Joan Miro (1893-1983)
Property from a Notable Private Collection 
Joan Miro (1893-1983)

Dormeurs réveillés par un oiseau

Joan Miro (1893-1983)
Dormeurs réveillés par un oiseau
signed 'Miró' (center right); signed again, dated and titled 'JOAN MIRÓ. "Dormeurs reveillés par un oiseau" 9/8/939.' (on the reverse)
gouache and watercolor on paper
16 1/8 x 13 in. (41 x 33 cm.)
Painted on 9 August 1939
Pierre Matisse Gallery, New York.
Fritz Bultman, New York.
Vivian Horan Fine Art, New York.
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 2000.
J. Dupin and A. Lelong-Mainaud, Joan Miró, Catalogue raisonné. Drawings, 1938-1959, Paris, 2010, vol. II, p. 56, no. 886 (illustrated in color).

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Lot Essay

Against a backdrop of great political upheaval and uncertainty, on 9 August 1939 Joan Miró executed Dormeurs réveillés par un oiseau. Confining his palette to the three tones of red, yellow and black, the picture depicts two distorted but finely drawn figures and a soaring bird with outstretched wings. The elegance and precision with which these are rendered contrasts with the mottled, almost textured, ground that has been prepared with washes and smudges of muted color. This important picture, undoubtedly one of Miró's finest, most detailed and accomplished works on paper from 1939, prefigures in style, motif and medium his great Constellation series of twenty-three gouaches that he would begin working on a little over five months later.

The years leading up to the creation of Dormeurs réveillés par un oiseau were filled with anxiety for Miró. In October 1936, he had traveled from Barcelona to Paris, bringing with him some recent works he had intended to show to his dealer, Pierre Matisse. The Spanish Civil War had erupted that June, but by November the situation in Spain had become so hazardous that Miró, fearing that his Republican sympathies would endanger him, decided to stay put in Paris. He would remain in France until the summer of 1940, when the Nazi invasion of Normandy forced him to flee once again, this time back to Spain. "Despite his sense of dislocation," Margit Rowell has written of the years 1936-1939, "Miró produced some of his greatest works, which expressed an inner turmoil" (M. Rowell, ed., Joan Miró: Selected Writings and Interviews, London, 1987, p. 14). Indeed, in a statement published just a number of months before he executed the present work, Miró himself declared: "The outer world, the world of contemporary events, always has an influence on the painter... If the interplay of lines and colors does not expose the inner drama of the creator, then it is nothing more than bourgeois entertainment. The forms expressed by an individual who is part of society must reveal the movement of a soul trying to escape the reality of the present, which is particularly ignoble today, in order to approach new realities" (Miró, quoted in ibid., p. 166).

Dormeurs réveillés par un oiseau appears to embody Miró's words, albeit with the familiar element of opacity that makes his work so enigmatic and mysterious. The title indicates that "sleepers" have been awoken from their slumber by a bird, which flutters in the sky at the top right corner. This exquisitely drawn creature, representing escape, adds an element of whimsy to the composition, and contrasts with the strange earth-bound figures below who represent the reality of the "ignoble present." As Sidra Stich has pointed out, birds in Miró's work can sometimes be interpreted as harbingers of news, which in the context within which this was executed, just weeks before Germany invaded Poland, assumes a very particular significance (see S. Stich, Joan Miró: The Development of a Sign Language, exh. cat., St. Louis, 1980, p. 44). The figure to the left is a woman, her bloated head and drooping torso appearing above the black mass of her lower body. Intersecting this is a sinister black and red ovoid shape, which sprouts hair-like lines and is similar in form to Miró's ubiquitous sign for the female sex. Depicted with an open saw-toothed mouth and jutting jaw, the smaller figure to the right has a distinctly aggressive appearance. It is close in form to the monsters that had begun to proliferate in his "peintures sauvages" of the mid-to-late-1930s. In these, deformed creatures seethe with an uncontrolled rage and aggression that was first prophetic, and later expressive, of the devastating events of the Civil War, and illustrated graphically the feelings of disgust that it provoked in Miró. This figure also resembles the peasant-martyr who raises his arm in angry defiance in Le Faucheur, a mural commissioned by the Spanish Government from Miró in 1937 and originally displayed in the same building as Picasso's Guernica. In Dormeurs réveillés par un oiseau the figure's red arms are also raised, perhaps in protest but, lacking hands, it becomes a gesture of powerlessness.

Miró's exact whereabouts during the first weeks of August remain unknown. The picture may have been produced in his studio in Paris, although it is equally likely that it was created in Varengeville-sur mer--where he is known to have been living by the twenty-fifth of the month. It differs considerably from both his series depicting birds immediately preceding it, which are marked by an extreme simplification of form, and the two series of small oils on raspberry red backgrounds and burlap that follow, with their flashes of hazy color and nave facture. In this picture, Miró reprises a style he elaborated in his celebrated painting of 1938, La caresse des étoiles. The crisper, clearer lines and delicacy of execution in this gouache however, provide the vital prelude to his lyrical Constellations. "At Varengeville-sur-Mer, in 1939, I began a new stage in my work which had its source in music and nature," Miró later recounted. "It was about the time that the war broke out. I felt a deep desire to escape... The night, music, and the stars began to play a major role in suggesting my paintings" (Miró, quoted in ibid., p. 209). Dormeurs réveillés par un oiseau is filled with recapitulations of the previous years and with hints of the work to come. It is a mark of the quality of this gouache, produced at such a critical juncture in Miró's life, that it was formerly in the collection of the American Abstract Expressionist painter and sculptor Fritz Bultman.

Barcode: 25012019_RX
(fig. 1) Joan Miró, La caresse des étoiles, 1938. Sold, Christie's, New York, 6 May 2008, lot 33.

Barcode: 33865546
(fig. 2) Joan Miró, Le réveil au petit jour, 1941. Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, Texas.

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