Joan Miro  (1893-1983)
On occasion, Christie's has a direct financial int… Read more Property from the Collection of Nathan L. Halpern
Joan Miro (1893-1983)

La caresse des étoiles

Joan Miro (1893-1983)
La caresse des étoiles
signed 'Miró' (center)
oil on canvas
22 1/2 x 28 1/2 in. (57.1 x 72.4 cm.)
Painted 22 July 1938
Galerie Pierre (Pierre Loeb), Paris (acquired from the artist).
Mr. Nathan L. Halpern, New York (acquired from the above circa 1945).
By descent from the above to the present owners.
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Lot Essay

Jacques Dupin has confirmed the authenticity of this painting.

The inclusion in this catalogue of Joan Miró's La caresse des étoiles presents a discovery of remarkable importance. The painting is the most significant addition to the artist's oeuvre in recent years, painted when the artist was at the peak of his powers. It is moreover a 20th century masterwork in the fullest sense, one that offer the most profound insights into the crucible of modern history in which it was created. La caresse des étoiles comes to us as a surprise, with a most unusual history. The painting has remained out of sight since it was painted in 1938. During the Occupation of Paris, it was hidden away by Pierre Loeb, Miró's dealer, to save it from confiscation by the Nazis. While stationed in Paris, Halpern acquired this painting from Loeb and after he returned with it to New York in 1945, the Miró became one of the few works in the collection that Halpern did not exhibit, and so has remained unpublished. Now it comes for the first time to the market, a painting whose extraordinary qualities may be studied and appreciated by lovers of modern art for the first time.

La caresse des étoiles had its genesis in the Spanish Civil War, which began in July 1936, when General Francisco Franco led an uprising of fascist and other right-wing elements against the nations left-wing government. Miró had been been spending most of his time since mid-1935 working in his family' s residences in Barcelona and nearby Montroig. There had already been local outbreaks of violence, and Miró, who backed the loyalist, pro-government cause, was concerned that the situation would soon deteriorate. He left for Paris in October 1936, bringing with him some recent works he planned to ship to Pierre Matisse in New York. He left behind about a hundred works still in progress. By late November the situation in Spain seemed so dangerous that the artist decided to remain in Paris, and he sent for his wife Pilar and daughter Dolores to join him.

The Miró family at first stayed in a series of hotels, and in March 1937 moved into a modest apartment at 98, boulevard Auguste-Blanqui. The artist was able to use a room as a studio (fig. 1). The space was hardly adequate, a situation which he had experienced before, and he addressed in an autobiographical article he wrote for the journal XXe Siècle in May 1938, titled "I dream of a large studio." In April the Spanish government commissioned Miró to paint a monumental work for the Spanish Pavilion at the Paris Exposition internationale (World's Fair) that was scheduled to open in July. Miró worked on his painting The Reaper (Catalan peasant in revolt) (fig. 2) early in the summer, executing it in sections on celotex panels. He completed it in time for the inauguration of the Spanish Pavilion. Miró painted La caresse des étoiles around this time.

Also on view in the Spanish Pavilion was Picasso's celebrated mural Guernica (Zervos, vol. 9, no. 65; Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid), which in allegorical form recounted the bombing several months before of a defenseless Basque town by German planes that flew in support of Franco's fascist forces. Brought together for public viewing on this occasion, the work of Miró and Picasso, the two greatest Spanish artists then living, show striking similarities, even if the two men were very different in temperament, led dissimilar lives and had each arrived at very personal styles in their painting. Both murals shared an expression of violence and protest inspired by the dreadful events in the artists' homeland. By mining the resources of their decade-long engagement with surrealism, both Miró and Picasso created a monumental visual style that mingled mythical archetypes, private fears and important events taken from the headlines, with results that utterly transcended their immediate propagandistic function. Similarities may be observed in the treatment of the suffering, beseeching victims in Guernica (especially in Picasso's studies, fig. 3), Miró's peasant-martyr in The Reaper, and the gesturing male figure at left in La caresse des étoiles. While Picasso was unflinching in his pathos, however, Miró never failed to leaven his figures with a measure of humor and irony, an expression of his optimistic humanism.

Picasso's Guernica, of course, went on to become a 20th century icon of anti-war protest. Miró's The Reaper might have likewise become a significant and enduring symbol of modern man's revolt against tyranny and oppression. Unfortunately, Miró's mural was lost without a trace and presumably destroyed when the artist tried to ship the mural painting's component panels to Valencia following the close of the Paris World's Fair.

La caresse des étoiles also disappeared from public view. Miró fled France for Palma, Majorca following the German invasion in 1940, and the painting, having been acquired by his Paris dealer Pierre Loeb, had to be hidden away for safe-keeping during the Occupation.

