Miró painted L’Oiseau-nocturne in the village of Varengeville-sur-Mer, Normandy, on the Channel coast, during a sojourn that lasted from mid-August 1939 through late May 1940. He made his first painting there on 22 August (Jeune fille courant, Dupin, no. 614), and completed L’Oiseau-nocturne on the 30th. These canvases marked the beginning of an astonishing sequence of works Miró went on to create in Varengeville, culminating in the first of the celebrated wartime Constellations on 21 January 1940 (Le Lever du soleil; Dupin, no. 628), followed by nine more (Dupin, nos. 629-637) before the artist and his family fled south in late May to avoid air aids and approaching German forces during the invasion of France. 'All the works of this period, inspired directly or indirectly by the place where they were conceived, are of capital importance,' Jacques Dupin declared (J. Dupin, Miró, Paris. 2012, p. 237). He added the assessment of the influential American critic Clement Greenberg, who claimed that during this period Miró’s work 'reached then what I consider to be its greatest height so far' (C. Greenberg, Miró, New York, 1948, p. 27).
Note the date of L’Oiseau-nocturne in this distinguished line of pictures--30 August 1939. Less than forty-eight hours later, in the early morning light of 1 September, the German Luftwaffe bombed military targets in Poland, as mechanized armored units overran that nation’s feeble border defenses. On 3 September Great Britain and France, under treaty with the Polish government, declared war on Germany. It was then not quite twenty-one years after the end of the First World War that a second cataclysmic conflict quickly engulfed Europe.
The ferocity of the German onslaught came as a shock, although Miró and many others knew that such a terrible event was imminent and inevitable. Indeed, 1939 had begun badly for Miró and his Spanish friends -- on 26 January Franco’s fascist legions occupied Barcelona, the last stronghold of the Loyalist republic, bringing the bloody civil war in Spain to its tragic conclusion. The growing momentum toward an all-out European conflict rose to a head on 23 August, when the German and Soviet foreign ministers signed a non-aggression pact, signaling that some momentous military undertaking would soon come to pass. The French government decreed a general mobilization three days later.
Miró’s concerns during this ominous period were primarily two-fold: he sought to engage his creative work in the tumultuous events of the day, while preserving for himself and his work, his wife and daughter some viable measure of safety and well-being. 'The outer world, the world of contemporary events, always has an influence on the painter,' Miró declared in the Cahiers d’Art issue of April-May 1939. 'The horrible tragedy that we are experiencing might produce a few isolated geniuses and give them an increased vigor. If the powers of backwardness known as fascism continue to spread, however, if they push us into the dead end of cruelty and incomprehension, that will be the end of all human dignity… There is no longer an ivory tower. Retreat and isolation are no longer permissible. What counts now in a work of art is…how it implicates lived facts and human truth in its upward movement' (in M. Rowell, ed., Joan Miró: Selected Writings and Interviews, Boston, 1986, p. 166).
Precautions were also in order, and would soon take precedence over such idealistic pronouncements. Miró, possibly as early as July, had placed his work in storage, and sometime by mid-August relocated himself and his family to Varengeville, where Braque had made his country home. Miró had visited Varengeville the previous summer as a guest of the architect Paul Nelson, for whose home he had executed a trio of mural paintings (Dupin, no. 605). This time he rented a cottage on the Route de l’Eglise called the Clos de Sansonettes. 'I was working very well in this beautiful country, and here we are, now plunged into this nightmare,' he wrote to his New York dealer Pierre Matisse on 25 August, lamenting the inexorable slide towards war (in C. Lanchner, Joan Miró, exh cat., The Museum of Modern Art New York, 1993, p. 334).
Dupin recorded the pictures done prior to the Constellations as comprising two distinct sets, which he classified as Varengeville I and II. L’Oiseau-nocturne belongs to the first group of five small canvases done on what Dupin described as a 'raspberry red' background during August-September. Varengeville II, done in October-November, consists of nine paintings executed directly on raw burlap in larger dimensions than the first set. In these later works Miró practiced an increasingly dense graphism of linear signs, leading directly into the all-over configuration of imagery that characterizes the Constellations. The use of the raw burlap as a ground lends the Varengeville II paintings a darker aspect than the luminously carmine first set, an indication that more troubled thoughts had beset the painter as with each passing week the wartime situation appeared increasingly dire. On 17 September Soviet armies invaded Poland from the east. Crushed on both sides between the two totalitarian powers, with Warsaw suffering under devastating air attacks -- while the Western allies were powerless to help -- the Polish government surrendered on 27 September.
One may characterize the reddish paintings of the Varengeville I set as the calm before the storm, but bearing ominous signs of menace in the offing. A great black bird, with an alarmingly distended phallic appendage, here fills the night sky over the form of a great earth mother. 'The backgrounds are very suggestive: impregnation of red in the first series,' Dupin wrote, '…the colour is very intense: these touches are like sparks in the night' (op. cit., 2012, p. 243). 'Red sky at morning,' the old saying goes, 'shepherd take warning.' If he were gazing eastward, Miró has caught sight of a black sun rising on the horizon, an inauspicious sign. Or if looking westward, the setting black sun, as if burnt out, lightless and cold, may betoken a world destined to become barren and lifeless. Nevertheless, the overall import of the imagery is visionary in a truly cosmic dimension, and so strikingly animated that Miró projects more a sense of profound mystery and wonderment than any inclination toward foreboding and despair.
Indeed, during the first months of the war in France, apart from a few air raids and limited ground incursions, the western front remained relatively quiet, a lull or reprieve that the British and French dubbed 'the phony war.' The French military felt secure in the strength of their Maginot line, a vast network of supposedly impregnable fortresses that faced the Rhine. Varengeville likewise provided for Miró at least a temporary sense of refuge, a 'splendid isolation' from events of the day, in which he could paint. He and his family walked along the Channel beaches at night, reveling in the vast array of stars, constellations and galactic swirls, which he rendered in L’Oiseau-nocturne. 'At Varengeville-sur-Mer, in 1939, I began a new stage in my work which had its source in music and nature,' the artist explained to James Johnson Sweeney in 1948. 'I felt a deep desire to escape. I closed myself within myself purposely. The night, music, and the stars began to play a major role in suggesting my paintings' (M. Rowell, ed., Joan Miró: Selected Writings and Interviews, Boston, 1986, p. 209). The image of l’échelle de l’évasion, 'the ladder of escape,' does in fact provide the title for both a Varengeville II painting (Dupin, no. 626), and the second of the Constellations (31 January 1940; Dupin, no. 629).
Because of the war, none of the Varengeville paintings could be included in Miró’s first ever retrospective, which James Johnson Sweeney curated for the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and was viewed November 1941-January 1942. The Constellations, shipped from Barcelona (where, after a spell in Palma, Mallorca, Miró spent most of the rest of the war) were first seen at the Pierre Matisse Gallery, New York, in January-February 1945. Both exhibitions had a major impact on the young American painters who would constitute the pioneering post-war New York School. Concluding his text for the 1941 MoMA retrospective catalogue, Sweeney praised Miró for having 'carried on most consistently those researches which have brought western painting from the austere disciplines of cubism to new forms and new evocations… Miró’s vitality, laughter, naïve lyricism and love of life are, today, auguries of the new painting in a new period which is to come' (Joan Miró, exh. cat., the Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1941, p. 78).