In early 1944, Pierre Matisse, Miró's dealer in New York, expressed concern in a letter to the artist that he seemed no longer interested in painting. Miró had last worked in oil on canvas is his Varengeville series, which he began only days before the Germans invaded Poland on 1 September 1939, and brought to a conclusion at the end of that year. Miró shipped most of these pictures to Matisse before fleeing France. During his final days in Varengeville he commenced his celebrated Constellations, in gouache on paper (Dupin, nos. 628-650). Miró finished the final works in this series in Palma de Mallorca and his family's home in Montroig, Catalonia, during 1941. For most of next several years Miró worked only on paper, experimenting with various media and techniques, and made numerous prints and ceramics. He wrote Matisse on 17 June 1944, seeking to reassure him, "I work as always a lot; if I've made ceramics and lithographs, as this summer I am going to make sculpture, it is not to abandon painting; on the contrary, it is to enrich it with new possibilities and to take it up with a new enthusiasm" (quoted in C. Lanchner, Joan Miró, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1993, p. 336).
Miró had already begun, in fact, to paint on canvas again. As if to demonstrate that he was exorcising the difficulties of the immediate past, some of the first paintings done in 1944 were executed on scraped canvases, with thinly painted figures emerging from the stressed surface. These paintings and others done in 1944 show that Miró could successfully translate the graphic techniques he had improvised for his gouaches and drawings into oil paint on canvas. Their small size points out one of the major difficulties that Miró had faced since his return to Spain, apart from his worries about his political status visà-vis the fascist Franco regime: that of finding a permanent and suitably large studio, one that would enable him to work concurrently in the various media that now preoccupied him. In 1938 he had written an article for Paris journal XXe Siecle titled "I Dream of a Large Studio." This was a problem for which he would not find the perfect remedy until his friend the architect Josep Lluis Sert built a studio for him in Palma, which he began using in 1957.
In January 1945, while Pierre Matisse was exhibiting the Constellations to great acclaim in New York, where they had been hitherto unknown, Miró began to work on a series of large canvases in Barcelona (Dupin, nos. 743-761). On 18 June, a month after the end of the war in Europe, Miró, who was then 52 years old, wrote Matisse: I am entirely committed to risking it all. I will continue to work with the same passion and enthusiasm as always--which constitutes a need for me and my reason for living. Life has been too hard for me these past years to do otherwise. I have to plan my future in a clear and courageous way, one that is worthy of my age" (quoted in ibid., p. 337).
Matisse was Miró's most enthusiastic supporter, and a tirelessly enterprising advocate. He felt that the time was right for the importance of Miró's work to be fully appreciated in America, and that to this end the artist should finally come to New York. James Johnson Sweeney had organized a Miró retrospective, the first ever given the artist, at the Museum of Modern Art, New York in 1941. However, less than a month after it opened, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and America entered the war. Matisse held yearly Miró gallery shows and needed more pictures; in 1946 he offered to purchase Miró's entire production from 1942 to date, and proposed a contract along similar lines for 1947-1949. Miró, however, felt the need to keep his options open in Europe as it recovered from the war, but at the same time he understood the potential benefits of a visit to New York. He wrote to Matisse on 3 September 1946 about an upcoming exhibition at the latter's gallery, "In the future world, America, full of dynamism and vitality, will play a primary role. It follows that, at the time of the exhibition, I should be in New York to make direct and personal contact with your country; besides, my work will benefit from the shock" (quoted in ibid.., p. 337) . In December Matisse arranged for Miró to paint his first major public commission, a mural for the Gourmet Room at the newly built Terrace Plaza Hotel in Cincinnati. It would require that Miró come to the United States and remain there for the better part of the following year.
Because Miró did not inscribe the present painting with the month and day, it is not known precisely when in 1947 it was executed. Jacques Dupin has positioned it in his catalogue raisonné (op. cit.) at the outset of Miró's production in 1947, and it was very likely done in Barcelona during the early weeks of the year, just before Miró's departure to New York via Lisbon on 5 February. Its title hints at Miró's excited anticipation of this momentous journey. The colors red and blue refer of course to the American flag, (and to the French tricolor as well - Miró was also making plans to revive his pre-war standing in Paris), and the words bel espoir ("fine hope"), embodied on the canvas in the form of a reclining nude, look forward to success and good fortune.
Miró claimed that Constellations were inspired by reflections on water as he contemplated the sea at Varengeville and later at Palma. Miró intensified the kaleidoscopic density of visual incident in these pictures by keeping to a small format, a size, moreover, that his furtive movements as a wartime refugee made obligatory. While Miró never again packed so many signs and symbols into a picture, the compositional process that he employed in later paintings, such as the present work, is fundamentally the same. He summarized it in an interview with Sweeney published in the New York Partisan Review, February, 1948: "there have always been these three stages - first, the suggestion, usually from the material; second, the conscious organization of these forms; and third, the compositional enrichment" (quoted in M. Rowell, ed., Joan Miró: Selected Writings and Interviews, Boston, 1986, p. 211). Here the artist has applied thin tinted washes to the canvas to tone the ground, and working wet-in-wet with a broad brush, fashioned the shadowy male and female figures, and sun-star. He then proceeded to draw over this ground a series of figures and motifs in a fine, fluent and extremely elegant line. The final step was to brush on brilliant and opaque pigments in select areas, and so that significant symbolic signs also function as color accents distributed artfully across the breadth of the composition.
While many of the gouaches that Miró painted during the war are painterly and heavily colored, most contain a pronounced linear aspect as well. The artist continued to hone his virtuosic skills as a draughtsman in the so-called Barcelona Series of fifty black and white lithographs (fig. 1), which he completed in May 1944 and were published in Barcelona by his friend Joan Prats later that year. Dupin wrote that "They symbolized a return to violence, a refusal of oppression, and the obsession with Franco." (in op. cit., 1993, p. 264). In a manner similar to his work of the 1930s, created during the crisis of the Spanish Civil War, Miró's references to political events and personal tribulations take the form of a free-wheeling psycho-sexual narrative, in which male and female represent cosmic beings that struggle for power, the rights of seeking their own liberty and pleasure, or simply to survive.
This imagery is carried over into the present painting. The dark male figure at lower left glances guardedly over his shoulder, as he extends a pincer-like arm toward the recumbent female nude at lower right. She is his "bel espoir." Her eye is rendered in the red and gold colors of the Spanish flag. Is the male simply her lover, perhaps a surrogate for the artist, or someone more sinister and menacing, like a fascist agent? The rest of the motifs fall into place when one compares this composition to Titian's Venus with Cupid and an Organist (fig. 2), which, on view in the Prado, Madrid, was well-known to Miró. No less than Picasso, Miró looked for inspiration among the Old Masters. Here he has transformed Cupid into the small button-like figure hovering watchfully above the reclining female. The central background motif was derived from the fountain in Titian's painting, which incorporated the figure of Pan, the classical demigod of nature. The zigzag line at upper left stands for the distant horizon. Miró's sun corresponds to the sunrise in Titian's background landscape.
Titian's painting has been variously interpreted as an allegory of art and love, and Neo-Platonic philosophy. Aspects of all of these elements are apparent in Miró's version; despite his emphasis on eroticism, philosophic notions are present as well. The vague, gray male and female figures in the background, whose polarities of attraction and opposition set all else in motion, are like the shadows of ideal forms that flicker against the light in Plato's cave. Miró's painting is a marvelous, multi-layered synthesis of philosophy, myth, erotic reverie, artistic traditions and contemporary politics, all gathered and put to the service of the artist's own striving for hope and fulfillment.
Miró's visit to America in 1947 proved to be the success that he and Matisse had hoped it would be. It was indeed un espoir accompli. Miró stayed in New York from 8 February to 15 October, with occasional trips to Cincinnati and elsewhere out of town. He began the Cincinnati mural in May, and worked on it in the large studio of Carl Holty at 149 East 119th Street, to which he commuted by subway from Sert's apartment at 15 East 59th Street. He completed it sometime in late September or early October (fig. 3). It was exhibited at The Museum of Modern Art, New York, in March of the following year, before it was shipped to Cincinnati. While in New York, Miró renewed his friendships with the artists Alexander Calder, Yves Tanguy, Max Ernst and Marcel Duchamp, and his supporters Matisse and Sweeney. He worked at the studio of master printmaker Stanley William Hayter, where he briefly met Jackson Pollock, and became acquainted with other young American artists. Jacques Dupin stated, "The artist's visit to the United States thus marked an important date in his life. It was there he found confirmation of the importance of his work and evidence of the widespread interest it had aroused . Above all, he discovered that the primitive magic of his art as consonant with the most dynamic of modern societies" (in op. cit., 1993, p. 277).
(fig. 1) Plate XLIII from the Barcelona Series, lithograph, 1944. ©c 2004 Succesió Miró Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York ADAGP, Paris
(fig. 2) Titian, Venus with Cupid and an Organist, oil on canvas, 1545-1550. El Museo del Prado, Madrid.
(fig. 3) Mural Painting for the Terrace Plaza Hotel, Cincinnati, oil on canvas, 1947, Cincinnati Art Museum.
©c 2004 Successió Miró Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York ADAGP, Paris