Towards the end of 1944, after a four-year break from working in oil paint, Joan Miró began a new series of large-scale oils on canvas. After years of working in a precise and meticulous manner in watercolour and gouache, the 'scrupulous asceticism' that the artist's friend and biographer Jacques Dupin had ascribed to his Constellations and other works on paper of these years, finally gave way to a poetry of humour and whimsicality in what were to prove the first large scale works of Miró's 'definitive' style.
Executed in March 1946, Personnages et oiseaux devant le soleil is a large and important painting from this period in which Miró's new invigorated and systematic approach to his work is formally asserted through an open and direct contrast between fluid, near accidental marks and smaller, sharply-rendered figures generated by an intuitive painterly response to the prompts of such free-form painting.
Executed in Barcelona, where the artist spent much of the Second World War after having lived at first in Mallorca, this painting is one whose whimsical iconography draws on familiar motifs and figures inspired by the Catalan landscape where Miró had grown up. In this and in its careful balance of contrasting forms, against a misty white canvas background, it is a work that marks the culmination of the period of formal experimentation with his own pictorial vocabulary that Miró had begun shortly before the war in Varengeville-sur-Mer in 1939. It was there, Miró recalled, that he 'began a new stage in my work which had its source in music and nature. 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 Mallorca upon the fall of France' (Joan Miró, 'Interview with James Johnson Sweeney' in Partisan Review, New York, February 1948, quoted in Margit Rowell, ed., Joan Miró Selected Writings and Interviews, London, 1987, p. 209 ).
First sprouting in Miró's work in the densely populated, painstaking and precisely rendered catalogue of forms that comprised his Constellation series, this meticulous precision was to give way during his stay in Palma, Mallorca to a looser, rougher and more organic style that would last throughout the rest of the war years. 'The material of my painting began to take a new importance' Miró said of this time, 'In watercolours I would roughen the surface of the paper by rubbing it. Painting over this roughened surface produced curious chance shapes. Perhaps my self-imposed isolation from my colleagues led me to turn for suggestions to the materials of my art... Nowadays I rarely start a picture from a hallucination as I did in the twenties, or, as later, from collages. What is most interesting to me today is the material I am working with. It supplies the shock which suggests the form just as cracks in a wall suggested shapes to Leonardo. For this reason I always work on several canvases at once. I start a canvas with a thought of what it may eventually become. I put it aside after the first fire has abated. I may not look at it again for months. Then I take it out and work at it coldly like an artisan, guided strictly by rules of composition after the first shock of suggestion has cooled." (Joan Miró, "Comment and Interview" by James Johnson Sweeney in Partisan Review, ibid.)
It was not until 1944 that Miró, returning to the medium of oil on canvas, sought to bring together the two different strands of his recent work - the precisely rendered forms, sharp lines and radiant colours of his Constellations and the rough, chance-driven, signs, motifs and cipher-like forms created from splashes and stains. In his works of the immediate post-war years (1944-46) Miró created a series of works in which these two contrasting styles directly confront, oppose and ultimately complement one another on his picture plane in a formal dialogue taking place against light and hazy planes of colour-stained canvas.
In this work, for example, these two types of forms are shown in a kind of formalised dance around the dominant motif of a red sun. The large central calligraphic-like form stained in black and forming a sickle shape near the sun, depicts a woman or young girl in a short dress and is one that appears in several of Miró's paintings of this period. The smaller black form in the bottom left of the painting represents a bird. These two roughly delineated and stained shapes of thinned black oil interact in an apparently shifting spatial field with a series of more playful and sharply rendered figures and creatures reminiscent of Miró's Constellation style. Set into spatial conjunction with each other, each form benefits from and plays off the other - the smaller, finer forms gaining an earthy sense of gravitas and weight that stops them becoming too light and insubstantial, while the rougher forms are held from dissolving into a near formless morass of inconsequentiality by the sharp stinging presence in the space around them of these finely-drawn and brilliantly coloured creatures. Between them the dialogue established appears to speak of a wider world of poetry and possibility than that generated by either of the two distinct styles of painting that Miró had previously practised separately. Forged together, as here, they provided a combination of chance and careful calculation that was ultimately to serve Miró for much of the rest of his life.
