’I escaped into the absolute of nature. I wanted my spots to seem open to the magnetic appeal of the void, to make themselves available to it. I was very interested in the void, in perfect emptiness. I put it into my pale and scumbled grounds, and my linear gestures on top were the signs of my dream progression’ (Quoted in D. Chevalier, 'Miró', in Aujourd’hui: Art et Architecture, Paris, November 1962).
Composed with a remarkable economy of means, Painting (The Circus Horse) was executed by Joan Miró in 1925, at the time of the artist’s limited yet significant involvement with Surrealism. With an emphasis on the background and presenting a seemingly automatic drawing, the picture belongs to a series of groundbreaking works, regrouped by Jacques Dupin under the category of ‘oneiric paintings’, which counteracted the artist’s more elaborate, painstakingly precise, crowded pictures of the time, such as the Dialogue of the Insect (1925) and Harlequin’s Carnival (1924-25). Evoking the arena of a circus ring through a single black line, the picture sets forth the expressive, playful ideogram of a horse: the muscular power of the animal’s arched body translated into a dense cloud of auburn-black paint, its tail condensed into a curled line in the air and the forceful neigh coming out of its nostrils expressed through three lines spreading forward. A fluid, hazy background dominates the picture, setting the signs into a malleable environment, in which meaning and relationships seem unstable, giving the image a mirage-like appearance.
Painting (The Circus Horse) was executed at the time of Surrealism’s great beginnings and its endorsement of Miró’s art. In 1925 – when Painting (The Circus Horse) was executed – Miró lived in Paris for long stretches of time, working in a studio in the rue Blomet, next to André Masson’s. The year before, André Breton had published the first Manifeste du surréalisme, proclaiming Surrealism as ‘pure psychic automatism (…) Thought dictated in the absence of all control exerted by reason, and outside all aesthetic or moral preoccupations’ (A. Breton, ‘First Surreal Manifesto’, pp. 66-72, in P. Waldberg, Surrealism, London, 1967, p. 72). Although Miró did not sign the manifesto, the Surrealists were eager to include him among their members. In 1925, several works by Miró were published in La revolution surréaliste and a great solo exhibition was organised by Jacques Viot at Pierre Loeb’s Galerie Pierre. The event – attended by so many people that Pierre Loeb worried the floor might collapse – was a succès de scandale. Viot remembered: ‘The paintings on the wall dumbfounded those who could get a look at them. But I think that [Miró] amazed even more because nobody could figure out any connection between his works and his person’ (quoted in J. Dupin, Miró, Paris, 2012, p. 116). Although Miró never entirely adhered to the overbearing group life of the Surrealists, his contact with the group in the 1920s marked a crucial moment of artistic development, to which the oneiric paintings such as Painting (The Circus Horse) bear witness.
Composed of fine, apparently casual lines and a blot of paint, Painting (The Circus Horse) appears as an accidental encounter of forms in which the artist suddenly perceived the scene of a circus fair, with its hints of a fun and rambunctious performance. Remembering his time in the rue Blomet in the early 1920s, Miró would explain: ‘I ate little and badly. I have already said that during that period hunger gave me hallucinations, and the hallucinations gave me ideas for paintings’ (M. Rowell, ed., Joan Miró Selected Writings and Interviews, London, 1987, p. 103). Perhaps inspired by one of Miró’s hunger-induced hallucinations, the forms in Painting (The Circus Horse) transmit the lingering impression of a floating vision. This idea that images could arise from accidental patterns was being enthusiastically explored by the Surrealists at the time: Miró’s neighbour Masson was among the first artists to champion automatic drawing and, in 1925 – the year Miró painted Painting (The Circus Horse) - Max Ernst discovered the surreal potential of frottage. Works such as Painting (The Circus Horse) were thus nourished by the atmosphere in which they were created, the ‘delirious intellectual effervescence’, as Dupin defined it, which fostered Surrealism’s surge. Miró’s oneiric paintings series is thus characterised by a climate of ‘purely oneiric atmosphere’, created by the omnipresence of the background and by ‘allusive graphisms’ which ‘reveal directly rather than inscribe the signs, traces, or figures’ of the dreamy world they evoke (J. Dupin, ibid., p. 121). Encouraged by the Surrealists’ fascination for unsolicited visions, works such as Painting (The Circus Horse) record Miró’s first steps towards a new, more spontaneous language of expression.
