‘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.’
(J. Miró, 'I Work Like a Gardener', in XXe Siècle, Paris, 15 February 1959, pp. 247-253, in M. Rowell, ed., Joan Miró Selected Writings and Interviews, London, 1987, p. 251).
L’Oiseau au plumage déployé vole vers l’arbre argenté is a remarkable example of Joan Miró’s artistic developments in the early 1950s. Over a vast canvas, the artist conjured a world animated by whimsical creatures and palpitating sweeps of colour. The painting’s ambitious scale and the ample reach of Miró’s gestures on the canvas make this work a compelling expression of what Jacques Dupin, Miró’s authority and friend, described as his ‘expansion tendency’ (J. Dupin, Miró, Paris, 2012, p. 292). In the early 1950s, Miró started to progressively abandon the minute, elaborate precision of his earlier works to combine the signs of his art with a more experimental, unrehearsed pictorial expression.
Works such as L’Oiseau au plumage déployé vole vers l’arbre argenté were the result of a careful process of creation, during which Miró balanced different approaches to the canvas, combining involuntary and voluntary effects. In order to tackle the large scale of paintings such as the present one, Miró first approached the canvas instinctively, working freely on the background in order to find the surge of an idea in its spontaneous execution. He would then develop his composition progressively, through distinct stages, each defined by a clear formal and stylistic intent. Dupin described the process:
‘The first phase, the preparation of the background, is thus a period of waiting for the forms, of teasing them into being, the creation of an active give-and-take between the artist and his canvas which involves both conscious and unconscious factors. The next step is to take possession of the surface as a whole. He did this, first, by tracing broadly and boldly a graphism that contains in essence the signs and figures. Then, by a massive application of color, he gave them life and drew them into overall rhythm. Finally, he added details and other elements for ‘enrichment’ – to underline, qualify, harmonize and unify the painting – eyes, a hand, a star, a mouth, or a punctiform treatment superimposed upon the colors or distributed around the colors in such a way that it becomes an integral part of the picture’ (J. Dupin, op. cit., p. 293-294).
In L’Oiseau au plumage déployé vole vers l’arbre argenté, Miró seems to have progressed as described. He first gave life to the background, creating a sense of atmospheric depth: a dark shadow seems to evoke the night, while the light blue and the touch of pink are reminiscent of a sky dawn. From these passages of hues, two figures emerged, built out of wide brushstrokes and vivid shapes of colour. Finally, Miró returned to the canvas with a finer brush, to add lyrical, elegant details to the picture, which lend to the work humorous, delicate moments: swirling moustaches, twinkling stars and curious eyes.
Displaying a wealth of pictorial effects, L’Oiseau au plumage déployé vole vers l’arbre argenté illustrates Miró’s great talent in exploiting the versatility of his medium. In the background, the artist rarefied the oil paint to an almost pastel-like effect, aimed at evoking a purely imaginative space, freed from any real physical limit and from which poetic visions could emerge. In the two figures, the paint acquires a denser presence. The fuzzy edges of their forms, however, lend to the colours a lingering sense of immateriality, as though they had just condensed in front of the viewer, out of the haze of the background. Creating yet another effect, Miró subsequently explored the graphic potential of the medium: applied in thin, fragile lines, oil paint reveals all its delicacy, embroidering fine details onto the work that, for their crystal clear precision, contrast sharply with the effusions of colours which constitute the rest of the picture. The various effects explored in L’Oiseau au plumage déployé vole vers l’arbre argenté ultimately create an unusual reversal of focus for which small details sparkle in all their clarity, while large forms recede into a subtle vagueness. This enticing dynamic was observed by Dupin: ‘The expression is fantastic, partly because, inversely to
what occurs in reality, here the tiny creatures are seen in all the precision of their contours, the clarity of their details, and the delicacy of their line and colour, whereas in the case of the figure that takes up most of the canvas, we can only make out its mass, a crude silhouette, and an obscure density’ (J. Dupin, op. cit., pp. 291-292).
The approach to the canvas which Miró adopted in the 1950s was congenial to the artist’s wish to trigger an idea of movement in his paintings. By constructing space and figures out of dynamic progressions of colours and interlocking forms, Miró aimed at introducing a subtle hint of motion into his visions, thus expressing a key component of his poetic. In 1959, reflecting on his work, Miró expressed a complex, personal experience of reality in which immobility became the precondition to an absolute idea of movement. He explained: ‘Immobility strikes me. This bottle, this glass, a big stone on a deserted beach – these are immobile things, but they unleash a tremendous movement in my mind (…) Immobility makes me think of vast spaces that contain movements that do not stop, movements that have no end’ (Joan Miró, ‘I work like a gardener’, by Y. Taillandier, in XXe Siècle, Paris, February 15, 1959, pp. 247-253, in M. Rowell, ed., op. cit., p. 248). Miró’s paintings were a manifestation of such experience: ‘In my paintings, this translates into the sparklike forms that leap out of the frame, as though from a volcano’. This comparison particularly resonates with L’Oiseau au plumage déployé vole vers l’arbre argenté, in which the two figures emerge from the bottom of the canvas like two colourful eruptions of forms.