Recognising the importance of his developments in these works, Miró recalled that he 'produced a great deal at this time, working very quickly, and just as I worked very carefully in the Palma series which had immediately preceded these, "controlling" everything, now I worked with the least control possible - at any rate in the first phase, the drawing' (Joan Miró, 'Interview with James Johnson Sweeney' ibid, p. 210). Soon, Miró came to recognize and devolve a system through which he could operate. 'The slightest thing served me as a jumping off place in this period,' he remembered, 'and in the various paintings I have done since my return from Palma to Barcelona there have always been three stages - first, the suggestion, usually the material; second, the conscious organization of these forms; and third, the compositional enrichment. Forms take reality for me as I work. In other words, rather than setting out to paint something, I begin painting and as I paint the picture begins to assert itself. The form becomes a sign for a woman or a bird as I work. Even a few casual wipes of my brush in cleaning may suggest the beginning of a picture. The second stage, however is carefully calculated. The first stage is free, unconscious; but after that the picture is controlled throughout, in keeping with that desire for disciplined work I have always felt from the beginning. The Catalan character is not like that of Malaga or other parts of Spain. It is very much down-to-earth. We Catalans believe you must always plant your feet firmly on the ground if you want to be able to jump up in the air. The fact that I come down to earth from time to time makes it possible for me to jump all the higher' (Joan Miró, 'Interview with James Johnson Sweeney', ibid, p. 209 ).
Personnages et oiseaux devant le soleil is a work that displays this contrast in a particularly clear and almost logical or constructed way. The three forms at the bottom of the picture are clearly also planted on the ground, as indeed is the large central figure of the girl standing before the sun. All the other figures in the painting appear to hover, dance, jump or fly. Indeed, the division between static earth-bound figures rooted in the earth and the apparently mobile flying forms in the sky in this work is so distinct that the work takes on a near kinetic quality reminiscent of the effects of an Alexander Calder mobile. Miró had remained in distant touch with his friend Calder by letter throughout the war years, though it was not until early 1946 that he was able to see some of the work Calder had been producing when the American sent him a book on his sculpture. It is also, in this respect, interesting to note that it was at the time that Miró was working on Personnages et oiseaux devant le soleil that Miró first received photographs of the American's recent bronze sculptures as well as small sculptural presents - a small stabile and a bracelet for his wife Pilar. As with much of their work during this period, there are striking parallels between Miró's looser scrawled figures and some of Calder's roughly worked bronze creations.
While the contrast between clearly static and seemingly mobile forms in Personnages et oiseaux devant le soleil is pronounced, the almost grid-like placement of these forms around the central girl-figure also creates a unique and language-like structure that bestows the work with sense of formal or logical progression and functional meaning. Taken collectively, the individual elements of Miró's pictorial vocabulary in this calligraphic work seem to generate a near linear pattern both horizontally and vertically within the borders of the canvas. A pattern which in turn becomes suggestive of a logical sequence, as if each form were a decipherable symbol or cypher forming part of a cohesive and intelligible linguistic structure of signs. Seemingly rotating around the large central figure of the girl, these pictorial motifs seem to articulate an unknown but vivid pictorial poetry or calligraphic language.
No form, for Miró was ever completely abstract, 'It is always a sign of something' he maintained. 'It is always a man, a bird, or something else. For me painting is never form for form's sake.' (Joan Miró, ibid., p. 207) As Jacques Dupin has written of this feature of such works as Personnages et oiseaux devant le soleil, 'the simplicity of the writing, the ambivalence of its elements, and the reduction of the palette to a few primary colours make possible a composition as complex as music. By virtue of the multiple relationships of every isolated part with the freer elements of the painting, a given figure which is in itself motionless and closed becomes animated and opens up with the overall-flow of the rhythm. Thus the forms are, in the artist's own words, 'at once mobile and immobile'. 'What I'm looking for', Miró also said, 'is a motionless movement, something equivalent to what is called "an eloquent silence" or what St John of the Cross referred to as muted music' (Jacques Dupin, Miró, New York, 1993, p. 268.).