The paintings of Joan Miró
‘The most Surrealist of us all’, as André Breton called him, worked in various media over eight decades and produced more than 2,000 paintings — leaving an indelible mark on the very idea of art. Illustrated with works from The Art of the Surreal
An eight-decade career
Despite an early flirtation with accountancy, Joan Miró (1893-1983) devoted himself to a career in art. Across eight decades, he produced prints, sculptures, tapestries, ceramics and, most famously, paintings, as well as works on paper.
Miró claimed that the act of painting was ‘an exchange of blood, a total embrace [undertaken] without caution, without thought of protecting yourself’.
He produced more than 2,000 paintings in all, reinventing himself regularly, from the early period in his native Barcelona to his final years spent on the island of Mallorca.
He’s probably best known for the works he created in Paris in the 1920s, in connection with the Surrealists. ‘What’s interesting, though, is that Miró works from throughout his career do well on the market,’ says Olivier Camu, deputy chairman and international director of Impressionist & Modern Art at Christie’s.
‘He was a poet of the visual,’ Camu adds, ‘his art is easy on the eye, very playful and colourful, yet technically excellent. Miró loved painting and kept looking for new ways of doing it. Whether you’re seven years old or 97, his art will appeal.’
Escape to Paris
Miró showed his first painting while still a teenager — at 1911’s Exposición Internacional de Arte in Barcelona. His debut solo exhibition came seven years later, at Galeries Dalmau in the same city. It featured almost 200 works, including landscapes indebted to Cézanne and the Fauves.
Not a single work sold — a failure that hastened Miró’s departure for Paris in 1920.
Around this time, he said his artistic aim was to ‘use reality as a point of departure, never as a stopping place’. The Hunter (today found in New York’s Museum of Modern Art) is a fine example: this is no naturalistic depiction of a hunting scene, but an agglomeration of isolated forms, such as a smoking gun and a freshly killed rabbit, which float about the picture plane and which the viewer is asked to make sense of.
In Paris, Miró made friends with a number of Surrealist poets — Louis Aragon and Paul Eluard among them — and before long these friendships starting having an impact on his art. In short, it moved even further away from figuration.
With works such as 1925’s Peinture (above), he transformed the ground of the canvas into a translucent, cloudy, infinite plane, which he filled with a host of enigmatic, often biomorphic, shapes and signs. These are said to have come to him automatically, without the intervention of rational thought — in the same way that Eluard and his fellow Surrealists created their verse.
Occasionally Miró even included snatches of text in his imagery, as he did in Painting-Poem (Le corps de ma brune), which set an auction record for the artist when it fetched £16.8 million ($26.8 million) at Christie’s in 2012.
Picasso told Miró, ‘After me, you are the one who’s opening a new door’
Miró never officially joined the Surrealist movement, yet that didn’t stop its founder André Breton declaring him in 1928 ‘the most Surrealist of us all’.
Picasso was similarly full of praise, telling his compatriot around the same time that ‘after me, you are the one who’s opening a new door’.
Two of the top three prices for Miró works at auction — and three of the top 10 — are for works painted in the mid-to-late 1920s.
From ‘anti-painting’ to the Constellations
By the end of the decade, Miró’s aims had changed. He now said he wanted ‘to assassinate painting’. This resulted in a type of work sometimes referred to as ‘anti-painting’: collages and paintings made with unusual artistic materials such as sand, tar and feathers.
It wasn’t long, though, before the Spaniard was putting pigment to canvas again. Much of his work in the 1930s took inspiration from political events, above all the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War.
For the Paris World’s Fair of 1937, he painted a (now lost) mural called The Reaper in the Spanish Pavilion, where it showed alongside Picasso’s Guernica. Strongly pro-Republican in sentiment, it depicted a Catalan peasant in revolt against the horrors being carried out by General Franco’s army.
The peasant reappeared in the 1938 canvas La caresse des étoiles (above), wearing the same black smock and red barretina hat, with a blue star hovering above him (a symbol of his revolutionary ideals).
The culmination of this period — and, for many critics, the summit of Miró’s entire career — was his Constellations series of 1940-1. These 23 small gouache paintings on paper were created during a period of great upheaval.
‘The Constellations are something of a holy grail. They come to market very rarely. They’re in high demand and worth north of $25 million each’ — specialist Olivier Camu
With Franco emerging victorious in the Spanish Civil War — and his allies, the Nazis, cutting a swathe through Europe — Miró, his wife and daughter constantly had to flee for safety: first to Normandy, then Paris, Perpignan, Barcelona, Palma de Mallorca and finally the artist’s family’s farm in Mont-roig, Catalonia.
Miró was working on his Constellations throughout, packing the gouaches into a satchel and carrying them with him on every move.
The works represent a marvellous cosmic vision, in which brightly coloured celestial bodies seem to dance gaily before us. ‘When I was painting [them]… it was a liberation,’ Miró said in later life. ‘I ceased thinking about the tragedy all around me.’
According to Camu, ‘The Constellations are something of a holy grail. Some of the works are still in private hands, but they only come to the market very rarely. They’re in high demand and worth north of $25 million each.’
Miró and the Abstract Expressionists
Thanks to Pierre Matisse, his dealer in New York, the American public got to see many Miró paintings in the 1930s. The Spaniard was also granted a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in 1941.
After the Second World War, the Abstract Expressionist movement came to reign supreme — and Miró’s influence on it was vast. He was synonymous with an automatist approach to painting that many of the movement’s key figures adopted.
In the 1950s, Miró settled on Mallorca, where he would remain for the rest of his life. For much of the decade he didn’t do any oil painting, preferring to make ceramics and prints instead.
The canvases that he did make in the 1950s show another shift in his work: one that his friend and biographer, Jacques Dupin, called an ‘expansion tendency’.
In part, this meant simply that his canvases became bigger. It also acknowledged the large individual forms that came to dominate Miró’s scenes — in contrast to the small, finely detailed elements of old (particularly in the Constellations). Witness, for example, the eponymous bird and tree in 1953’s L’Oiseau au plumage déployé vole vers l’arbre argenté (above).
Interestingly, the ‘expansion tendency’ seems to have been inspired in part by the Abstract Expressionists. They operated on a large scale, duly influencing Miró, who — as already noted — had years earlier been a formative influence on them.
The Spaniard’s paintings of the 1960s show an even deeper engagement with Abstract Expressionism. In 1968’s Goutte d’eau sur la neige rose (above), for example, the two broad, emphatic black brushstrokes call to mind Franz Kline, while the saturated field of orange ground exudes the purity of Rothko.
All fired-up: the later works
Miró continued to innovate even in old age. In the mid-1970s, as an octogenarian, he doused a bunch of paintings in petrol, set them partially on fire and exhibited the remains — suspended from the ceiling — in a show at Paris’s Grand Palais.
‘The works I burned were of great beauty, but so was the colour of the fire,’ he said.
Having lived long enough to see democracy return to Spain — after Franco’s demise in 1975 — Miró himself died in 1983, aged 90.
Twenty-three of his works have sold for more than $10 million at auction. These all date from the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s or 1950s, and even include two anti-paintings.
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‘The market for Miró is extremely buoyant and based internationally,’ says Camu, ‘with collectors in all parts of the world, from the Americas to Asia, as well as Europe and the Middle East.
‘The disparity in price between early and late works is narrowing. People now realise that Miró was much more than just a Surrealist.’