One may ascribe to the figures of the man and woman in this painting an age-old story of an errant young fellow beating a hasty retreat from a sorely offended lady, or perhaps more specifically, a distressed mother berating her wayward son. Miró has imparted to this scene the fluid gestural linearity, mingled with slapdash swashes of paint, that one finds in wall graffiti, of even the most ancient kind–Miró had studied first-hand and in the literature those prehistoric drawings found on the walls of caves deep within the craggy landscape of Catalunya, along the perimeter of the last ice age. This scene is more significantly a caricature drawn from everyday contemporary life, a mundane encounter Miró might have witnessed on the streets of Barcelona in his own day. Its ultimate import, nevertheless, is not simply anecdotal; the events of the day to which Miró actually alludes here are of a more ominous and potentially dire sort.
During 1934 Miró’s art took a sudden turn; the avant-garde issues of painting and anti-painting that had preoccupied him since the late 1920s took back seat to newer, more pressing concerns in his work. “It was at this time that his art underwent changes so sudden and far-reaching as to deserve the term ‘cataclysmic,’” as Jacques Dupin termed it. “The serene works of the years devoted to concentration on plastic concerns and to spiritual control of figures and signs gave way to a new outburst of subjectivity, to an expressionist unleashing of instinctual forces. The volcano which for some years had been dormant suddenly erupted. The clear skies clouded over, and a violent storm proceeded to darken the peaceful artistic climate–indeed, to shake Miró’s art to its foundation” (Miró, Paris, 2012, p. 185).
The economic repercussions of the Great Depression compelled Miró to spend less time in Paris, requiring him to live for longer periods each year in his family home in Mont-roig, while working in his studio at Passatge del Credit, 4, in Barcelona. He could neither avoid nor disregard the political turmoil that had begun to rage all around, rising to an ever more deafening crescendo. The creation of the Second Spanish Republic in 1931 had spawned a welter of contending factions with irreconcilable extremist agendas–reformers vs. reactionaries, egalitarians vs. monarchists, anti-clericalists vs. the Catholic Church, Soviet-style communists vs. fascist falangists, among many others, each grasping for political advantage at the expense of the others, making no apologies for even resorting to violence if it suited their ends.
Separatist aspirations had led to the call for a Catalan Republic within a Spanish federation, an idea then quickly scaled back to an autonomous Generalitat. A mass strike in October 1934, however, led to a new declaration of an independent regional Republic; Miró could hear from Mont-roig the army’s bombardment of insurrectionist targets in Barcelona. The outbreak of the life-or-death Civil War would not take place until July 1936, when General Franco led his coup against the elected Frente Popular coalition of leftist parties that had taken control of the central government in Madrid. In the meantime political assassinations and other terrorist acts plagued the nation with increasing frequency, undermining what little confidence the citizenry still had in their leaders and leaving little hope for the future.
Even if Miró could not foresee in 1934-1935 exactly where these worrisome events were leading, he nonetheless felt compelled to invest his work with frightening auguries and visions of far more terrible things to come. “What seems to have changed was not as much Miró as the course of modern times around him,” Dupin explained. “Liberated by art from personal conflicts, Miró was now to experience and express the collective tragedy as an inner torment. Miró's works would then give expression to all this in the form of an assault upon the human figure, disintegrating it utterly, submerging it in a tidal wave of unleashed elemental powers” (ibid., p. 185).
“Unconsciously I was living in an atmosphere of anxiety characteristic of when something grave must surely take place,” Miró recalled to Lluís Permanyer in 1978. “Like before it rains: heaviness of head, an aching in the bones, and an asphyxiating dampness. It was more a physical than a moral distress. I sensed a catastrophe and I didn’t know what it would be... I tried to portray this tragic atmosphere that tormented me and that I felt inside me” (quoted in Joan Miró 1893/1993, exh. cat., Fundació Joan Miró, Barcelona, 1993, p. 313).
The artist’s initial foray into these dark recesses of the imagination were fifteen pastels on velours paper of monstrously grotesque creatures, which he drew during October 1934 (Dupin, nos. 466-480). He resuming painting in early January 1935–on board, as in the present Homme et femme–creating works that “mark the beginning of the cruel and difficult years the world lived through,” Miró later remembered. “They swarm with oppositions, conflicts, contrasts. I call them ‘my savage paintings.’ Thinking about death led me to create monsters that both attracted and repelled me” (interview with Denys Chevalier, 1962, in M. Rowell, ed., Joan Miró: Selected Writings and Interviews, Boston, 1986, p. 267).
The freely flowing contours of the figures in Homme et femme appear to have been drawn with the twists and turns of the slender brush-in-hand in nearly continuous arabesques, as if on white-washed outdoor wall, generating phallic forms for him, and a vulvar sign for her. The swathes of scarlet and gold imply that she stands for Spanish motherhood, or even the very nation itself, while the colors of red and black may reveal him to be as yet undecided in declaring allegiance to either the communist left or the falangist right; in either case, she scolds him at the top her lungs. We hear Miró declaim in her voice, “Spain, take heed!”
“From the very beginning of 1935, no matter what Miró set out to do, his brush conjured nothing but monsters,” Dupin wrote. “Moreover, these monsters fill up the whole of his canvases. He met them in the familiar features of a face, in the lines of a woman’s body, in the forms of the Mont-roig rocks, and in the loops and swirls of his spontaneous graphism. The monstrous was everywhere he looked; it occupied his whole field of vision and sensation. It was a prophetic warning of a universal cataclysm, and it was also a sort of exorcism of the monstrous on the artist’s part... The marvelous becomes fantastic terror, the dream a clairvoyant nightmare, lyricism a barbaric hymn” (op. cit., 2012, p. 189).
[A] Joan Miró, Femme, October 1934. The Museum of Modern Art, New York.
[B] Joan Miró, Deux personnages, 10 April 1935. The Kreeger Museum, Washington, D.C.
[C] Joan Miró, Deux femmes, 13 April 1935. Sprengel Museum, Hannover.
[D] Joan Miró, Figures devant un volcan, 9-14 October 1935. Sold, Christie’s, New York, 7 November 1995, lot 44.