A fantastical vision charged with romance and passion, Peinture is one of the finest of the great breakthrough ‘dream’ paintings that Joan Miró began during the summer of 1925. Rendered on a monumental scale, this towering canvas ranks among the largest of this extraordinary series of works which saw the artist break through the boundaries of pictorial convention to reach a new form of poetic and abstract art. Instinctively rendered, lyrical and often breathtakingly poetic, these works are widely regarded as the most important of Miró’s career, giving rise to the visual language of floating signs and forms that defines his oeuvre. Exhibited in a number of landmark retrospectives of the artist, including most recently the Grand Palais exhibition of 2018-2019 in Paris, Peinture wholly immerses the viewer into the desirous inner world of the artist.
With the dream paintings, Miró transformed the ground of the canvas into a boundless, infinite plane, filled with enigmatic, often literary-inspired ciphers, signs and forms. All illusionistic, mimetic elements were expunged, replaced instead by highly poetic and dream-like amalgamations of cursive lines and shapes, some of which tantalizingly allude to, yet never quite define, recognisable objects. In Peinture, the black wash upon the canvas appears as if a smoky vapour, quivering, unfurling, disappearing and emerging into the abstract void in ethereal, seemingly endless movements – a bold contrast to the shapes of intense unmodulated primary colour that hang Calder-like amid the large canvas. This type of ground is particularly rare, used by Miró at the very beginning of this period of fervent, all-encompassing creativity. Like The Museum of Modern’s Art’s monumental Peinture (La naissance du monde) (Dupin, no. 125), which he painted likely at the same time as Peinture, this ground captures the rawness and immediacy of Miró’s new visual language, while at the same time, transforms this two-dimensional pictorial plane into a timeless, boundless realm, ‘an ocean of air,’ as René Gaffe, the first owner of the MoMA’s Peinture, once described this smoky ground (quoted in J. Dupin, Joan Miró: Life and Work, New York, 1962, p. 161).
The dream paintings were the visionary product of a period of crisis in Miró’s art. In 1924, Miró found that he had exhausted the painstakingly rendered realism that characterised his densely composed work – such as La ferme (1921-1922, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.). At this time, Miró, like André Breton and the nascent group of Surrealists, was searching for a new mode of artistic creation, one that harnessed the inner, subconscious realm, and was therefore freed from convention, tradition and real life. ‘It may be said that everything is up in the air,’ Breton wrote at this time. ‘There is an absolute crisis of the model. The old model, taken in the outside world, does not exist anymore, cannot exist anymore. The model to succeed it, which will be taken in the inner world, has not yet been discovered’ (quoted in ibid., p. 136).
For Miró, it was the heady avant-garde crucible of the rue Blomet, the small street tucked away in Montparnasse, that would provide the catalyst for his move away from realism and ‘escape’ from the conventional limitations of painting for a magical world of subconsciously inspired signs. Surrounded by a circle of artists and poets, including André Masson who had a studio next to Miró, Michel Leiris, Georges Limbour and Robert Desnos, among others, the artist found himself within an extraordinarily fertile creative environment; or as Jacques Dupin has described, ‘an almost delirious intellectual effervescence’ (ibid., p. 120).
Under the influence of the group’s burgeoning automatist techniques and the inspiration of his friends and neighbours, Miró’s canvases opened up, liberated from the dense detail of his earlier work, to instead become ‘receptacles for dreams’ (ibid., p. 157). These abstract images were derived in part from the hunger induced hallucinations that Miró was experiencing at this time. On some days, he existed on just a few dried figs a day, too proud to ask his artist friends for financial help – and perhaps excited by the new world of fantastical vision that these hallucinations provided for him. Whilst in this state, Miró stared at the walls of his studio, or marks on the ceiling, spontaneously capturing on paper the surreal signs, shapes and forms that appeared to him in this semi-conscious state.
Adhering solely to the irrational, spontaneous impulses of his unconscious, Miró started to paint with a new, unplanned and unconstrained abstract imagery composed of graphic-like signs and forms. ‘I painted without premeditation,’ he described, ‘as if under the influence of a dream. I combined reality and mystery in a space that had been set free… Later, a deepening sense of the marvellous led me to the notion of the fantastic. I was no longer subjected to dream-dictation, I created my dreams through my paintings… I escaped into the absolute of nature. I wanted my spots to seem to open to the magnetic appeal of the void. I was very interested in the void, in perfect emptiness. I put it into my pale and scumbled grounds, and my linear gestures on top were the signs of my dream progression’ (quoted in M. Rowell, ed., Joan Miró: Selected Writings and Interviews, London, 1987, p. 264).
An important inspiration and impetus behind the birth of works such as Peinture was Miró’s complete immersion in the avant-garde poetry of his peers and of their predecessors. Rimbaud, Jarry, Éluard and Apollinaire were the heroes of this artistic circle, each writer demonstrating new means of playing with words, phrases and poetry. Their work set Miró’s imagination alight; as he later reminisced: ‘The poets Masson introduced me to interested me more than the painters I had met in Paris. I was carried away by the new ideas they brought and especially the poetry they discussed. I gorged myself on it all night long – poetry principally in the tradition of Jarry’s Surmâle’ (quoted in M. Rowell and R. Krauss, Joan Miró: Magnetic Fields, exh. cat., New York, 1983, p. 40).
