Miró painted the three canvas sections that comprise Mural I-II-III—the first works in his oeuvre he designated as such—following the important series of eighteen large compositions based on collages that he completed in June 1933 (Dupin, nos. 415-432). Together these pictures marked Miró’s commitment to resume painting on canvas, following the period 1928-1931, when the artist had undertaken a campaign to instigate “the assassination of painting.” He had thought at that time to dispense with all the time-honored conventions of oil painting, and instead turned to creating rude, subversive collages and painting-objects made from base, insignificant materials, which Jacques Dupin described as “poisoned arrows let fly at ‘painting-painting’ and ideal beauty” (op. cit., 2012, p. 152). This provocatively nihilistic impetus notwithstanding, Miró did not so much undermine the accepted notions of painting as he actually contributed to expanding viable formal potential, while further broadening the inclusivity of content in modern art. Mural I-II-III is the direct outcome of this contest between painting and anti-painting, translated into some of the most direct and concentrated plastic forms that Miró had yet conceived.
The trio of Mural canvases was specifically painted for the nursery in the home of Pierre Loeb, Miró’s Paris dealer. With this setting in mind, Miró chose imagery and action narratives that he thought appropriate to a child’s world, reflecting the workings of a young imagination. Indeed, the primitive, child-like quality already evident in much of Miró’s imagery made him the ideal artist for this project. He assembled in these panels ghostlike figures, comically grotesque creatures, and a large bird. They engage in chase scenes—a frequent occurrence in dreams and often the stuff of children’s games and fantasies—which run from left to right in each composition. Miró placed his subjects against backdrops of vague, blue dreamscapes that contain elements of natural forms—a rainbow, ocean waves, a mountain, eclipsed suns, a star, a crescent moon with an anthropomorphic profile, whose peak bursts into a star.
The nocturnal adventure that Miró plotted in these panels appears to proceed, from left to right, in the order Mural III, II, and I. The bird in flight and rushing figures in III set the dream in motion; canvas I depicts the end of the night’s journey and the final transformation in this sequence of events—a figure runs towards a rectangular portal that separates the dark blue of night from the white glare of daylight, symbolizing the passage from the nocturnal realm of dreams into the world of daily reality.
Miró’s interest in creating art for and about children probably stemmed from his recent foray into dance theater, his first effort in this field. The artist received in 1932 a commission from the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo to design costumes, the curtain, and sets for a ballet set to the music of Georges Bizet’s orchestral suite Jeux d’enfants. Boris Kochno wrote the libretto and Léonide Massine choreographed the dances. To Miró’s mind, child’s play should be rough and tumble, having little to do with sentimental notions of sweetness and innocence. He wrote from Monte Carlo on 23 February 1932, describing the intended effect of his designs on the audience as if they were a boxer’s punches: “I am treating everything the same way as my recent work: the curtain, the first hook that hits the audience, like this [past] summer’s paintings, with the same suggestiveness and violence. This is followed by a rain of swings, uppercuts, and rights and lefts to the stomach, and throughout the entire event—a round that lasts about twenty minutes—objects keep appearing, moving and being dismantled on stage” (M. Rowell, ed., Joan Miró Selected Writings and Interviews, Boston, 1986, p. 119). Dupin recorded a study for the curtain, which the artist gave to Massine (Dupin, no. 412), and two other related works (nos. 413-414).
The premiere of Jeux d’enfants took place in Monte Carlo on 14 April 1932. The ballet was a success and subsequently well-received in Brussels and Paris; the troupe brought the production to Barcelona the following year. After the Paris performances, Miró returned to Barcelona, and during July, while staying at his family estate in Montroig, he continued working on a series of oil paintings on small panels he had begun in January, which mark his return to working in two dimensions (Dupin, nos. 393-410). Inspired by the artist’s recent experience with the Ballets Russes, the imagery in these compositions is elastic and kinetic in conception. Absolute clarity is throughout an essential concern; even in multi-figure compositions with overlapping forms, the figures stand out in well-defined relief from the dark grounds, like the objects in his “anti-painting” constructions.
In late January 1933 Miró executed a series of eighteen collages, made from photographic and hand-drawn illustrations cut from catalogues, newspaper ads, technical magazines, and posters, often depicting tools and mechanical devices, which he arranged and glued down on large sheets of paper, without further additions in his own hand. Having completed this group on 11 February, Miró then began on 3 March to create large oil paintings based on these collages, deriving and abstracting forms from the pasted images, while also using the collages as a guide to establishing the spatial relationships between these elements on the canvas. Miró completed the group by 12 June, one canvas for each of the eighteen collages (Dupin, nos. 415-432). These paintings contain a wide variety of flattened, clearly delineated shapes, as organic transformations of even the most explicit mechanical source imagery, set against dark, multi-hued grounds.