Miró had been dealing with turbulent themes as far back as 1934, many months before the eruption of civil strife in Spain. Jacques Dupin described the transformation in Miró's work that occurred in that year, leading to the creation of the works that the artist called his savage paintings: "The serene works of the years devoted to concentration on plastic concerns and to spiritual control of figures and signs gave way to a new outburst of subjectivity, to an expressionist unleashing of instinctual forces. The volcano which for some years had been dormant suddenly erupted. What seems to have changed was not much Miró as the course of modern times around him. Liberated by art from personal conflicts, Miró was now to experience and express the collective tragedy as an inner torment. Miró's works would then give expression to all this in the form of an assault upon the human figure, disintegrating it utterly, submerging it in a tidal wave of unleashed elemental powers. It is as though the Spanish tragedy and, later, the horrors of the Second World War had first broken out in the works of the Catalan artist, long before setting ablaze his country and the rest of the world" (in Miró, Barcelona, 1993, p. 185).

Miró's "assault upon the human figure" involved a process that few would have expected in an artist of his maturity and accomplishment--he attended life-drawing classes, seating himself among students less than half his age, at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière in Paris. The drawings he made, however, in no way resembled the academic efforts of his classmates--torsos and limbs bend and twist about in fluid, looping lines. He drew models singly and in mixed groups, an exercise that helped him to develop the rhythmic elements that enliven the linear figures in his paintings of this period. This is especially observable in La caresse des étoiles, in which four figures are drawn in this spontaneous and freewheeling manner, and interact as if with the perfect timing of a well-rehearsed comedy routine.

Miró's Catalan peasant, wearing his customary red barratina (a beret with an elongated sock-like crown) and a black smock, makes his reappearance in La caresse des étoiles on the left hand side. As in The Reaper, a blue star hovers above him, a symbol of his revolutionary ideals. His head is filled with universal symbols--a triangle, a black sun and moon. Clad in a white blouse and red skirt, his wife stands across from him, and between them, their two children. A second star, their destiny, bursts above their heads and rains down upon their lives. The peasant tells of some news or encouragement to which his family intently listens. His message might have represented the hopes of the artist himself, who on 7 April 1938 wrote to Pierre Matisse in New York: "The situation in Spain is very agonizing, but far from being desperate; we have the firm hope that some event will take place to tip the balance in our favor" (quoted in M. Rowell, ed., Joan Miró: Selected Writings and Interviews, Boston, 1986, 159).

La caresse des étoiles, to a degree greater than many of Miró's paintings of the late 1930s, possesses a lively richness of color and abundance of visual incident that may seem unexpected in light of the difficult circumstances in which it was painted. The vivid imagination seen in the rendering of the figures and abstract symbols, coupled with the artist's desire to deal with topical events, underline the degree to which Miró was emotionally engaged in the fate of his homeland. Dupin has called the paintings of this period Miró's "tragic realism" (op. cit., p. 207), a term that refers to Miró's courageous acknowledgement of a national and private destiny that seemed to have been writ in the stars. There is, nevertheless, in these paintings an affirmative tone, a projection of an irresistible and unconquerable life force, that manifests itself above all else.

La caresse des étoiles displays numerous stylistic characteristics that prefigure the great achievement of the Constellations (fig. 4). Miró commenced this celebrated series in January 1940, in the early months of the Second World War, while working in seclusion in Varengeville on the Normandy coast. From the time the present painting was done to the first Constellations, Miró continued a process in which he increasingly stylized and abstracted the swirling linearity of his figures, so that certain components--eyes, noses, mouths, stars--were now to be read as disembodied signs, which had begun to mingle and generate their own compositional dynamic. The confrontational narratives and violent protest of the late 1930s paintings likewise yielded to a more visually harmonious and contemplative aesthetic in the Constellations. The nebulous, multi-hued background seen in La caresse des étoiles has its counterpart in the stained and tinted backgrounds in the Constellations, although by 1940 Miró had divested this space of its eventful drama and turbulence, and instead made it evocative of a fathomless and neutral cosmic emptiness.

During the Spanish Civil War, Miró protested against disengagement and held that "retreat and isolation are no longer permissible" (quoted in M. Rowell, ed., op. cit., p. 166). Picasso was no less vehement is his pronouncements. By 1940, however, Miró felt he had no choice but to seek refuge from the events of the day. Dupin observed that "Art became for him a kind of spiritual exercise, an escape from reality, capable of leading to ever deeper exploration of inner reality. His was an inward flight"(op. cit., p. 242). In the three years between the completion of La caresse des étoiles and the first Constellations, the dialectic in Miró's art had swung from one side to the other, just as it had back in 1934, but in reverse, moving this time from engagement with the world and its issues toward a private contemplation and purification of his art. Nevertheless, it becomes apparent when taking an overview of Miró's long career, that one aspect always existed in tandem with the other, and it is in this unity of self, art and the world that Miró achieved his admirable completeness as a man, and absolute mastery in his art.

(fig. 1) Miró in his studio at 98, boulevard Auguste-Blanqui, Paris, circa 1938. Photograph by D. Bellon (collection of Nicholas Huguet, Paris).
(fig. 2) Joan Miró, The Reaper (Catalan Peasant in Revolt), 1937. Location unknown, presumably destroyed.
(fig. 3) Pablo Picasso, Study for Guernica, 3 June 1937. Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid.
(fig. 4) Joan Miró, La Poètesse, 31 December 1940 (sale, Christie's, New York, 10 May 1995, lot 16).

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