‘When I stand in front of a canvas, I never know what I’m going to do – and nobody is more surprised than I at what comes out’ -Joan Miró
In January 1931 Joan Miró made a series of inflammatory statements during an interview with the Spanish journalist Francisco Melgar, in which he boldly proclaimed his intentions to bring about the death of painting: ‘The only thing that’s clear to me is that I intend to destroy, destroy everything that exists in painting. I have an utter contempt for painting. The only thing that interests me is the spirit itself…’ (Miró, quoted in F. Melgar, ‘Spanish Artists in Paris: Juan [sic] Miró,’ in Ahora, 24 January 1931, reproduced in Joan Miró: Selected Writings and Interviews, ed., M. Rowell, p. 116). Although the artist later claimed that his combative mood was largely due to Melgar’s ignorant attitude during the interview, his provocative comments offer a rare insight into the deep personal crisis that had been brewing within Miró’s creative practice for several years, causing him to question his painterly abilities and fundamentally reconsider his approach to artistic creation. Painted less than a month after the infamous interview, Tête d’homme illustrates the dramatic shifts that were occurring in Miró’s art, as he struggled to free himself of the mental block which was inhibiting his painterly practice.
Miró had been plagued by doubts and dissatisfaction with his work as early as 1928, following the completion of his ‘Dutch interiors’ series. As a result, the late 1920s and early 1930s have often been collectively described as a period of ‘anti-painting’ within the artist’s oeuvre, during which time he temporarily stepped away from oil painting in an effort to find a new direction in his art. During this turbulent phase, Miró experimented intensely with various media, incorporating found objects into his compositions, creating collages and sculptural assemblages from items plucked from the sandy shores of the beach or found scattered around his Parisian studio. However, Miró did not abandon painting altogether – several experimental series of works were begun during this period, most notably the large paintings on white grounds which occupied him for much of the first half of 1930. Indeed, he continued to explore the medium throughout the period of ‘anti-painting,’ delving into new subjects, expanding his visual vocabulary and developing a more sculptural approach to form in his work. As he would later admit, ‘What can I say, I can’t be anything other than a painter. Every challenge to painting is a paradox – from the moment that challenge is expressed in a work’ (Miró, quoted in D. Chevalier, ‘Miró’ in Aujourd’hui: Art et Architecture, Paris, November 1962, reproduced in ibid, p. 266).
It was on his return to Paris in January 1931, after an extended sojourn in Spain, that Miró threw himself forcefully into painting once again, pursuing the renewed approach to form and style that his collages and assemblages inspired him. The finely crafted paintings which followed, including Tête d’homme, were transitional canvases that proved pivotal to Miró’s subsequent development as a painter. Exploring the dynamics between abstraction and figuration, between the traditional and the unconventional, between forms that were at once painted but which drew inspiration from his experiments in collage and assemblage, these works reflected a reinvigorated and reformed outlook within Miró’s oeuvre that would usher in a new approach to pictorial thinking. Particularly striking is the manner in which sharply defined geometric elements, including triangles, quadrangles and circles, began to infiltrate his paintings during this period, lending his compositions a greater sense of structural complexity.
In Tête d’homme, Miró depersonalises the human head, reducing it to a series of overlapping, interweaving geometric shapes that reflect no more than the basic structure of the cranium. Exuding a powerful inner life, the repeated rectilinear and rounded segments knit together like a mosaic, the borders between each element sharply defined so that they retain a clear independence from one another. The composition’s highly distilled, purified style appears in complete opposition to the animated, biomorphic forms of the oneiric paintings which had previously dominated Miró’s oeuvre. Unlike the free-flowing, diaphanous, spontaneous shapes that populated these canvases, Tête d’homme and other works dating from the opening months of 1931 adopt a more sculptural approach to form, imbuing their subjects with a greater sense of weight and mass. Discussing these paintings, Jacques Dupin has written: ‘In short, his purpose became that of disciplining expression by opposing to lyricism the fruitful resistance of rigorous structures’ (J. Dupin, Miró, New York, 1993, p. 161). However, echoes of the dream paintings remain. For example, in the present composition the ‘tête’ of the title appears to float against a deep blue abyss, suspended in space by an enigmatic, strange gravity, which may be seen as a direct continuation of the similarly coloured voids that lay at the heart of the dream series. However, here Miró utilises a much richer, more saturated hue to create a sonorous effect that enhances the colours within the central configuration, and grants them a greater sense of solidity and presence in the composition.