Miró executed Peinture (Le Chien) as he was bringing to a close his remarkable series of "oneiric" or "dream" pictures, as they were called by Jacques Dupin, the author of the Miró catalogue raisonné and the foremost writer on the artist's work. Miró worked on these paintings--many of which he gave the nonspecific title "peinture"--mainly in his family home in Montroig, Catalunya, from the summer of 1925 through early 1927. Through the years these paintings have sustained their status and reputation as being among the most radical and visionary in the artist's oeuvre. Fully aware that his imagery was recondite and that his reduced pictorial means appeared to undermine all conventional notions of what painting should be, Miró was extremely secretive about these pictures as he worked on them, and showed them to no one. They are paintings of a new kind, with a reality all their own; they are austere, minimal, and virtually impossible to explicate. The "oneiric" paintings foreshadowed later developments in modern painting, and they strongly influenced the color-field painters working in America during the late 1940s and 1950s, including William Baziotes, Helen Frankenthaler, Adolph Gottlieb, Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko and Clyfford Still. The minimalist aspect of these dream works remains persuasive and perennially fresh today, while the bold yet ambiguous simplicity of Miró's mysterious imagery continues to intrigue viewers, in many cases having yielded up little of their teasingly enigmatic meaning over the years.
In the spring of 1925, Miró completed Carnaval d'Arlequin, his most densely composed picture to date (Dupin, no. 115; Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo), a teeming inventory of personages and things taken from daily life and recomposed as signs. It was included in the artist's first one-man exhibition of paintings at the Galerie Pierre, Paris, in June 1925. Miró thereafter embarked on a freer, more abstract and adventurously interior approach to painting. He no longer found it necessary to describe things known and seen. His signs would henceforth become pointers to his perception of elements and forces in remote, alternative realities. Miró realized that there were even more profound and exciting realms to be revealed beyond the world of appearances. He sought to locate the primordial world of the innermost mind, where the unknowable and the invisible suddenly flashed into one's consciousness, leaving only a vague trace of its passing, lending itself to neither precise description nor rational explanation. This was the domain to which Miró and his Surrealist colleagues now laid claim as the source of their creative powers. Dupin has written:
"What is at issue here is not only a dream state or a state of reverie but a kind of agitation that affects one's entire being. The smallest shudder carries its disturbance and truth into the painting. Through a rift in the fabric of conventional plastic language, a wave of nocturnal energy comes surging up bearing an emotional charge that combines erotic fantasies, inner demons, primitive urges and cosmic sparks in a movement that continually threatens to overwhelm or exhaust the painter, to drown him in the void which is both a source of life and the abyss of death... The lines oscillate, intertwine, bunch into knots, break apart. Pulsing, monochromatic space becomes an organic environment that induces couplings and metamorphoses, perverse collusions between form and color, between the sign and the movement that alters it" (Joan Miró: A Retrospective, exh. cat., Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 1987, pp. 38-39).
Miró painted La Naissance du monde (Dupin, no. 125; fig. 1), the most famous of his dream pictures, in the late summer and fall of 1925. During this time Miró made frequent trips to Paris, where he stayed in his studio at 48, rue Blomet. André Masson, who pioneered automatist drawing, was his next-door neighbor and a close friend. Miró's Paris sojourns were ordeals of poverty and deprivation, as he reminisced to Dupin in 1977: "I ate little and badly... During this period hunger gave me hallucinations, and the hallucinations gave me ideas for paintings... It was a period of intense work. I filled my notebooks with drawings, and these served as the starting point for canvases" (quoted in M. Rowell, ed., Joan Miró: Selected Writings and Interviews, Boston, 1986, p. 103). These drawings may owe something to the psychic automatist technique that Breton, Masson and other Surrealists had advocated, as well as the linear whimsy of Klee's drawings, which Miró and Masson had admired in a show at the Galerie Vivin-Raspail in 1925. Most importantly, Mirós's drawings represent a calculated and far-reaching exploration of the plastic possibilities in sign-making, a process that guided the evolution of his dream paintings, in which drawing becomes painting.