Indeed, Peinture is particularly indebted to the Symbolist writer Alfred Jarry’s Le Surmâle or The Supermale (1902). Together with the Centre Pompidou’s L’Addition (Dupin, no. 168), the forms and just definable imagery of the present work was possibly inspired by the various motifs and narratives of Jarry’s fantastical final novel, which centres around themes of speed and a Futurist obsession with modernity, as well as virility and eroticism. The protagonist of the book, André Marcueil, asserts that a man can make love an infinite number of times – the inspiration perhaps for the numbers that float in the Centre Pompidou’s work. While no specific episode appears to be referenced in Peinture, a sense of heady eroticism – as well as a gentle humour – pervades. The abstracted form of a male figure coalesces from the floating shapes and lines amid this monumental canvas. He is depicted striding forwards, his head an amorphous white form seen in profile, with an eye and an flamboyant black moustache. Regarded in this way, the composition takes on an erotic context, the man clearly in the throes of passion.
This spectral male figure seems to move towards the strange propeller-like form suspended weightlessly in the top right corner of the composition, the curving, hourglass silhouette perhaps referencing the form of a woman, the object of the man’s desire, who remains just beyond his reach though clearly the subject of his affections, a detail Miró made all the more clear with the bright red heart prominently serving as the male figure’s torso. The vaporous black forms that rise weightlessly on the opposite corner of the canvas could be stockinged legs emerging from a diaphanous black, Spanish lace skirt; a blue and white woman’s shoe also appears on the lower edge of the composition. Love, lust, passion and eroticism fill every corner of this enigmatic composition, as Miró conceived of an entirely new pictorial language to capture these sentiments.
Aged thirty and unmarried, Miró admitted to having romance very much on his mind at this time – he wrote to Picasso in 1923 that he was then ‘in pursuit of a Mme Miró, a studio, and a dealer!’ (quoted in C. Lanchner, Joan Miró, exh. cat., New York, 1993, p. 322). Love and eroticism were central topics in the rue Blomet circle and Surrealism as a whole, and therefore unsurprisingly these themes pervade many of Miró’s dream paintings, themselves vehicles for the unimpeded, unmediated expressions of the artist’s innermost desires and primal impulses. In addition to the erotically charged Peinture, Miró painted Le corps de ma brune (sold Christie’s, London, 7 February 2012, £16,841,250), which includes a rapturous declaration of hand written love amid the ethereal form of a woman, as well as a small group of works that feature an entwined couple floating weightless through endless space (Dupin, nos. 128-132). ‘All these oneiric paintings possess great erotic power,’ Dupin wrote. ‘Connected with subjective obsessions and realised at the dictation of the unconscious, they simultaneously unmask and mask, set down and erase, the infinitely varied phantasms of the libido’ (op. cit., 1962, pp. 164-166).
This concept not only came to underpin Surrealism, but Miró’s art as a whole. ‘What counts is to bare our soul,’ he told the first owner of Peinture, the critic, writer and later husband of Henri Matisse’s daughter Marguerite, Georges Duthuit, in 1936. ‘Painting and poetry are done in the same way you make love, it’s an exchange of blood, a total embrace – without caution, without any thoughts of protecting yourself’ (quoted in G. Duthuit, ‘Where are you going, Miró?’, Cahiers d’Art, Paris, nos. 8-10, in M. Rowell, op. cit., 1987, p. 150). In creating Peinture and the dream paintings, Miró channelled every aspect of his life onto the canvas. Word and image, poetry and painting, material pigment and intangible parts of the imagination, all coalesce to create canvases that mirrored the blissful spirit of creativity, camaraderie and discovery that the artists and poets of the rue Blomet shared at this time.
Never before seen at auction, Peinture remained in Duthuit’s collection, before it was acquired by Claude Hersaint around 1950. One of the greatest collectors of Surrealism, Hersaint had begun collecting art from this movement even before it was formally inaugurated as such by Breton in the mid-1920s. His first surrealist work to enter his collection was by Max Ernst, which he acquired in 1921 after having fallen in love with the German artist’s work when a friend’s sister took him to see it for the first time at the Galerie au Sans Pareil in Paris that same year.
This acquisition, made at a time when Hersaint was only 17 years old, was to mark not only the genesis of his collection and a life-long passion for Surrealism, it also marked the beginning of a long, personal friendship with many of the leading figures in the Surrealist movement. These included artists such as Miró, Max Ernst, Salvador Dalí, Oscar Domínguez, Jean Dubuffet, Marcel Duchamp, René Magritte, Jean Fautrier and Man Ray and many Surrealist patrons, poets and art historians; among them Paul Éluard, Marie-Laure de Noailles, William Copley, Jean-Louis Prat and Jacques Maritain.