‘My desire,’ stated Joan Miró in 1959, ‘is to attain a maximum intensity with a minimum of means. That is why my painting has gradually become more spare’ (quoted in M. Rowell, ed., Joan Miró: Selected Writings and Interviews, London, 1987, p. 251). True to his word, Miró created in Goutte d’eau sur la neige rose an image of extraordinary poetic effect from only a very few, leanly stylized components, which resound against the boundless, monochromatic ground like sonorous musical notes in a vast, empty space. Two broad, calligraphic arcs evoke the landscape setting of the painting’s allusive title, while a single star pictogram, rendered with a contrasting fine line, establishes the cosmic aspect of the composition. Simultaneously, the elements may be seen to conjure the rudiments of a human figure – two eyes, a shock of hair, the arms interlocked in an embrace. Rather than yielding to any fixed interpretation, the painting encourages the mind to wander, contemplating the possible; the exquisite restraint of the composition suggests an entirely interior perspective, opening up the image to the individual subjectivity of the viewer.
Goutte d’eau sur la neige rose is the first in a pair of canvases, identical in size and painted exactly a month apart, in which Miró explored the expressive potential of the inversion of colour schemes. The present painting features a splash of green suspended against an intense orange field, while the pendant – Cheveu poursuivi par deux planètes (Hair Pursued by Two Planets), 18 March 1968 – projects an orange orb onto a green ground instead (Dupin, no. 1289). A preparatory drawing in the Fundació Joan Miró, Barcelona, indicates that the artist initially conceived the imagery of the two paintings in tandem, based on an interplay of formal equivalences and contrasts (see M. Rowell, The Captured Imagination, New York, 1987, no. 127). ‘The juxtaposition of these two paintings,’ Jacques Dupin wrote, ‘yields an oppositional rivalry, similar to a silent double metaphor’ (Miró, London, 2012, p. 332).
The deceptive minimalism of Goutte d’eau sur la neige rose harks back to the ‘oneiric’ or ‘dream’ paintings that Miró created in 1925-1927, which are among the most austere, elusive, and mysteriously evocative works in his entire oeuvre. Jettisoning the rules of perspective that artists had used since the Renaissance to construct illusionistic pictorial depth, Miró composed these visionary paintings from elemental motifs and calligraphic ciphers that hover weightlessly within an indefinite, vaporous space. The tawny hue of the present canvas calls to mind the diaphanous brown ground of the monumental Peinture, 1925 – better known as The Birth of the World – which evokes primal forms emerging from a cosmic abyss (Dupin, no. 125; The Museum of Modern Art, New York). ‘I escaped into the absolute of nature,’ Miró later recalled. ‘I wanted my spots to seem open to the magnetic appeal of the void, to make themselves available to it. I was very interested in the void, in perfect emptiness’ (quoted in M. Rowell, ed., op. cit., 1987, pp. 264-265).
The oneiric paintings represent Miró’s response to the poetry he was reading at the time, from the works of the nineteenth-century visionaries Novalis, Lautréamont, and Rimbaud, to the most recent verse of his surrealist confrères in Paris. This poetic element largely determined the lyrical, reductively essential aspect of Miró’s compositions in the dream pictures. ‘I thought you had to go beyond the “plastic thing” to reach poetry,’ the artist explained (quoted in Joan Miró, exh. cat., New York, 1993, p. 180). Miró’s freely intuitive, improvisatory approach to content and form became a potent inspiration during the post-Second World War era, especially in America. ‘In these paintings, Miró reveals himself to have been the most unmistakable precursor of contemporary abstract lyricism,’ Dupin claimed, ‘the natural consequence of a mode of expression ruled entirely by unconscious impulses and dreams’ (op. cit., 2012, pp. 124-125).
On his first journey to the United States in 1947, Miró was delighted to learn of the influence that his work had exerted on the rising generation of the American avant-garde since his inaugural retrospective six years earlier at The Museum of Modern Art, New York. The exchange of ideas that transpired during Miró’s five subsequent trans-Atlantic visits, between 1959 and 1968, became noticeably reciprocal; he came away enriched as well. In the open-field, highly gestural paintings of the New York School, Miró found a model for a newly unfettered, more deeply subjective mode of pictorial expression. Post-war American painting, he explained, ‘showed me a direction I wanted to take but which up to then had remained at the stage of an unfulfilled desire. When I saw these paintings, I said to myself, you can do it, too: go to it, you see, it is OK!’ (quoted in M. Rowell, ed., op. cit., 1987, p. 279). ‘It showed me the liberties we can take,’ he continued, ‘and how far we can go, beyond the limits. In a sense, it freed me’ (quoted in J. Dupin, op. cit., 2012, p. 303).
Miró’s work during the 1960s reveals the profound effect of these transformative encounters. In his capacious new studio at Palma de Mallorca, he began to paint on an increasingly large scale and with unmediated directness, seeking a purer revelation of the act of painting. In Goutte d’eau sur la neige rose, the two black arabesques – each born of a single, summary gesture, with the graphic intensity of graffiti – point to the influence of Franz Kline and Robert Motherwell, among others, while the expansive, saturated field of ground colour exudes the radiant purity of Rothko. ‘To me,’ Miró declared in 1968, ‘conquering freedom means conquering simplicity. At the very limit, then, one line, one colour can make a painting’ (quoted in M. Rowell, ed., op. cit., 1987, p. 275).
Another abiding influence on Miró’s work during this period was Japanese art and poetry. The painter made his first trip to Japan in autumn 1966, on the occasion of a retrospective exhibition of his work in Tokyo and Kyoto; a second sojourn followed in 1969, this time to Osaka. Long an admirer of Japanese culture, Miró was able to witness some of the country’s most characteristic traditions, including a tea ceremony and a demonstration of Ikebana, the art of arranging flowers, and to engage first-hand with Japanese art, visiting a village of ceramicists and viewing one of the oldest collections of erotic prints. ‘I feel deeply in harmony with the Japanese soul,’ he affirmed in 1968, the year that he painted the present canvas (quoted in ibid., p. 275).
The rhythmically interlocking arcs of black pigment that dominate Goutte d’eau sur la neige rose have an unmistakable affinity with the expressive characters of Japanese calligraphy, which fascinated Miró during his two trips. The exquisite spareness of the composition, moreover, may be likened to Japanese haiku and its visual counterpart, Zen painting, in which form is pared down to a few essential strokes that float in a surrounding void, conveying the inherent nature of the aesthetic object rather than its material illusion. ‘What expresses cosmic truth in the most direct and concise way’ – so wrote the Master Tenzan Yasuda – ‘that is the heart of Zen art… Western art has volume and richness when it is good. Yet to me it is too thickly encumbered by what is dispensable. It’s as if the Western artist were trying to hide something, not reveal it’ (quoted in L. Stryk and T. Ikemoto, Zen Poems of China and Japan, New York, 1973, pp. xxxvii-xxxviii).
The mingling of Miró’s uniquely personal, poetic, and instinctive style of painting with the enriching, outside influences of American post-war and Japanese art during the 1960s gave rise to a final flowering in his work, in which his signs were fully unshackled from the matrix of realistic representation. ‘Miró was synonymous with freedom – something more aerial, more liberated, lighter than anything I had seen before,’ Alberto Giacometti declared as Miró entered this late period. ‘In one sense he possessed absolute perfection. Miró could not put a dot on a sheet of paper without hitting square on the target. He was so truly a painter that it was enough for him to drop three spots of colour on the canvas, and it would come to life – it would be a painting’ (quoted in P. Schneider, ‘Miró,’ Horizon, no. 4, March 1959, pp. 70-81).