When Miró painted this powerful, extraordinarily large and richly detailed composition on paper in the spring of 1937, he had already received, in late April, a commission from the Spanish Republican government to execute a mural for his country's pavilion at the 1937 Paris World's Fair. The inescapable events of the day dictated that he choose a subject related to the civil war in Spain, which had been raging for almost a year. The conflict was going badly for the Loyalist forces fighting for the left-wing government, with whom both Miró and Picasso openly sympathized. Picasso had been considering since January ideas for the mural he had been asked to paint, and his subject suddenly came to him on 26 April, when German war planes supporting General Franco's insurgent Nationalist armies bombed the defenseless Basque town of Guernica. Picasso began his preliminary studies on 1 May and completed his mural Guernica in June. Meanwhile, Miró began work on his mural, Le faucheur (The Reaper, Catalan Peasant in Revolt) (fig. 1), which he completed in early July, just days before the delayed inauguration of the Spanish Pavilion.
Grand composition avec personnages shares Le faucheur's anti war, anti-tyranny themes. A goose-stepping male figure at left, emblematic of Franco's fascist minions, is about to trample a mother holding a baby seated in front of him. She is the startled witness to a huge explosion, suggested by the wildly brushed wash background, in which some figures have been literally blown to bits. Another male figure hurtles downward, torpedo-like, from the sky. Indeed, this work may be Miró's response to the bombing of Guernica, or more generally to the countless other outrages suffered by the civilian population in Spain. The tenebrous mood of menace and the depiction of atrocity recall the precedent of an earlier Spanish master, Francisco Goya's Los Desastres de la Guerra, his outcry against the horrors of war, which he drew and etched in 1810-1820. Goya's prints inspired Picasso's The Dream and Lie of Franco, a serial strip of images he etched in January and June 1937. Goya's spirit also informed Miró's works on paper during the anguished months of the spring and summer of that year, when the news from Madrid and Barcelona was hopeful one day, and fearful the next.
In an interview with Georges Duthuit, published in Cahiers d'Art in 1936, following the outbreak of the war, Miró said, "I am pessimistic, tragically pessimistic. No illusions are permitted. There will be a struggle against everything that represents the pure value of the spirit" (reprinted in M. Rowell, ed., Joan Miró: Selected Writings and Interviews, Boston, 1986, p. 154). Jacques Dupin has characterized Miró's mood during this period as "tragic realism," which he overcame through his prodigious imagination and manifold powers of invention:
In Miró there was no exploitation of suffering, no complaisance for the monstrous or the cruel. He was carefully surveying the evil powers and recording it without trickery. He was merely the ultra-sensitive apparatus, the spiritual seismograph of contemporary disaster. And in the dejection and suffering which he in turn embodied, he was trying-- but only in the domain in which he recognized his rights and competence, in painting--to bring aid and comfort to mankind. He was on the side of nature, the side of the life principle itself (in Miró, Paris, 2004, p. 221).
(fig. 1) Miró painting the mural Le faucheur in the Spanish Pavilion at the 1937 Paris World's Fair. BARCODE 23659490