‘For me, a painting must give off sparks. It must dazzle like the beauty of a woman or a poem. It must radiate like the flints that shepherds in the Pyrenees use for lighting their pipes’ -Joan Miró
‘When the starting point of a work is to some extent the real world, I always write a title on the back of the canvas with my name and the date. For those conceived out of the void, I never put a title’ -Joan Miró
Filled with an ethereal, mysterious array of forms set against an impenetrable blue void, Joan Miró’s Painting dates from the early stages of the artist’s remarkable series of ‘oneiric’ or ‘dream’ pictures. In these radically simplified compositions where lines, cipher-like forms and spectral shapes are suspended upon brushed, monochromatic grounds, Miró succeeded in liberating his art from Western pictorial conventions of illusionistic representation and resemblance. These enigmatic works first emerged in the immediate aftermath of the artist’s inaugural solo exhibition of paintings at the Galerie Pierre in June 1925, and represent a distinctive shift in Miró’s output at this time. Turning away from the densely packed compositions of paintings such as Carnaval d'Arlequin, which comprised a teeming inventory of personages and things excerpted from daily life, the artist focused instead on a simplified aesthetic, creating diaphanous forms and otherworldly spaces plucked from the depths of his imagination. Symbolist and Surrealist poetry, the antics of Dada artists, the paintings of Paul Klee and, according to the artist himself, hallucinatory visions induced by hunger, were amongst the many and disparate stimuli that led to the invention of these paintings. Their deceptive simplicity proved shocking to audiences in the 1920s, who had grown accustomed to expecting some measure of formal complexity in modern painting, and after almost a century they have retained their status and reputation as being among the most radical paintings in the artist's entire oeuvre. Indeed, Miró's imagery has yielded up little of its teasingly enigmatic meaning over the years, and the austere, minimalist aesthetic of the dream paintings continues to surprise and confound viewers to this day.
Although Miró worked on the majority of the dream paintings in his family home in Montroig, Catalonia, their foundations lay in the extraordinarily stimulating environment of 45, rue Blomet, where the artist lived and worked from 1921 to the beginning of 1926. Here, Symbolist poets and authors, as well as writers from the nascent Surrealist movement, gathered in the painter André Masson’s studio, who was a close friend and neighbour of Miró’s. As a result of these encounters, Miró ‘gorged on poetry’ and discovered automatic drawing where images were elicited unconsciously, a technique then being explored by Masson and promoted by André Breton in his Manifeste du Surréalisme of 1924. Inspired by these revelatory techniques, Miró no longer found it necessary to identify objects as translations of things known and seen. He realised instead that there were even more profound and exciting realms to be revealed, where the unknowable and the invisible suddenly flashed into one's consciousness, leaving only a vague trace of its passing, which was subject neither to precise description nor rational explanation. This was the primordial world of the innermost consciousness, lying beyond the sphere of ordinary dreams, to which Miró and his Surrealist colleagues now laid claim as the source of their creative powers.
Writing about this aspect of the dream paintings, Jacques Dupin has suggested that ‘[w]hat is at issue here is not only a dream state or a state of reverie but a kind of agitation that effects one's entire being. The smallest shudder carries its disturbance and truth into the painting. Through a rift in the fabric of conventional plastic language, a wave of nocturnal energy comes surging up bearing an emotional charge that combines erotic fantasies, inner demons, primitive urges and cosmic sparks in a movement that continually threatens to overwhelm or exhaust the painter, to drown him in the void which is both a source of life and the abyss of death. The lines oscillate, intertwine, bunch into knots, break apart. Pulsing, monochromatic space becomes an organic environment that induces couplings and metamorphoses, perverse collusions between form and colour, between the sign and the movement that alters it’ (J. Dupin, Joan Miró: A Retrospective, exh. cat., New York, 1987, pp. 38-39).
The forms which populate Miró’s dream paintings were derived from ambiguous and often hallucinatory images that the artist had begun to conjure in his mind, which he then painstakingly recorded in a series of sketchbooks he kept in his studio. ‘I’d go home in the evening to my studio in the rue Blomet,’ he recalled. ‘I’d go to bed, I hadn’t always eaten, I saw things, I noted them in notebooks. I saw shapes in the cracks in the walls, in the ceiling, especially the ceiling’ (Miró, quoted in G. Picon, Joan Miró: Carnets Catalans: Dessins et textes inedits, Geneva, 1976, p. 72). As can be seen from this methodical approach to the creation of such a seemingly impulsive created work, ‘the absolute spontaneity of Miró’s paintings from this period’ as Dupin has pointed out, ‘is not strictly speaking automatism.’ It was the product of a careful preparation aimed at allowing Miró’s painterly impulses to flow and build productively. It is an automatism that ‘results from the hand’s natural, docile, throbbing submission to internal impulses’ and, as Dupin claimed, ‘no longer a representation or an interpretation of dreams but (rather) their consummation on canvas’ (J. Dupin, Miró, New York, 1993, p. 120).
As Miró himself recalled, it was through such a carefully-prepared process allowing him free-rein to invent that, ‘the signs of an imaginary writing appeared in my work. I painted without premeditation, as if under the influence of a dream. I combined reality and mystery in a space that had been set free. I owed this light-hearted atmosphere to the influence of Dada. Later a deepening sense of the marvellous led me to the notion of the fantastic. I was no longer subjected to dream-dictation, I created my dreams through my paintings… I escaped into the absolute of nature. I wanted my spots to seem to open to the magnetic appeal of the void. I was very interested in the void, in perfect emptiness. I put it into my pale and scumbled grounds, and my linear gestures on top were the signs of my dream progression’ (Joan Miró, quoted in M. Rowell, ed., Joan Miró: Selected Writings and Interviews, London, 1987, pp. 264-265).
Miró painted The Birth of the World, the most famous of his dream pictures, in the late summer and fall of 1925. The present work probably emerged in the weeks that followed, and contains many of the key characteristics that would come to define the dream paintings as a series. Here, forms have been left intentionally vague so as to be more lyrically evocative. A white, wraithlike spirit sails like a kite across this blue dome of heaven, while the flowing black contour that wraps itself around the lower edges of shape appears to suggest a cursive letter ‘R.’ Similarly delineated lines in the upper right corner of the composition suggest the obscure beginnings of other letters, and perhaps allude to the artist’s dramatic painting-poems of the same period. The circular dotted lines at lower right, meanwhile, are perhaps intended to mimic a pair of eyes, the mind's eyes, indicating the presence of the artist himself. The monochrome blue abyss upon which these forms float and converge has its origins in a series of empty-ground canvases created by Miró in 1923 and 1924, in which the artist had attempted to remove all extraneous painterly detail from his works. These empty, painterly grounds become a dreamlike void in the oneiric paintings, filled with an otherworldly sense of gravity and light, which holds the forms in a strange state of suspension. While some of the dream canvases utilise a dark, nocturnal ground, Miró executed many of his most evocative dream paintings using pale, blue tones. His preference for this tranquil and introspective colour is reinforced by the inscription he left below a spot of blue paint on his peinture-poésie of 1925, which reads ‘ceci est la couleur de mes rêves’ (‘this is the colour of my dreams’). The cerulean tones of the present work recall the colour of the diurnal sky over Miró’s home in Montroig, and as such Painting may be read as an ode to the inspirational environment that fed his imagination and artistic musings whenever he returned to it.
Painting holds an extremely distinguished provenance, which led to a most unusual encounter between the painting and its creator nearly forty years after its realisation. The first owner was Miró's most enthusiastic early collector and patron, the journalist René Gaffé, who also owned Carnaval d'Arlequin, The Birth of the World, and, among many other early Mirós, Portrait de Mme K. and Danseuse espagnole, both painted in 1924. Gaffé sold Painting to Roland Penrose, Miró's friend and early biographer, in 1936. Almost thirty years later, in 1964, Penrose invited Miró to his home, a large farm in Sussex, when the artist came to London to attend a retrospective of his work at the Tate Gallery. Miró was delighted to see Painting once again. He asked Penrose to remove it from its frame and, borrowing a brush and black paint, he proceeded to add two comma-like strokes on the ‘R’ figure, a spot on the tail of the curving forms at upper right, as well as below it, and a pictograph representing a bird in flight at bottom right. A photograph by the collector’s son, Antony Penrose, records the event, capturing a snapshot of Miró from behind as he puts his brush to the canvas once more. These subtle additions blend seamlessly with the rest of the forms, and stand as a testament to the endless depths of Miró’s imagination.