Miró executed many of his dream paintings on a blue ground (Dupin, no. 154; fig. 2), a color that suggests cosmic infinity, a tranquil and introspective place set far apart from the ordinary world, and also the traditional color of melancholia. "This is the color of my dreams," he inscribed on a blue spot in one painting. He applied on some of his dream canvases a dark, nocturnal hue, and on others a lighter cerulean tone, the color of the diurnal sky over his home in Montroig. In other "oneiric" picture sets, he washed-in backgrounds of earthen tones. This idea then evolved into a series of eighteen paintings executed in early 1927 in which Miró employed a restricted range of colors brushed directly on raw linen canvas (Dupin, no. 258; fig. 3). During 1926-1927 Miró also painted a series of figures in a landscape setting, in which the act of dreaming has been transported from an internalized cosmic dimension to a vaguely terrestrial locale (Dupin, no. 223; fig. 4).
The paintings on a white ground, including Peinture (Le Chien), mark the final stage of the "oneiric" series, and represent a gradual symbolic return from darkness to light, from night to day, a journey from the innermost world of the mind and spirit back to the world of the senses, from which the artist first set out. Dupin has written:
"A final elucidation of the nocturnal, a final clarification of the dream is a series of small paintings with white backgrounds. The dull--milky or misty--whites of the preceding months give way to a resolutely luminous whiteness achieved by spreading oil paint very evenly over a canvas with a sufficiently strong texture to supply solidity and unambiguous light. The forms inscribed on such canvases are very free, unconnected, but now set down in unbroken lines and painted with unusual sureness... Lines and forms have greater tidiness than before, they are no longer threatened with sudden extinction, nor abruptly discontinued, and never fizzle out. They possess an entirely new density and tension. Scattered signs and ideograms distributed over the hard white background bring to mind the rock paintings of the Spanish Levant. We cannot speak as yet of a will to figuration... It is merely that the act of painting has of itself brought to life a mustachioed head, or mermaid with a fish over her face... or one or another allusive landscape, strange animal, sun, or dog [the present painting]. These works, in which Miró exorcises the menaces of night and puts his dream-writing to the test of pure clarity, seem a kind of bridge--or better yet, a sort of gangway--between the oneiric works and the Montroig landscapes, executed in the summer of 1926 and 1927 [fig. 4]. In these later works, we find a return of the earth, of color, a new balance between the real and the imaginary" (Miró, Paris, 2004, p. 129).
Miró's sign for an ordinary dog is clear enough here, even if it has been shorn of floppy ears and a wagging tail. The artist used a tell-tale brown spot here as elsewhere on his canine signs. The larger context, however, is a mystery. The creature's tiny eye is a yin-yang symbol in red and black. The large dots suggest a starry sky, but the white ground is the photographic negative image of the sky at night. Miró's father was an amateur astronomer, and the artist himself enjoyed star-gazing (as he did when he created his celebrated series of Constellations in 1940-1941). Perhaps we are looking at the constellation Canis Major, companion to the hunter Orion, whose configuration of stars stands nearby in the night sky. The black skirt-like form roughly resembles the filled-in shape of Orion's star pattern. The conflation of day/night imagery is summed up in the spot of gold paint at upper center--as Dupin has noted, "Gold and silver used together evoke the sun and moon together, a symbolic reflection, perhaps, of the fact that these canvases effect the union of night and day" (ibid.).
(fig. 1) Joan Miró, La Naissance du monde, 1925. The Museum of Modern Art, New York.
Barcode: 2800 1508
(fig. 2) Joan Miró, Peinture, 1925 (with alterations by the artist done in 1964). Sold, Christie's New York, 1 November 2005, lot 51.
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(fig. 3) Joan Miró, Peinture (Tête), 1927. Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Barcode: 2800 1522
(fig. 4) Joan Miró, Paysage sur les bords du fleuve Amour, 1927. Formerly in the collection of René Gaffé; sold, Christie's New York, 6 November 2001, lot 18.
Barcode: 2800 1539