Between March and June of 1933, Joan Miró created an extraordinary series of eighteen majestic paintings that are universally considered to be amongst the most accomplished of his career. Executed on 5 June 1933, Peinture is an important work from this much-celebrated group, one of only four of the eighteen in an imposing vertical format. Enigmatic biomorphic shapes float atop lushly modulated backgrounds of subdued, yet still radiant, color. Miró based these canvases, some of the largest he had created up to that point, on a parallel sequence of collages depicting mechanical instruments and tools. Jacques Lassaigne praised these fascinating and complex collage-based paintings:
"This group of pictures represents one of the peak points of his oeuvre; they are charged with a concentrated power, a plastic dynamism, that, surely, has never been surpassed. Without the least recourse to any anecdotal allusion that might distract our attention, the signs and figures they contain achieve a breath-taking expressiveness and fully justify the unusual procedure that went to their making" (op. cit., p. 71).
Miró painted the present work in a studio he had set up the previous year in his mother's apartment in the Passatge del Crèdit in Barcelona. The financial obligations of supporting a new wife and child in the economically precarious years of the early 1930s had forced him to leave Paris and return to his original family home, where he had been born almost four decades earlier. Having undergone a creative crisis in the late 1920s, when he questioned his own artistic ability and then famously set out to "assassinate painting," this move to Barcelona allowed him to concentrate on his work in relative peace and isolation, away from the distractions of the French capital and the political infighting that had come to plague André Breton's Surrealist circle.
It was Miró's deep sense of connection to his native Catalonian roots that both inspired and pervaded so much of his imagery, including Peinture and the other oils in this monumental series. Indeed the artist suggested to his poet friend J.V. Foix, who was due to write an essay on his recent work, that it be brought "as near as you can to the Catalan landscape in its bright and vigorous aspects, or the national aspect of music or folklore and to the admirable people from Catalonia," adding that, "this recent period of mine has been done exclusively in Catalonia, as you know" (J. Miró, letter to J.V. Foix, 19 July 1933, in A. Umland, ed., Joan Miró: Painting and Anti-Painting, 1927-1937, exh. cat., New York, 2008, p. 121). James Johnson Sweeney, then curator of The Museum of Modern Art, New York, recognized this facet of the new paintings, observing how their color palette of olives, browns and blues related to Catalonia's early church murals, their simplified forms evoked the region's folk art, and their compositions echoed the severe rhythms of the artist's native landscape (see J.J. Sweeney, "La jeune peinture de Joan Miró" in Cahiers d'Art, 1934, vol. 9, nos. 1-4, p. 49).
To create Peinture and the other seventeen paintings in this remarkable series, Miró first clipped images—largely depicting machines and utilitarian objects—from local Catalan newspapers and sales catalogues. These were then used as materials for the eighteen preparatory collages that he proceeded to pin to the walls of his small studio. These collages, in turn, became the "models" for the paintings. He later explained this novel creative procedure as follows:
"Little by little I turned from dependence on hallucinations to forms suggested by physical elements, but still quite apparent from realism. In 1933, for example, I used to tear newspapers into rough shapes and paste them on cardboards... After the collages were finished they served me as points of departure for paintings. I did not copy the collages. I merely let them suggest shapes to me" (quoted in M. Rowell, ed., Joan Miró: Selected Writings and Interviews, Boston, 1986, p. 209).
Due to the restricted space in his makeshift studio and the grand scale of canvases like Peinture, once a painting had been finished, it was taken off its stretcher and rolled, allowing Miró to begin work on the next painting in the series (see W. Rubin, Miró in the Collection of The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1973, p. 60). In a highly systematic and methodical fashion that was characteristic of his fastidious and exacting nature, he annotated each collage with the canvas size of the finished oil and the date the preparatory work was made; the chronology of the paintings follows exactly the order in which the original collages were executed. Miró based Peinture on a collage executed on 6 February 1933, which he bequeathed to the Fundació Joan Miró in 1976.
In moving from the collage to executing Peinture itself, Miró derived, invented, and fashioned forms from the pasted images, while also employing the collages as a guide in establishing the spatial relationships between these elements on the new, much larger picture plane. “The forms of these collages suggested other forms to him,” Christian Zervos wrote, “even as clouds often suggest fantastic images to us” (quoted in exh. cat., op. cit., 1941, p. 53). The artist worked from the collages, he recalled, “as if d’après nature” (W. Rubin, Miró in the Collection of The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1973, p. 60).
While the painting loosely preserves the configuration of the elements in the collage, the small, sharp-edged, inanimate objects of modernity have been transmuted into meticulously rendered, mysterious, hypertrophied shapes that recall the rounded biomorphic forms pioneered by the Surrealist artist Jean Arp. Miró fashioned these shapes into a series of balanced and carefully orchestrated relationships with one another. Opaque primary colors contrast with the thinner washes of blended pigment in the mystically worked background where the fine weave of the canvas has been allowed to show through. There are allusions to the primordial markings in the primitive cave paintings that so fascinated Miró, which Roland Penrose pointed out in his discussion of the paintings:
"As the political atmosphere darkened, and Miró's painting became prophetic of approaching catastrophes, he found in the great compositions of 1933 the means of enveloping the spectator in an atmosphere of primeval night. We are led into vast caves inhabited by magic animals, a twilight in which creatures of darkness float and dance, not on the ground but among the stars" (Miró, London, 1970, p. 186).
Between October and November later that year, the complete series of collage-based paintings was then exhibited at the prestigious Galerie Georges Bernheim in Paris. While the ongoing economic depression prevented the show from being a commercial success, the works were nonetheless much admired. The distinguished art critic André Warnod remarked that these paintings "denote an uncommon temperament. The hand that drew these lines, the mind who spawned these singular figures, are not any old hand and mind, and those harmonies coloured, orchestrated with a steadfastness, and authority, a delightful fantasy are those of a great painter" (ibid., p. 365).
When ten of the eighteen paintings travelled to New York for an exhibition at the Pierre Matisse Gallery that winter, Sweeney referred to their "ripe individuality and assured rhythms," seeing them as the fruit of all that had gone before; they were "easily the most mature distillation of sensibility he had yet offered" (op. cit., pp. 48-49). Miró himself was in no doubt whatsoever about the importance of these paintings, whose conception and exhibition heralded "a great success that might mark a red letter day in my career" (Miró, letter to P. Matisse, 5 November 1933, in E. Turner and O. Wick, exh. cat., op. cit., Basel, 2004, no. 27, p. 82).
The significance of Peinture and the other great canvases of 1933—and the dramatic impact they made—can be attributed to the intriguing working procedure Miró used to generate them, their originality and grand scale and, as Dupin has noted, the "spellbinding power" of their remarkably refined and balanced compositions (Miró, Barcelona, 1993, p. 178). In Peinture, Miró shows not only the extent to which he had absorbed ideas from Dada and Surrealism, but how far he had moved beyond them to create a work of unique visual poetry whose roots still remained in ancient art forms and the land of his birth. The complex web of influences and associations, and its relationships to his past work, make Peinture a signal work in the artist's oeuvre and, by extension, the whole canon of Modernism. Representing the pinnacle of an intensive and systematic exploration by Miró of two-dimensional form and space, these canvases, as well as suggesting to him a style that he would explore in the murals and tapestries that followed, were to influence future generations of artists—the present work was in fact owned by the Alexander Calder.
Ten of the eighteen paintings in this landmark series are now housed in major public collections, including The Museum of Modern Art, New York; The Philadelphia Museum of Art; the Kunstmuseum Bern; The National Gallery, Prague, and The Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris.