‘We are living through a terrible drama, everything happening in Spain is terrifying in a way you could never imagine. I feel very uprooted here and am nostalgic for my country. But what can be done? We are living through a hideous drama that will leave deep marks in our mind.’
(Miró quoted in M. Rowell, ed., Joan Miró: Selected Writings and Interviews, Boston, 1986, p. 146).
Executed on December 2nd 1937, Miró’s large Untitled (Image) hails from a period of great turbulence for both the artist, and indeed for Europe as a whole. Miró had returned to Paris in the autumn of 1936 to consign works for his upcoming exhibition at the Pierre Matisse gallery in New York. The escalating turmoil of the Spanish Civil War however, forced Miró to remain in the French capital for the next five years until 1941. The building angst in both Spain and France had triggered a torrent of creativity for Miró. The whimsical, playful forms that had characterised Miró’s Surrealist works had been replaced by haunting, expressive images of individual figures. On an ominous background of black paper, Untitled (Image) depicts a lone figure, its arms raised in a gesture of fear. A foreboding sense of terror pervades every aspect of the image; the violent splashes of paint in the figure’s torso suggestive of gunshots, and deep red of the lower half evoking blood. The continuous white outline of the figure and carefully punctuated white dots lend the figure a fragile, ghost-like quality, the victim of an unseen threat.
Miró found Paris a deeply changed city. The joyous euphoria of the 1920s that had stimulated such diverse artistic expression had been replaced with a mounting sense of tension and fear. Uprooted, disconcerted, and worried for Spain, Miró found himself with no studio to work in. As a result of this, at the beginning of 1937 Miró returned to study at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière, which he had originally attended on his first arrival in Paris in 1919. Here he took life-drawing classes, creating a series of remarkable studies in which linear figures are depicted with distorted, exaggerated and disfigured limbs and torsos. The tensions of the period had caused Miró to return to the depiction of the individual figure, a subject through which he could root himself in reality. However his treatment of the human figure was not naturalistic, but instead violent and expressive, a reflection of his own angst and the inner turmoil that he was experiencing. In the words of Jacques Dupin, the great friend of, and authority on the artist, Miró’s works at the time found their power and significance in their ‘assault upon the human figure’ (J. Dupin, Joan Miró, Life and Work, New York, 1962, p. 264). As Untitled (Image) illustrates, Miró continued throughout 1937 to depict haunted figures caught in a state of chaos, which condensed the artist’s own internal anxieties as the continent moved towards the Second World War.
In April 1937, the same year that Untitled (Image) was created, Miró was commissioned by the Spanish Republican government to create a mural for their pavilion at the Exposition Internationale in Paris, which opened in July of that year. Le Faucheur, now lost, depicted, on a monumental scale, a single Catalan peasant holding a sickle, arms raised and mouth open in a silent, defiant scream. In the pavilion, Miró’s mural was flanked by Picasso’s seminal Guernica, so demonstrating, through modernist art, the horrific realities of a country already besieged by war. At this time however, many still retained a hope that the resistance of the Republic would be strong enough to triumph over Fascist powers. Miró’s Le Faucheur embodied that sense of resilient defiance and strength. In 1937 Miró forcefully proclaimed his hope, ‘In the present struggle I see, on the Fascist side, spent forces; on the opposite side, the people, whose boundless creative will gives Spain an impetus which will astonish the world’ (Miró quoted in Joan Miró: The Ladder of Escape, exh. cat., London, 2011, p. 15). However, later in the year, by the time that Untitled (Image) was executed, the continued Nationalist advances in Spain had left little room for hope. Similarly depicting a solitary figure, Untitled (Image) presents an intimate, more personal vision of terror. The figure emerges from the misty, swirling background, an imagined apparition of impending horror. Any sense of defiance is lost and is replaced instead by a frontal depiction of fear.
Untitled (Image) displays Miró’s ceaseless technical inventiveness. The bold, gestural splashes of paint and blurred painterly background contrast with the fine linear outline of the simplified figure. Miró’s subjective treatment of the figure would prove immensely inspirational for subsequent groups of artists. Four years after Untitled (Image) was created, the first major retrospective of Miró’s work was held at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in November 1941. The exhibition had a large impact on a number of artists in New York at that time, including Jackson Pollock, Arshile Gorky, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, and particularly Hans Hofmann. At a time when many of these artists were seeking an alternative aesthetic from the geometric cubism of their predecessors, Miró’s work and his use of colour, biomorphic and figural forms, poetry and automatism, provided a diverse range of stimuli for this generation of artists. Miró directly influenced Abstract Expressionist Hans Hofmann. Along with Jackson Pollock, Hofmann was one of the first to apply paint in drips or splashes, and was attracted to the gestural, deeply expressive nature of Miró’s work, as well as his depiction of the figure using an abstract language, as is particularly visible in Untitled (Image). Hofmann originally owned Untitled (Image), and the work remained in his collection until his death in 1966, a testament to Hofmann’s admiration for Miró’s work and a reminder of the indelible impression the Spaniard would leave in the 1940s on a generation of artists working in the USA.