JOAN MIRÓ (1893-1983)
JOAN MIRÓ (1893-1983)
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JOAN MIRÓ (1893-1983)

L'échelle de l'évasion (The Escape Ladder)

JOAN MIRÓ (1893-1983)
L'échelle de l'évasion (The Escape Ladder)
signed 'Miró' (centre left)
oil on burlap
28 7⁄8 x 21 3⁄8 in. (73.5 x 54.3 cm.)
Painted in December 1939
Pierre Matisse Gallery, New York.
J.S. Stein, Chicago, by 1948 and until at least 1962.
Private collection, Japan, by whom acquired circa 1975, and thence by descent.
Private collection, Europe, by whom acquired from the above in 2013.
Private collection, London, by whom acquired from the above via the intermediation of Crane Kalman Gallery in 2018.
C. Greenberg, Joan Miró, New York, 1948, p. 132 (illustrated pl. LX, p. 97).
J. Prévert & G. Ribemont-Dessaignes, Joan Miró, Paris, 1956, p. 147 (illustrated).
J. Dupin, Miró: Life and Work, London, 1962, no. 536, pp. 304 & 541 (illustrated p. 305).
J. Dupin, Miró, Paris, 1993, no. 265, pp. 242 & 243 (illustrated p. 243).
W. Erben, Joan Miró: The Man and His Work, Cologne, 1998, p. 104 (illustrated).
J. Dupin & A. Lelong-Mainaud, Joan Miró: Catalogue raisonné, Paintings, vol. II, 1931-1941, Paris, 2000, no. 626, p. 229 (illustrated).
Chicago, The Arts Club, Joan Miró: Works from Chicago Collections, February - March 1961, no. 28.