From 8 August through early October 1933, Miró also undertook a sequence of drawing-collages, which combined cut and pasted illustrations with hand drawing (Dupin Drawings, nos. 375-398). In a statement that appeared in the Surrealist arts journal Minotaure, published in December 1933, Miró explained that his work “is always born in a state of hallucination, brought on by some jolt or other—whether objective or subjective—which I am not in the least responsible for. As for my means of expression, I struggle more and more to achieve a maximum clarity, force and plastic aggressiveness—in other words, to provoke an immediate physical sensation that will then make its way to the soul” (M. Rowell, ed., op. cit., 1986, p. 122).
Miró completed Mural I-II-III for Loeb during the later months of 1933, perhaps around the time of the one-man exhibition in October that his dealer had organized on the premises of Galerie Georges Bernheim, where the entire series of eighteen paintings based on collages was seen together. On 5 November, shortly before the closing of the exhibition, Miró wrote to Pierre Matisse, his New York dealer, “I suppose you will have received the announcement I sent for my exhibition at Georges Bernheim. Pierre [Loeb] and I are very pleased; if from the business point of view one cannot say much for the moment [a reference to the world-wide Depression], from the morale standpoint it was a great success…Pierre has told me that, as soon as this exhibition is over, you want to organize one in New York, which will give me much pleasure and flatters me greatly” (quoted in exh. cat., op. cit., 1993, p. 331).
Pierre Matisse did indeed give Miró a one-man show, the second the dealer devoted to this artist, in his New York gallery at the very end of December 1933, which closed in mid-January 1934. Some four years later, Miró painted a mural composition for the young children of Pierre and Teeny Matisse—Paul, Jackie, and Peter—to be installed in their nursery (Dupin, no. 596). “Picasso was wild about it and said it was one of the best things I had ever done,” Miró wrote to Matisse. “I myself like it, but it may be too dramatic for your purpose.” The artist had entitled the canvas (trans.) Woman Haunted by the Passage of the Bird-Dragonfly, Omen of Bad News; it was his response to the recent signing of the Munich accords, whose terms of appeasement to Hitler’s demands resulted in the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia. “The frieze was not at all traditional nursery fare,” John Russell wrote. “Sweet dreams played no part in it… Pursuit and persecution were its leitmotifs. The figures were monstrous, the space claustrophobic, the panic all-pervading. But as a portrait of Europe in 1938 it was exactly right” (Matisse: Father & Son, New York, 1999, p. 129).
The elongated format of the Loeb nursery murals recalls friezes of classical antiquity, and long before them, the winding array of imagery in the wall paintings found within prehistoric caves. They moreover evoke late medieval and Renaissance tapestries that depict the hunt. Miró’s next major paintings, five large canvases created in late 1933 and early 1934, expand on the decorative idea of Mural I-II-III, and were actually intended as designs for tapestries (Dupin, nos. 459-463).
“Miró’s paintings, like the prehistoric, present isolated beings within a common field rather than cohesive units in a coordinated composition,” Sidra Stich, a professor of art and archaeology, has explained. “The individual parts are dispersed in space without concern for a logical ordering of scale, shape or positioning. In some places, intentional relationships between figures are established and scenarios begin to emerge. But even in these cases, the suggested activities are ambiguous. Although there may be no real unity in narrative terms, a powerful, harmonizing aura prevails. This is the ‘religious essence, the magic of things’ that Miró so sought to capture. A pervasive, mystical atmosphere prevails…not unlike the spiritual ambiance of prehistoric caverns, which were thought to be sacred sites for meditation or ritual observance” (Joan Miró: The Development of a Sign Language, exh. cat., Washington University Gallery of Art, St. Louis, 1980, p. 32).
“When we first saw these paintings, which Miró had done for a child’s room,” David Rockefeller wrote, “they were in the G. David Thompsons’ bedroom in their new house at Seal Harbor. When we bought them at auction, we first hung them in the music room at Hudson Pines, where they looked reasonably well but where we did not see them frequently. After building our new house, Ringing Point, near Seal Harbor, we found an ideal spot for them in the living room. Also in the same room is another Miró which we had bought earlier [Dupin, no. 427]” (M. Potter et al., 1984, p. 286).