The incisive clarity of his line notwithstanding, in declarative, sign-like imagery of the most disarming simplicity and concision, there is nevertheless in the art of Joan Miró a vast, unfathomable dimension of irreducible mystery. Against a night sky aglow with the radiance of swirling galaxies and exploding supernovae, as bright as a sunlit day, two avian creatures alight from on high, a visitation from some otherworldly sphere in time and place. Gazing up at them, the woman below is surprisingly unfazed, even entranced at the sight. She, and we as onlookers, bear witness to a phenomenon such as Jacques Dupin likened to “a primitive cosmogony” (Miró, Paris, 2012, p. 265).
There are three distinct creatures in this painting, while the title states Femmes et oiseaux, a plural number of each. Might the largest, most elaborate figure be both woman and bird, with certain male characteristics as well? “The human and animal figures–there is no essential difference between them–are the most flexible, the most diversified,” Dupin observed (ibid., p. 262).
“When I am back in my studio, I will look at everything I have been doing,” Miró explained to Yvonne Taillandier in 1974. “What subject will I deal with next? ...There will always be the Women and Birds in the Night. Where does this theme come from? Perhaps the bird comes from that fact that I like space a lot and the bird makes one think of space. And I put it in front of the night; I situate it in relation to the ground” (M. Rowell, ed., Joan Miró: Selected Writings and Interviews, Boston, 1986, p. 283).
From the magic realism of Miró’s early landscapes throughout his career of nearly seven decades, “thus developed a language”—Jean-Louis Prat has written—“that described an interrogation between the earth and an immense sky that was to appear in his dreams forever” (Miró: From Earth to Sky, exh. cat., Albertina, Vienna, 2015, p. 13). For humankind, in the shape of a personnage, to scale the heavens, Miró would occasionally provide the pictorial metaphor of a golden ladder. Nature’s only duly equipped aerial traveler, free to roam the skies as it pleased, was the bird. Max Ernst made Loplop his döppelganger, and Picasso painted pigeons and doves; Miró also claimed the bird, as the bearer of messages from beyond, but more importantly as a generic creature capable of many thousand characterful guises, to represent every foible and proclivity of the man it contained within—the artist himself.
The Miróvian oiseau emerged from the artist’s extensive menagerie of monstrous fauna to assume title roles in eight of the twenty-three compositions that comprise the early wartime Constellation series, 1940-1941 (Dupin, nos. 628-650). The circuitous, gravity-defying filigree of this cosmic imagery encouraged Miró to take flight, as it were, in the spontaneous freedom and flexibility of his drawing, which became the catalyst for the many watercolors and mixed media works on paper that the artist created during 1942-1944, in a continuous rush of invention, while taking a hiatus from working in oils on canvas. The signal project of the later war years was the fifty black-and-white lithographs of the Barcelona series, which Josep Prat published in 1944. Miró’s virtuosic, fluid line reigned supreme in these plates, a compendium of his wartime figuration, in compositions as replete as paintings, but printed on paper without paint or color.
When Miró resumed painting on canvas that same year, and quickly scaled up the dimensions of his compositions, line engaged color to generate a wondrous language of signs, “in a new spirit, displaying astonishing ease and productivity,” Dupin wrote. “Oil confers an authority, a decisiveness, and a clarity to canvas that modifies its structure and its spirit. The climate is a more relaxed one, and figures have a sobriety that intensifies them" (op. cit., 2012, p. 264). Miró sought to “achieve the same spontaneity in the paintings as in the drawings,” as the artist wrote in his wartime notebook. “I will make my work emerge naturally, like the song of a bird or the music of Mozart, with no apparent effort, but thought out at length and worked out from within” (M. Rowell, ed., op. cit., 1986, pp. 185 and 188).
The wide, staring eyes of the creatures in Femmes et oiseaux dans le nuit, painted on 6 November 1946, may reflect Miró’s growing anticipation of his first journey to America, to attend the exhibition his New York dealer Pierre Matisse had scheduled for February 1947. Matisse subsequently finalized arrangements for Miró to paint a mural for the newly built Terrace Plaza Hotel in Cincinnati, which the artist would undertake in a New York studio. “In the future world, America, full of dynamism and vitality, will play a primary role,” Miró wrote to Matisse. “It follows that, at the time of my exhibition, I should be in New York to make direct contact with your country; besides, my work will benefit from the shock” (quoted in Joan Miró, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1993, p. 337).