Painted during a period of great optimism in Spain in the late 1970s following the death of General Franco in 1975 and the restoration of democracy to the country, Personnage, oiseau, étoile dans un paysage is a triumphant canvas created by Miró in April 1978, which the artist personally donated to his Foundation in Barcelona shortly after its completion. The year 1978 was a time of renewed vigour and frenetic activity on the part of Miró. In the first part of the year he had not only been engaged in the completion of a large-scale mural for the Wilhelm-Hack-Museum in Ludwigshafen, Germany but also in the staging of his first theatre-piece – an Ubu-Roi-inspired celebration of the death of Franco, entitled Mori el Merma (Death to Merma). In April, around the time that he painted Personnage, oiseau, étoile dans un paysage, Miró was also occupied with preparations for a major retrospective exhibition of his work to be held at the Museo Español de Arte Contemporañeo in Madrid. Executed only a week or so before this opening, Personnage, oiseau, étoile dans un paysage is an important painting from this dramatic period of Miró’s career and a work that signals the ongoing invention and continuous development of his art throughout this era of change.
As Miró’s friend and biographer, Jacques Dupin has written, the 1970s was a period in which Miró’s perennial motifs of the bird in flight, the woman, the male figure and the star all became fused with and ultimately subordinated to the immediate graphic power of his increasingly gestural and calligraphic style through the form of the sign. ‘During the final years of his life, Miró continued to execute magnificent paintings, densely inhabited, insurgent dances…’ he wrote. ‘[His] works had reached such a level of success and buoyancy, or freedom and aloofness, that it seemed absurd and even ‘sterile’ to seek to invent new figures and to renew old themes. The perennial depiction of a woman and a bird, of a star, of the sun and the moon, or the striking appearance of a rooster or a dancer confirmed that the importance of the theme was now secondary compared to the sign. The sign itself no longer the image’s double, it was rather reality assimilated then spat out by the painter, a reality he had incorporated then liberated, like air or light. The importance of the theme now depended on its manner of appearing or disappearing, and the few figures Miró still endlessly named and inscribed in his works are the natural go-betweens and guarantors of the reality of his universe... In a word, Miró’s painting became solar, purged of anecdotal references, refined mannerisms, self-satisfied taste and obscure maneuvers. Hidden or fleeting elements lost their place, nor was there any need to decipher these works. For they had become sovereignly pure acts bursting with a self-evidence that the painter had achieved only through an endless series of interruptions and ruptures’ (Miró, New York, 1983, pp. 340-351).
Personnage, oiseau, étoile dans un paysage is a work in which image, motif and sign have now become fluid and interchangeable with one another. In the late 1940s and early ‘50s, Miró had been inspired by the more open approach to automatism taken by the American Abstract Expressionists – painters who, in turn, had themselves been influenced by Miró’s revolutionary early paintings of the 1920s. After visiting many of these artists in the United States soon after the war, Miró had become freer with his own work and thereafter increasingly adopted a more gestural approach that was later to be augmented by the more meditative methods and techniques of Japanese calligraphers, that Miró learned from during two visits to Japan in 1966 and 1969. In Japan, meeting with potters, poets and calligraphers, Miró began to experiment with Japanese techniques and with new brushes. He also started to paint with his hands and fingers. Feeling ‘deeply in harmony with the Japanese soul’, Miró recalled that he ‘was fascinated by the work of the Japanese calligraphers and it definitely influenced my own working methods. [Now] I work more and more in a state of trance, I would say almost always in a trance these days. And I consider my painting more and more gestural’ (‘Interview with Margit Rowell,’ 1970, in M. Rowell, ed., Joan Miró: Selected Writings and Interviews, London, 1987, p. 219).
By the 1970s all these disparate influences and approaches had coalesced in Miró’s work into a powerful, dramatic and often violent assault on his canvases in the form a myriad of gestural marks, splashes, smudges and drips. Miró was even, on occasion, slashing and burning parts of his canvases in a manner aimed directly at reflecting the continuing mix of violence, oppression and bitter resistance happening in Spain under Franco. By 1978, and the passing of the Franco years, this renewed energy and vigour in Miró’s work continued, but now coalesced with his earlier repertoire of more poetic signs, motifs and constellations into new, vibrant and lyrical forms in which the raw energy and directness of his gestural mark-making fused with the calligraphic logic of his earlier pictorial language. The result was the creation of more elegant and subtle paintings such as Personnage, oiseau, étoile dans un paysage that persuasively conjure the idea of an entire fluid universe of pictographic harmony.
Here, within the unique logic of the picture that Miró has set up, for example, the apparently autonomous and separate entities of line, form, symbol, colour and motif are all in fact wholly interdependent upon one another in the creation of the image. Set against a bright yellow ground that emits a rich radiant energy, these bold marks seem to float before the eye, suggesting an apparently fluid cosmos of perpetual and constant metamorphosis where one element or painterly action can magically change into or form part of another. It is an optimistic, new universe of potential that Miró here articulates: a world where the artist’s own creative imagination seamlessly unites with his actions and gestures to become an integral and interwoven part of his traditional, archetypes, forms and motifs and in so doing becomes expressive of a new, cohesive domain of totality, interdependence and oneness.
Personnage, oiseau, étoile dans un paysage was painted only a week or so before the opening, in May 1978, of Miró’s retrospective at the Museo Español de Arte Contemporañeo in Madrid. This exhibition went on until July and it was at this time that Miró decided to donate Personnage, oiseau, étoile dans un paysage to his newly built Foundation in Barcelona. The writer and journalist Santiago Amón visited Miró in his studio in June that year and observed how Miró, now at the age of 85, was still breaking new ground with paintings such as Personnage, oiseau, étoile dans un paysage. Miró, at this time, Amón wrote, was preoccupied mostly with his ‘earliest and latest works.’ These were ‘the ones to which [he] pays most attention. He gazes at them silently, moving back and forth before them like an automaton. His wife, Pilar, tells him again and again to sit down. The painter grumbles: “Damn it, let me see them standing up. I painted these paintings in a frenzy with real violence so that people will know that I’m alive, that I’m breathing, that I still have a few more places to go. I’m heading in new directions.” I comment that the most recent canvas painted just one week before the show opened, is, in fact, very different from all the others. Miró nods in agreement, as though flattered at receiving a compliment that is no more than the strictest truth. “You still haven’t heard the last of me!”’ (‘Three Hours with Joan Miró,’ El Pais Semanal, Madrid, 18 June 1978, quoted in ibid., p. 301).