mid-1940s. Zigzagging, straight and sinuous lines and touches of powdery pastel animate the picture plane, helping to produce a quirky and amusing composition that buzzes with its own distinct sense of energy, whimsy and life. Miró executed this charming painting in 1944 when he returned with great exuberance to the medium of oil on canvas after a break of some four years, a hiatus that was probably caused by the wartime shortages of materials. In what proved to be an exceptionally fruitful and creative year for the artist, he also completed his powerful "Barcelona" series of fifty black-and-white anti-war lithographs and collaborated for the first time with the ceramicist Josep Llorens Artigas. Relaying this remarkable burst of creativity to his dealer Pierre Matisse, Miró expressed the benefits he believed these various activities would have on the paintings, such as Personnages et oiseau dans la nuit, that he had planned would follow: "I work as always a lot; if I've made ceramics and lithographs, as this summer I am going to make sculpture, it is not to abandon painting, on the contrary, it is to enrich it with new possibilities and to take it up with a new enthusiasm" (Miró, letter to P. Matisse, 17 June 1944, quoted in C. Lanchner, Joan Miró, exh. cat., New York, 1993, p. 336).

Of the works that Miró produced during his four-year lapse from painting with oils, his most famous are the highly intricate group of twenty-three gouaches known as the Constellations. Depicting cosmic realms populated by birds, women and mythical creatures, these works on paper have been regarded as the culmination of a language of pictorial signs that Miró had begun to develop as early as the mid-1920s (see S. Stich, Joan Miró: The Development of a Sign Language, exh. cat., St. Louis, 1980). They were also, however, to act as the point of departure for the oil paintings of 1944. In Personnages et oiseau dans la nuit Miró reproduces the stars, crescent moons and lines ending in "knobs" that feature so prominently in the Constellations. Eschewing the complex, swirling web of tightly interlaced lines, dots and shapes of those gouaches, each individual element in the Personnages et oiseau dans la nuit appears as a far more isolated entity. The pictorial language has been distilled and has a greater freshness and simplicity, giving the image a more direct and graphic visual appeal. Jacques Dupin has written of this series as follows: "In 1944, after four years away from oil painting, Miró went back to it in a new spirit, displaying astonishing ease and productivity. Oil confers an authority, a decisiveness, and a clarity to canvas that modifies its structure and its spirit. The climate is a more relaxed one, and figures have a sobriety that intensifies them" (J. Dupin, Miró, Barcelona, 2004, p. 264).

Following the Constellations, figures--particularly female figures--and birds depicted in nocturnal settings became Miró's favored motifs. He later explained that his perennial attachment to these subjects perhaps reflected his love of space and, by implication, the ideals of freedom and liberty (see M. Rowell, op. cit., p. 283). Given the context of the year in which Personnages et oiseau dans la nuit was painted--1944--this assumes a very particular significance. Yet as the artist explained in an interview conducted in 1948, rather than setting out to paint a particular subject, the picture would only begin to "assert itself" organically as he painted, with the various forms becoming "a sign for a woman or a bird as I work" (quoted in ibid., p. 211).

In 1948, Miró outlined the structure of the creative process that lay behind his recent work: "in the various paintings I have done since my return from Palma to Barcelona there have always been three stages--first, the suggestions, usually, from the material; second, the conscious organization of these forms; and third, the compositional enrichment" (quoted in ibid., p. 211). In the present picture, the hazy haloes of diffuse color would have perhaps suggested the initial distribution of the forms. The central focal point is the figure of a woman, who divides the composition into two parts, and for whom the crescent moon doubles as her head. To the right of her, the silhouetted, almost "horned," shape acts as the body for the extended, craning neck of man, a device that appears in a number of Miró's other paintings of the period, as in his Femmes et oiseau dans la nuit in the collection of The Museum of Modern Art, New York. The faces of these figures are at once both comic and yet faintly tragic, touching and perhaps--in the case of the man--quizzical.

The lightness of touch of Personnages et oiseau dans la nuit and the spirit with which it is imbued belies its time and, to some extent, its title. The night is not dark, but bright white and within this white night, the stars twinkle and the colors are crisp. Yet behind its quirkiness and humor, its childlike wonderment at the universe and the clarity and simplicity of its execution, there is the feeling that some of the emotion it communicates through the figures needs to be contextualized within the date of its execution.

Artist photo:
Barcode: 30189317
Joan Miró, New York, 1947.

(fig. 1) Barcode: 33865461
Joan Miró, Women and Bird in the Night, 1944. Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

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