‘I often change the way I paint, looking for means of expressing myself; always I’m guided by this burning passion, which makes me walk from right to left.’ – Joan Miró
Working with the conscious aim of pushing the logic of his famed ‘dream paintings’ to their most elemental and extreme, Joan Miró spent much of the opening months of 1927 holed-up in a new studio at 22 rue Tourlaque in Paris’s 18th arrondissement. ‘I decided that I would shut myself up completely, and not let anyone see my work,’ the artist explained to the Catalan journalist Francesc Trabal in 1928. ‘I’d prepare a major exhibition showing all the formal innovations and aggressiveness I had inside me. It would be a real knockout’ (quoted in M. Rowell, ed., Joan Miró: Selected Writings and Interviews, London, 1987, p. 96). It was in this environment that the present Peinture was born, its stark elegance and almost minimalist array of forms highlighting Miró’s growing interest in the raw, tactile qualities of his materials, as he brought his ‘dream’ paintings to a culmination.
The so-called ‘dream,’ or ‘oneiric,’ paintings had first emerged in Miró’s oeuvre in 1925. Inspired by the automatic poetry of his peers, the nascent Surrealist movement, and the dream-like, hallucinatory visions that he was experiencing due to extreme hunger, the artist had begun to paint with a new, unpremeditated and unconstrained abstract imagery composed of signs and forms. Seeking to capture what he once described as ‘all the golden sparks of our souls,’ Miró delved into his subconscious inner world, drawing from its depths a series of cryptic signs and symbols, shapes and forms, which he then translated on to his canvases (quoted in ibid., p. 83). The deceptive simplicity of the resulting paintings shocked contemporary viewers, their austere aesthetic and ambiguous subject matter securing Miró’s reputation as a revolutionary figure within the European avant-garde, and bringing him to the attention of the leaders of the Surrealist movement.
Amongst the paintings which emerged during the opening months of 1927, there is a concentrated group of eighteen compositions which drew their inspiration from a collection of sketches spread through four separate notebooks, identified by the artist’s addition of the letter G to their sheets, followed by a super-script number (see A. Umland, Joan Miró: Painting and Anti-Painting, 1927-1937, exh. cat., New York, 2008, pp. 30-35). Subsequently described by Miró as a ‘laboratory experiment,’ these works investigate the very materiality of the art-making process, focusing on the various different elements which make up the final composition, exploring subtle variations in texture, tone and colour through the familiar language of forms of the dream paintings. Of the eighteen paintings, all but two leave the background free of colour, allowing the warm biscuit tones of the raw, untouched canvas to become the dominant element within the composition. While the artist had previously employed non peint (unpainted) canvases on a sporadic basis throughout his career, this suite of works marked a radical reversal of the relationship between paint and canvas within the composition.
Louis Aragon was among the first commentators to recognise the artistic shift that these works represented within Miró’s oeuvre, drawing attention to their unique character in his 1930 essay ‘La Peinture au défi’: ‘Many things in [Miró’s] paintings recall what is not painted. He makes paintings on coloured canvas, painting there only a white patch, as though he had not painted in that spot, as though the canvas were the painting’ (quoted in ibid., p. 32). In the present Peinture, one such white patch dominates the right hand side of the composition, loosely applied using a spatula or palette knife, creating a small cloud of pigment. The flowing contours of this amorphous, nebulous form seem to almost fluctuate before the eye, its loose edges oscillating ever so slightly, as if it may disappear or shift at any moment. Atop this white cloud, Miró adds a handful of graphic elements, including a single slender stroke of black paint that runs vertically down the canvas, and a loosely formed circle, inside of which a series of looping black brushstrokes create a tangle of lines. Perhaps the most eye-catching element though is the flowing panel of red and yellow which flutters outwards from the cloud of white, like a flag or a flame, its bright colours and dynamic movement a bold counterpoint within the otherwise minimalist composition.
Displaying a lightness of touch and restrained approach to mark-making, Peinture captures the probing, experimental nature of Miró’s so-called G paintings, particularly in the way it emphasises the essential tactility of the surface of the canvas, allowing the artist’s interventions to appear separate and independent to the raw, untouched ground. This final suite of dream paintings would prove a jumping off point for Miró’s creative vision, acting as a bridge between his painterly activities of the mid-1920s and the bold experiments in mixed-media, collage and sculptural assemblage that would dominate his output from 1928-1931. Indeed, rather than representing a rupture or schism, these paintings demonstrate the ways in which Miró’s art was constantly evolving, each composition feeding into the next. ‘When I’ve finished something I discover it’s just a basis for what I’ve got to do next,’ the artist explained in 1928. ‘It’s never anything more than a point of departure, and I’ve got to take off from there in the opposite direction’ (quoted in ibid., p. 98).