Joan Mir was a sublime Surrealist, but one who did not subscribe to the demands and rules that were imposed on the movement by the poet Andri Breton. Breton coined the term "psychic automatism" to describe the means of connecting the unconscious mind to the painter's hand. Mir instead worked with the utmost freedom, masking connections and associations and using notations and references as children form fantasy figures in their imaginations and drawings. Always distant from the main movement, he was often claimed as the greatest Surrealist perhaps because he denied the ability to organize his imagination.
Michel Leiris suggests that Mir connected with painting as a means to reach a spiritual understanding of the deepest human emotions of religious devotion and erotic love, and found ways to show these feelings with hieratic symbols and minimal means. Leiris described in his book on Mir the process of Tibetan meditation in which one possesses an image in one's imagination and progressively subtracts the elements until only the void remains to contemplate. Multiple imaginative reconstructions of the image first contemplated are then built up until there is a reconfiguration in symbolic form of the imaginative world, "the 'absolute,' otherwise more ungraspable than a tiny vein of metal in the interstices of an imaginary stone" (quoted in J. Dupin, Mir, New York, 1994, p. 124).
Leiris suggests that Mir used a technique similar to this when he created what have been called "dream paintings" or oneiric paintings between 1925 and 1927. Mir's process was related to the delirium which the Surrealists called psychic automatism, but which for Mir was only a beginning. The process of refinement and simplification which is constructed through repetition of elements and their recombinations produced some of his most beautiful and dramatic Surrealist paintings. In those three years he made more than 100 paintings using a monochromatic background and simple evocative forms. They are like the automatic writings of the Surrealist poets, although Mir evolved methods of controlling the uncontrollable, and presenting a synthesized unconscious. Mir did not distinguish between painting and poetry and turned to the Surrealist poets Lautreaumont, Jarry and Rimbaud, as well as Apollinaire for inspiration. Roland Penrose wrote, "Mir's originality was sufficiently strong to make his 'dream paintings' a new and revolutionary form of expression. This happened chiefly because of his ability to eliminate elaborations and additions introduced by conscious control..." (R. Penrose, Mir, London, 1970, pp. 48-49).
The elements of Mir's language, like the words that poets repeatedly use, were constructed in drawings and sketches that he told Dupin were made as fugitive notations when walking, thinking or hallucinating. Often he did this by staring at a wall or a floor or a cloud when exhausted or hungry. The sketches were often drawn over and traced, creating a set of inter-related images that take a subject (often titled by the artist's poet friends) and extend its meanings through suggestion and reflection. The present work is related, it appears, to the exquisite painting Fratellini; Trois personnages (fig. 2) of 1927 in the Philadelphia Museum and to the Personnage of the same year, but it also contains elements that relate it to the Cheval de cirque (figs. 3 and 4) paintings of 1925-1927 and the landscapes and portraits of the same period. They convey, in Dupin's words, "great erotic suggestive powers. Connected with subjective obsessions and realized at the dictation of the unconscious, they simultaneously unmask and mask, set down and erase, the infinitely varied phantasms of the libido" (ibid., p 127).
The variants in the Cheval de cirque series describe the relations between the form of the horse, the obsessive circling of the arena and the snaking of the whip which is directing the animal. Some of the elements are visible in the present work, although they are modified and dispersed across the canvas. We can read part of the horse at bottom right, the whip at top right and a square arena in the center, but these forms are equally evocative of the erotically charged figures of the Danseuse Espagnole and Paysan Catalan (fig. 1) paintings. We can of course connect the performance of the horse in the circus with the act of seduction and consummation, and Mir's brilliance in these works is to convey the charged eroticism with the extraordinary lightness of sublime sensual pleasure.
(fig. 1) Joan Mir, Tte de paysan Catalan, IV, 1925
Moderna Museet, Stockholm
(fig. 2) Joan Mir, Peinture (Fratellini; Trois personnages), 1927
Philadelphia Museum of Art, A.E. Gallatin Collection
(fig. 3) Joan Mir, Le cheval de cirque, 1925
Musie d'Ixelles, Brussels
(fig. 4) Joan Mir, Peinture (Le cheval de cirque), 1927
Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.