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Joan Miro (1893-1983)
Joan Miro (1893-1983)

Le numéro de music-hall

Joan Miro (1893-1983)
Le numéro de music-hall
signed 'Miro' (upper left); signed again and titled, dated and inscribed 'JOAN "Le numéro de music-hall" 10/XI/1938 HAUT' (on the reverse)
gouache and pencil on cardboard
10 x 7½ in. (25.4 x 19.1 cm.)
Executed 10 November 1938
Pierre Matisse Gallery, New York (acquired from the artist).
George E. Mercer, Wellesley Hills, Massachusetts. (acquired from the above, May 1939).
Acquired by the present owner, 2000.
New York, Pierre Matisse Gallery, Joan Miro, Paintings-Gouaches, April-May 1939.
Boston, Institute of Contemporary Art, Twentieth Century Drawings from Massachusetts Collections, July-September 1979.

Lot Essay

Le numéro de music-hall is Miró's grotesquely humorous take on a scene from Paris night-life, in which a troupe of women are seen performing their cabaret act. This unusual subject marks a rare occasion during the late 1930s when Miró took time out from his accustomed preoccupation with visual allegories of the Spanish Civil War and other dire events of the day, and briefly treated himself to what is ostensibly some frivolous, escapist, burlesque-style entertainment. The gargantuan chanteuse at center stage is, however, no beauty, and her monstrous expression is a reminder of the darker themes that Miró more typically plied in his work during this time.

As a Spanish Republican refugee artist with a wife and child, trying to survive in Paris during the later years of the great Depression was a trial for Miró, on top of which came the latest news, rarely encouraging, concerning the conflict in his native land. He wrote to Pierre Matisse, his New York dealer, on 7 April 1939: "The situation in Spain is very agonizing, but far from desperate; we have the firm hope that some event will take place to tip the balance in our favor... Luckily I have managed to keep my working enthusiasm and discipline" (quoted in M. Rowell, ed., p. 159). By the end of the year, when little hope remained for the fate of the Loyalist Republican cause, Miró experienced "days of terrible nightmares" (quoted in Joan Miró, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1993, p. 334). His work, however, had in 1938 entered a marvelous phase, having come out of the periods Jacques Dupin has called his "savage painting" and "tragic realism" to achieve "the sign's crystallization"--"the increasing simplification of flat forms in process of being transmuted into signs" (Miró, Paris, 2004, pp. 223 and 229).

This masterly drawing points to the key role that a renewed dedication to line played in Miró's work during 1938. In fact, his most important picture in that year is Autoportrait I (Dupin, no. 578; fig. 1), a canvas Miró intended to finish as an oil painting, but after working on it for more than eight months, he left it in May 1938 in its advanced state as a large intricate drawing. William Rubin called Autoportrait I "one of the most revelatory drawings any artist ever made of himself... His liberated line has woven a galactic tracery of sparks, flames, suns, and stars... ending as an epiphany of his private universe" (Miró in the Collection of the Museum of Modern Art, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1973, p. 76).

During the previous year Miró had taken the unusual step, as if to refresh his drawing skills, of working alongside students less than half his age at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière, making scores of drawings of the nude in live modeling sessions. His adroitness with line, always an essential element in his work and one of his most distinctive qualities, grew even more assured than before. As seen in Le numéro de music-hall, it was Miró's practice to draw spontaneously, inventing his fluid, elastic forms as he progressed, with little or no preconception of where his hand would take it, but always exercising complete and effortless control, with the result that his figures have an inevitable finality about them--there is no line that need be added, subtracted or altered in any way.

A new development at this time, manifest here, is that Miró began to fill the entire sheet with his sign-like shapes, creating an intricately interwoven filigree of forms, a rhythmical round dance of individual but often variant plastic motifs--here as numerous tear-shaped eyes, breasts, navels and vulvae--each separate and eye-catching in itself, the but also seamlessly integrated within the whole, overall composition. He incorporated this new approach to line and sign into the paintings he made at Varengeville on the Normandy coast the following year, on the eve of the Second World War. Miró's skill at using a firmly inflected but freely ranging line to generate proliferating imagery ultimately bore fruit in a series of magnificent works he commenced in January 1940, the twenty-three paintings in gouache and oil on paper which became known as the Constellations (Dupin, nos. 628-650), and are among the most celebrated of all 20th century works of art.

(fig. 1) Joan Miró, Autoportrait I, October 1937-May 1938. The Museum of Modern Art, New York.

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