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Lot Essay

In the spring of 1939 Joan Miró published a statement in the avant-garde journal, Cahiers d’Art, in which he boldly proclaimed the power of art in times of hardship and fear. Faced with the harrowing reality of war in his home country of Spain, and the rapidly worsening political tensions that were then sweeping across Europe, Miró’s response was not only timely, but also a defiant reminder of the importance of continuing to create in such times of threat. ‘The outer world, the world of contemporary events, always has an influence on the painter – that goes without saying. If the interplay of lines and colours 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 present, which is particularly ignoble today, in order to approach new realities, to offer other men the possibility of rising above the present…’ (‘Statement,’ in Cahiers d’Art, Paris, April-May, 1939; reproduced in M. Rowell, ed., Joan Miró. Selected Writings and Interviews, London, 1987, p. 166).
Painted just a few months later, in December 1939, L’échelle de l’évasion is a powerfully evocative work in which every stroke of the artist’s brush seems to be infused with a defiant joie de vivre, conjuring the sense of escape and freedom from tyranny that Miró was valiantly striving for in his compositions during this turbulent period. A group of intriguing, otherworldly characters engage one another across the space, their forms delineated through carefully crafted strokes of oil paint while thickly impastoed clouds of pastel pigment surround them, accentuating the heavily textured burlap ground the artist has used. Delving into the depths of his imagination to conjure this strange, whimsical scene, Miró puts forth many of the recurring characters, themes and leitmotifs that would occupy him intensely through the war years. Indeed, L’échelle de l’évasion may be seen as a direct precursor to his acclaimed series of gouache compositions known as the Constellations, which the artist embarked upon within weeks of completing this work.
L’échelle de l’évasion was an important and often repeated subject that ran throughout much of Miró’s work from the early 1920s onwards. Comprising the graphic image of a ladder, seemingly bridging two worlds, it often served as a potent metaphor for the artist’s own escape from reality into the other world of his art. Towards the end of the 1930s, in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War and amidst the onset of the Second World War, the image of ‘the Escape Ladder’ appeared with ever increasing frequency in Miró’s work as the artist, recognising the inexorable encroach of dark times all around him, sought both a refuge from and a creative refutation of such menace through his art. Indeed, so intrinsic was this ‘ladder’ to both the concept and the nature of Miró’s work, particularly during the troubled years of the 1930s, that L’échelle de l’évasion was the title given to a retrospective of Miró’s work in 2011, which began at the Tate Modern before travelling to the Fundació Joan Miró in Barcelona and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D. C.
Created while Miró and his family were living in a small Normandy cottage in Varengeville-sur-Mer, during the months of the so-called ‘phoney war’ of 1939 when all of France anxiously awaited the German invasion, the present L’échelle de l’évasion forms the culmination of a series of new works deliberately intended as marking a flight from the grim realities of life in Europe at this time. ‘At Varengeville-sur-Mer, in 1939, began a new stage in my work, which had its source in music and nature,’ Miró recalled of this period. ‘It was about the time that war broke out. I felt a deep desire to escape. I closed myself within myself purposely. The night, music and the stars began to play a major role in suggesting my paintings. Music had always appealed to me, and now music in this period began to take the role poetry had played in the early twenties – especially Bach and Mozart – when I went back to Majorca upon the fall of France. Also the material of my painting began to take a new importance… Perhaps my self-imposed isolation from my colleagues led me to turn for suggestions to the materials of my art. First to the rough surfaces of the heavy burlap series of 1939; then to ceramics’ (‘Comment and Interview’ by James Johnson Sweeney in Partisan Review, New York, February 1948; reproduced in ibid., p. 209).
It was amidst the relative stability and rustic calm of the Normandy countryside that Miró was able to descend into a private world of his imagination and bring all his energies and experience to bear on the creation of an intensified vision that embodied several of his favourite themes: birds, women and, above all, the night sky. As the artist’s close friend and biographer, Jacques Dupin has written of Miró during this crucial period, his art now ‘became for him a kind of spiritual exercise, an escape from external reality, capable of leading to ever deeper explorations of inner reality. His was an inward flight. More and more frequently the “escape ladder” sign would turn up in his work, and occasionally even in his titles. His seclusion in Normandy favoured intense inner activity: nature there was intact and whole, not subject to the laws of war, ignorant of human hopes and fears. It was above all the sky and the night to which he would most frequently refer in his works of this period and would increasingly associate with music. The sky, music and the night have profound obvious affinities with the theme of escape that took hold of the artist’s imagination’ (J. Dupin, Miró, New York, 1993, p. 242).
As his statement in Cahiers d’Art immediately prior to the making of these works makes clear, this ‘inward flight’ from the tragic reality of the period was essentially part of a political decision on his behalf. After having striven to show the struggle of the Spanish people and the ignoble threat to the Spanish Republic from Fascism in much of his work of the late 1930s, by 1939 Miró was deeply conscious of the futility of any further direct political engagement in his work. Recognising, in the wake of Franco’s victory and the inexorable descent into a new European war against Fascism, that art was no longer able to play any role in averting this oncoming tragedy, he now sought an art that would keep alive his inner vision and deliberately invoke a universal sense of the mystery and magic of life. Miró’s aim was to create an art whose inventiveness, originality and playfulness would sparkle and shine in direct contrast to the encroaching darkness and tragedy that he and so many others now felt surrounding them.
Between September and December 1939 – the first months of the war – Miró began two new series of works which Dupin has catalogued under the titles Varengeville I and Varengeville II; the first with raspberry red backgrounds, the second, to which L’échelle de l’évasion belongs, on burlap. These two series, Dupin points out, ‘are noteworthy for the increased power they reserve for line. Line is sure and unexpected, not in the least preconceived, and yet its spontaneous inventions are always controlled – indeed, they are experienced organically over every inch of the picture. The perfection of these two series of paintings is due to the great concentration of their brushwork... The impression of night is striking, especially in the paintings on burlap; due to the intensity of line and figures in a dark space, to the flashes of colour, and perhaps also to the fact that the entire surface has been mobilised so that the figures are bathed in nocturnal light’ (ibid., p. 243).
One of the very last of the nine paintings executed on burlap from the so-called Varengeville compositions, L’échelle de l’évasion is among the most colourful and densely worked of all these pictures. With its imagery of the night sky contrasting closely with a dense black ground over which the ‘escape ladder’ rises and into which the giant central figure of a woman has her feet firmly planted, the painting presents a night sky full of colour, activity and detail. It is in this respect that this work most closely anticipates the Constellations series, which Miró would begin soon after completing this work. Widely regarded as among Miró’s most famous series of paintings, the Constellations were a series of rich and finely detailed graphic flights of fantasy into the night sky that Miró executed in gouache on paper using a miraculous flowing line that appeared to articulate the magic and mystery of the universe using only the graphic flow of his unconscious imagination. Indeed, the present work may be seen as a direct precursor to one of the very first compositions from the Constellations series, also titled L’échelle de l’évasion and painted just over a month later, on 31 January 1940 (Dupin, no. 629; The Museum of Modern Art, New York).
As in the Constellations, the present L’échelle de l’évasion exhibits a remarkable fluidity in the vivid black line that Miró has used to delineate his figures, giving particular emphasis to their spider-like hair and hands, which appear to sparkle like stars and generate a deep sense of nocturnal cosmic activity. This magical sense of the night sky is also emphasised by an extensive use of colour, which Miró, emulating his practice on watercolour paper, created by smudging patches of paint straight from the tube into the much more heavily textured burlap ground.
As Dupin has pointed out in this respect, Miró’s application of smudged colour and flowing black line establishes ‘a general vibrancy of the surface, a sensuality at play in the very texture of the canvas or burlap… (that) foreshadows the Constellations. The unity of the composition is now defined by the surface, and it is only by starting with the surface that we can go back to a given figure. It may be assumed that the roughness of burlap in a sense embodies the unity of the surface even before the painter has applied a brush stroke or traced a line. One is very conscious of the act of creation in these works: they are “compositions” in the sense of musical compositions: they interpret a synthetic writing that is at once flexible and tight, based upon a powerful rhythm, and in control of line, colour scumbles, and white accents, as also of the sober but intense play of pure colours. Rigorousness has not hindered the formal imagination of the artist, nor his capacity for surprising us: it has merely given his personal gifts more room to move about in, for his forms and figures to breathe in’ (J. Dupin, op. cit., p. 247).
As Dupin went on to observe, in works such as L’échelle de l’évasion there appears to be a conscious absence of hierarchy between the various figures, creatures and their environments – they float freely within the same space, overlapping and intermingling, creating a composition in which ‘every sort of interrelation is permissible’ (Dupin, ibid., p. 247). A similarly deliberate lack of hierarchy certainly informs the majority of his Constellations which, like the paintings on burlap, are distinguished by the way in which they mobilise their entire surface so as to create a universal vision of a magical and holistic nature – a world with no dividing lines, where both macrocosm and microcosm are inexorably intertwined. The ‘escape ladder’ in the present painting, for example, is shown leading to just such a holistic realm, a nocturnal dimension beyond all borders and division. Its realm is one where surface and image have combined, where, in complete contrast to the external real world of violence, discrimination and division that threatened Miró at this time, sky and earth, birds and people, abstraction and figuration, along with the domains of the conscious and the unconscious, are all seemingly interrelated and interwoven within the field of the creative act. Fluidly combining with each other, each element of the painting is here fused with all others through the magical invention of the painter and the graphic intensity of his interior vision.

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