In Miró’s works, this idea of finding movement in immobility is conveyed through the subtle correspondence the artist
orchestrated between forms. In L’Oiseau au plumage déployé vole vers l’arbre argenté, the contrast between thin, suspended lines, grounded, dense areas of colour and hazy, limitless background helps to create a sense of shifting relationships in which each of the elements of the picture occupies its own space, drawing nearer or further from the rest of the composition. Miró’s intention was to evoke movement, while respecting the immobility of its medium. The artist explained:
‘In my paintings, the forms are both immobile and mobile. They are immobile because the canvas is an immobile support. They are immobile because of the cleanness of their contours and because of the kind of framing that sometimes enclose them. But precisely because they are immobile, they suggest motion.
Because there is no horizon line or any indication of depth, they shift in depth. They also move across the surface, because colour or line inevitably leads to a change in the angle of vision. Inside the large forms there are small forms that move around. And when you look at the painting as a whole, the large forms also become mobile. You could even say that although they keep their autonomy, they push each other around’ (J. Miró, ‘I work like a gardener’, in XXe Siècle, Paris, 15 February 1959, pp. 247-253, in M. Rowell, ed., op. cit., p. 248).
In its rich and vast composition, L’Oiseau au plumage déployé vole vers l’arbre argenté appears as a dynamic and compelling achievement of Miró’s artistic intentions in the 1950s.
While Miró pursued this idea of immobile movement, poetic titles came to guide the artist in his creation. L’Oiseau au plumage déployé vole vers l’arbre argenté – ‘The Bird with Plumage Spread Flies to the Silvery Tree’ – evokes in its title a fantastic scene of escape, of pursuit of a dream, adding to the picture another layer of meaning. In the 1950s, Miró titles acquired once more those evocative, enigmatic formulations that had characterized the artist’s chosen titles during his first direct involvement with Surrealism decades earlier. The artist, who thought of his paintings as visual poems, made no distinction between these two modes of artistic expression: ‘I make no distinction between poetry and painting’, he declared (J. Dupin, op. cit., 2012, p. 432). To Miró, however, these poetic titles were more than a pure second embellishment of his works. Quite the opposite, they embodied the picture’s essence and determined part of its development, leading the artist in the depiction of his visions. Miró explained: ‘I found my titles in the process of working, as one thing leads to another on my canvas. When I have found the title, I live in its atmosphere. The title then becomes completely real for me, in the same way that a model, a reclining woman, for example, can become real for another painter. For me, the title is a very precise reality’ (quoted in J. Miró, ‘I work like a gardener’, in XXe Siècle, Paris, 15 February 1959, pp. 247-253, in M. Rowell, ed., op. cit., p. 249).
In 1953, the same year it was painted, L’Oiseau au plumage déployé vole vers l’arbre argenté was exhibited at the Pierre Matisse Gallery in New York as part of a show presenting a wide selection of works Miró had executed during the year. The exhibition marked one of the last significant surges of painting activity, before the artist abandoned the medium towards the end of the following year, in order to dedicate himself fully to the production of ceramics, lithographs and engravings. According to Dupin, this drastic shift in Miró’s production was motivated by the desire to reach a wider audience. Ceramics and prints allowed Miró to manifest his universe in a series of more accessible works and to expand the collective address the artist had already launched in 1950, when he had worked on a mural painting for the Harvard University Graduate School. Miró would not return to his easel until 1959. Ambitious in scale and rambunctious in forms, L’Oiseau au plumage déployé vole vers l’arbre argenté marks the provisional end of an intense artistic evolution that, from the 1920s to the 1950s, had affirmed Miró as one of the most exuberant, bold and compelling painters of the Twentieth Century.
L’Oiseau au plumage déployé vole vers l’arbre argenté was once part of the remarkable collection of Edgar J. Kaufmann Jr. Trained in fine arts and the son of one of Pittsburgh’s most prominent businessmen, Kaufmann Jr. became a prominent scholar of architecture history and the director of the Museum of Modern Art’s Industrial Design department. Having been a painter himself, Kaufmann Jr. started collecting art from an early age, acquiring significant works by artists such as Klee, Monet, Mondrian and Picasso. Voicing his passion for architecture, Kaufmann Jr. encouraged his parents to commission the world-famous Fallingwater property, the absolute masterpiece of architect Frank Lloyd Wright.