Joan Punyet Miró recalls a childhood spent amid the 'great labyrinth of colours' in the artist’s Mallorca studio — and his deeply personal relationship with the Red Cross
What are your memories of your grandfather?
Joan Punyet Miró: Quite remarkable. I was just 10 years old when he was 85. I remember walking with him to his studio in Palma de Mallorca and, once there, being surrounded by hundreds of paintings and drawings. I would walk through this great labyrinth of colours — of blue, red, yellow, black and green, splattered all over the floor and his desk.
Aside from this colourful image, which has remained in my subconscious, another thing I remember about my grandfather is his social, political and cultural engagement with Spain, following the death of dictator Francisco Franco. The King, Juan Carlos I, would come and talk to him about the country’s transformation from dictatorship to democracy.
One of the most striking qualities I recall, however, was his generosity — a trait that went hand in hand with his understanding of how fragile and ephemeral human life can be. My grandfather had suffered in the Spanish Civil War: he knew hunger, and he had lived through the violence of the Second World War. I think that when the spirit suffers a wound like that it never really heals; it haemorrhages. As an artist, he knew it was his obligation to be engaged.
Did he ever discuss his work with you?
Joan Punyet Miró: No, he never explained his art; it was something he was very private about. Picasso once said, ‘All children are born an artist; the problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.’ Throughout his life, Miró was able to retain that fresh, childish language — at once direct and primitive. As a child, it was something I had an instantaneous connection with. To me, the emotions he expressed in his work were always there, palpable on the surface.
Did this childishness translate into the way he worked?
Joan Punyet Miró: He always worked quietly, and his studio was the place that allowed him to be alone. Unlike an artist like Jackson Pollock, who liked to listen to jazz when he worked, my grandfather would make art in silence. He was a tormented man; he suffered a lot.
Miró always said that he was able to see very clearly at night; he’d have visions in his sleep, which would come through into his painting in the morning. After lunch, he’d take a 15-minute nap, then listen to music, read poetry and write letters.
From seven to eight, he’d sketch in the living room. I’d often sit next to him, watching with amazement as his right hand flowed across the paper. He sometimes said, ‘When you’re a boxer, you have to train your muscles; when you’re a painter, you have to train your hand.’
Was Mallorca an influence?
Joan Punyet Miró: Absolutely. He lived on the island for the last 27 years of his life, and its presence can be traced throughout his work — from the birdsong in the morning, to the waves whispering and dying on the shore. You’d see rabbits running in the mountains, and this amazing, sheltering night sky — a great dome crowded with stars. At night, the moon would cast its light across the Mediterranean Sea.
How important was printmaking to Miró’s practice?
Joan Punyet Miró: It was a medium that was extremely meaningful for him. He knew that paintings were going to be kept in museums or private collections, but that the prices of prints made them accessible to a wider public.
I was in his house when prints were brought to the dining room to be signed. They were works he’d revise over and over again — using different copper plates to create hues with this terrific emotional intensity. He experimented tirelessly. Once, he mixed varnishes with sweet cream from the kitchen to achieve a less regular texture. One day, I made myself a bow and arrows, and found one was missing because he’d used it to make an engraving.
What are your memories of your grandfather’s relationship with the Red Cross?
Joan Punyet Miró: It was incredibly intense. The Red Cross saved my mother Maria Dolors Miró, Miró’s only daughter, who died 10 years ago. On New Year’s Eve 1965, in Mont-roig on the coast of Catalonia, she was crossing the train tracks in her car in fog. A train hit her and she flew over the top of a tree, breaking her leg in five places; the bone was protruding.
My father was in a car following behind her, and ran to pick her up. He took her to the Red Cross. They were going to amputate her leg from the hip down — if that had happened, I’d never have been born. But a very young medic, Dr. Orozco, was able to save it. He had trained with a pioneering doctor, who had witnessed brutal injuries on the beaches of Dunkirk. He had invented a technique that relied not on bandages or plaster, but on leaving wounds open to the air to prevent infection. My mother spent a year in a Red Cross bed. They saved her life.
Miró was extremely generous with the Red Cross throughout his life, starting with a donation of a large tapestry, Tapís de Tarragona (1970), to the hospital. To him, it was emblematic of the enormous difference humanitarian associations can make in moments of tremendous suffering, like that we witness today with the war in Syria.
How do you remember your grandfather today?
Joan Punyet Miró: He was an artist 24 hours a day, 365 days a year — he never stopped for a minute. He kept his attention open to any ‘sparks’ that would set his imagination firing, magnifying these moments to kindle a fire that would lead to creation.
My grandfather holds an incredibly important place in my life. I am like the guard of a lighthouse on a cliff; I have to be responsible for his legacy worldwide — from exhibitions to the Miró committee in Paris. This year, we’re opening a new museum 100 miles from Barcelona which continues that legacy with the Fundació Mas Miró, Mont-roig.