Despite its seeming spontaneity, Painting (The Circus Horse) was the result of a specific working method, at the core of which was the preparation of the picture’s background. In his oneiric paintings Miró dismissed all details and gave prominence to the background, playing with the atmospheric potential of empty space. The life of the painting seems in fact to stem from its unevenly shaded backdrop, out of which the blot of paint and fine lines seem to emerge, rather than being juxtaposed. The bister tone used in Painting (The Circus Horse) was the one Miró favoured in the oneiric paintings series, together with blue as shown in Peinture (Composition) (1925), now at the Kunstmuseum Basel and Personnage (1925), now at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. Without providing any descriptive detail to the picture, the background helps to create a feeling of envelopment, turning emptiness into a receptive
organic element in which signs can form. Miró’s friend Michel Leiris was among the first to notice the rich associations which these backgrounds conjured: ‘These immense canvases, which seem to have been sullied: as murky as torndown buildings, as beguiling as walls that have disappeared under generations of billboard advertisement, bleached by centuries of winter rains, which seem mysterious poems’ (M. Leiris, quoted in J. Dupin, ibid., p. 121). Creating a shifting, dense and suggestive ambience for Miró’s inventions to surface, the background in works such as Painting (The Circus Horse) behaves like a catalysing field to Miró’s dreams. As Dupin wrote, they represent a ‘spiritual exercise by means of which the visionary is acceding to his visions, waiting for the dictation of unconsciousness’ (J. Dupin, ibid., p. 121). They become the receptacles of Miró unconscious, the magnetic field on which the lines and spot of the artist’s mind are pulled, joined, developed.
In order to achieve such suggestive backgrounds, Miró resorted to a novel technique which is perfectly illustrated in Painting (The Circus Horse). In the oneiric paintings series Miró used very fine linen canvas which he sized with some animal gelatine glue, transparent at first, but which would yellow and darken with time, acquiring a smoky patina. On this first thin sizing layer, Miró would paint over with a large, soft brush – or an imbued cloth – using very fluid paint. The unprimed canvas reacted like paper, blotting the diluted paint in soft stains and gradations (I. Monod-Fontaine, ‘Miró’s Coloured Grounds, 1925-1927’, pp. 70-75, in exh. cat., Joan Miró 1917-1934, Paris, 2004, p. 73). In Painting (The Circus Horse) one can perceive the effects of this technique very clearly: the shades of brown intensify and abate following Miró’s movements over the canvas, while the delicate weave of the fabric is still visible under the transparent layer of paint. Close studies of the sizing brush marks reveal that Miró probably worked on these canvases flat on the floor (A. de la Beaumelle, ‘The Challenge of Miró’s “x”’, pp. 19-28, in exh. cat., Joan Miró 1917-1934, Paris, 2004, p. 24), where he could act in better syntony with the surface. Welcoming chance in his working process and allowing the material to express itself, Miró turned technique into a vehicle for his own inventions, creating a suggestive background from which unconscious images could surface. Miró’s particular approach to the background, moreover, left a mark of the artist’s own presence, recording the sweeping movements of his brush on the surface, crystallising his passage on its surface. In this regard, pictures such as Painting (The Circus Horse) place Miró prominently among the predecessors of American Abstract Expressionism, underlying the artist’s gestural, physical relationship with the medium.
With Painting (The Circus Horse) and the other oneiric paintings, Miró probed the emotional possibilities of emptiness and sparseness of signs: ‘There is no doubt that my canvases that are simply drawn, with a few dots of colour, a rainbow, are more profoundly moving. These move us in the elevated sense of the word, like the tears of a child in its cradle. The others are like the screams of a whore in love’ (J. Miró, letter to M. Leiris, 10 August 1924, in M. Rowell, ed., Joan Miró Selected Writings and Interviews, London, 1987, p. 86). With its subtle balance between order and chance, structured composition and unconscious expression, Painting (The Circus Horse) exemplifies Miró’s characteristic talent in creating seemingly uncontrolled, dreamy images, which turned involuntary signs into a voluntary language, in the expression of a poignant message.