Glowing with intense colour, this large-scale painting encapsulates the style, handling and subject matter of Joan Miró’s late work. Simplified to the artist’s signature language of pictorial signs and ciphers, the purported subjects of Personnage et oiseau are rendered as powerful, abstract forms, the centre appearing as if an all-seeing eye that radiates from the composition. Appearing as if a sign or primal mark from an age-old civilization, or an inscription from a mythical era, the large black form of the figure and bird – the artist’s perennial motifs – are at once timeless, while at the same time, wholly contemporary. The gestural execution and abstract imagery of this work directly relates to the post-war developments in art, in particular Abstract Expressionism and Art Informel.
In 1959, Miró resumed painting following a five-year hiatus during which he focused on lithography, engraving, and ceramics. Three years prior he had moved into a large studio in Palma de Mallorca. Designed by the artist’s friend, the architect José Louis Sert, the light-filled studio was majestically positioned on a hillside that rose up from the sea below. Miró was finally able to unpack the work that he had accumulated over the course of his peripatetic life moving between France and Catalonia, and look back and consider his work as a whole.
After a period of deep reflection, Miró returned to painting with a newfound energy and vigour, his new, capacious work space allowing him to work on a large scale. ‘I work in a state of passion and excitement,’ he described of this time. ‘When I begin a painting, I am obeying a physical impulse, a necessity to begin. It’s like receiving a physical shock’ (quoted in M. Rowell, ed., Joan Miró: Selected Writings and Interviews, London, 1987, p. 249).
Belonging to a series of ‘Cartones’ or oils on cardboard that the artist painted between 1959 and 1965, Personnage et oiseau embodies Miró’s impassioned, liberated and instinctive approach to painting in the 1960s. No longer depicting his highly individual pictorial idiom with careful precision and detail, Miró instead applied paint with an unrestrained gesturality and vitality. ‘The heavy graphism, most often traced in an unbroken flow of paint, does not repudiate Miró’s world of forms, but simplifies it by greater vehemence of gesture,’ Jacques Dupin has described the artist’s work of this time. ‘When we do, nonetheless, find a bird or a woman, the result is no longer an exploitation of fantastic, graceful, or sensual possibilities for our enjoyment, but the stark presence of the figure, its energy liberated by the suspension of form and delayed realization of its will to exist. The former process of elaboration gives way to concentration on gesture for its own sake, mindful only of its own mark on the canvas, oblivious of the precision and details of its trajectory. The birds in space are now merely primitive ideograms of flight’ (Joan Miró, Life and Work, New York, 1962, p. 479).
The large scale, gestural handling and abstract force of this work reflects Miró’s awareness and openness to contemporary painting. There is an evident relation between the expansive format and expressive synthesis of pictorial signs of Personnage et oiseau and the recent traditions of Abstract Expressionism. Miró had first encountered the works of the Abstract Expressionists – for whom his own painting was an essential reference – in the course of an extensive visit to New York in 1947. In 1959, a second stay in the city reinforced his interest in this group of painters, who were then celebrated as the heirs of post-war modernism. It was on this trip – made to attend the opening of his second retrospective at The Museum of Modern Art – that this artistic influence was reciprocated.
This visit had a significant impact on Miró’s work: seeing the work of artists such as Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline, Willem de Kooning and others, Miró was presented with a liberated, deeply subjective mode of pictorial expression. In Miró’s words, American Painting ‘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 O.K.! You must remember that I grew up in the school of Paris. That was hard to break away from’ (quoted in op. cit., 1987, p. 279). ‘It showed me the liberties we can take, and how far we could go, beyond the limits’, he explained to Margit Rowell. ‘In a sense, it freed me’ (quoted in J. Dupin, Miró, Paris, 1993, p. 303).
It is not just the radical execution of works such as Personnage et oiseau that ensured the artist remained at the forefront of post-war artistic developments, but also Miró’s use of colour. In the present work, it is applied with myriad looping strokes, splashes and smears, as well as powdery deposits that dance upon other pigments. This dazzling chromatic kaleidoscope centres around the central black and white rimmed orb that serves as the eye of the figure. Freed entirely from description as well as from the meticulous handling that Miró had utilized in his early work, here colour and mark making become an expressive lifeforce in their own right.
As Dupin has so eloquently described, ‘Colour comes into these works in intense spots and sudden flickers; there is no effort to achieve refined tones. It brings light and rhythm, is revelatory by didn’t of violent contrasts, plays an autonomous part, and only rarely serves to accentuate a detail of a figure, to stress an eye or the line of a mouth. It owes its power to its sudden, sparing use as much as to its brilliance; the colour accents are like sparks in the night… So strong is the sensation of life conveyed by this animation of pigment, these plays of brushwork and spots, these conflagrations of colour. And yet the beings, phantoms, and images take second place to the pure manifestation of painting as such, resolved to reveal itself without recourse to figuration… These paintings are traps into which everything is to be gained by falling’ (op. cit., 1962, p. 480).