Threading small signs and magnificent outbursts of colour along thin, delicate lines, Painting belongs to a series of seminal works which were triggered by Joan Miró’s intense experience of Surrealism in 1925 Paris. Entrusting an unprecedented poetic force to empty breadths of canvas, these striking works dramatically departed from the dense, minute style the artist had developed until then, in order to explore distilled, fluctuating lines, suspended blots of paint and minute details, hovering across the space like visions in a dream. Miró’s friend and authority Jacques Dupin renamed works such as Painting ‘oneiric paintings’, wishing to celebrate and emphasise the ‘purely oneiric atmosphere’ which characterises the group and which is at the origin of their unique character and a memorable power.
Executed in 1925, Painting dates from a period, in Miró’s early career, of significant involvement with Surrealism, a movement the artist had officially joined the year before. Since 1921, Miró had started spending long stretches of time in Paris, where he had taken a studio at 45 rue Blomet. The address was to become one of Surrealism’s mythical places of birth: neighbouring with the atelier of André Masson and regularly visited by Michel Leiris, Antonin Artaud and Robert Desnos, the studio provided an exciting, intoxicating atmosphere where the forces and principles of Surrealism would begin to form. Remembering that moment of his life, Miró would later declare: ‘The rue Blomet was a decisive place, a decisive moment for me. It was there that I discovered everything I am, everything I would become’ (J. Miró, ‘Memories of the rue Blomet’, pp. 51-55, in Surrealism and the rue Blomet, exh. cat., New York, 2013, p. 51). Created at that time, Painting thus belongs to a moment of pivotal artistic development in Miró’s long and prosperous career.
Pushing Miró’s artistic language towards a radical, new dimension, works such as Painting stemmed out of the intellectual turmoil and stimulating encounters Miró had lived at the rue Blomet. Encouraged by the proximity of daring artists such as Masson and stimulated by the burgeoning ideas of Surrealism, in the early 1920s Miró moved away from the realism of early works such as La Ferme (1921-1922, National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.) to discover the fantastical language of canvases such as La terre labourée (1923-1924, The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York), which nevertheless maintained the minute precision and Bosch-like details that had characterized his early realism. In this regard, the ‘oneiric paintings’ marked a considerable, drastic departure: cutting all ties with reality and exploring distilled signs immersed into the resonating void of the canvas, these works explored a mental space animated by strange and fugitive apparitions. Enigmatic and extraneous, the lines and forms in Painting seem to express a secret form of language, which has emerged from the depth of the artist’s inner world.
Cheerfully defying logic in its spontaneous composition, Painting and the oneiric paintings expressed Miró’s own take on ‘automatism’, the fundamental principle of the Surrealist quest for the unconscious. The concept had been at the very core of the foundation of Surrealism the year before: in the first Manifeste du surréalisme, André Breton solemnly defined Surrealism as a ‘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). Automatic drawing – first championed by Masson, Miró’s neighbour in rue Blomet – had been adopted by the Surrealists as a way to unleash the unconscious through the apparition of unexpected signs. Although bearing resemblance with the loose, uncontrolled traces of automatic drawing, works such as Painting were the result of a specific, personal approach developed by Miró at the time. Many of the images and signs represented, Miró claimed, were actually born from hunger-induced hallucinations. Miró would explain:
‘in 1925 I was drawing almost entirely from hallucinations. At the time I was living on a few dried figs a day. I was too proud to ask my colleagues for help. Hunger was a great source of these hallucinations. I would sit for long periods looking at the bare walls of my studio trying to capture these shapes on paper or burlap’ (quoted in R. Penrose, Miró, London, 1995, p. 47). Lingering over the misty space of the canvas like fortuitous visions visiting the artist from the depth of his mind, the forms in Painting may have originated in Miró’s hallucinations, amid the excited spirit of discovery which animated rue Blomet at the time.
In their carefully balanced simplicity, however, works such as Painting were indeed less spontaneous than it first appears. The hallucinations Miró experienced in 1925 were indeed never directly transported onto the canvas, but first recorded in sketches and then slowly matured, developed and finalised before being once again re-lived in painting. In his work, Miró was methodical and precise, annotating ideas in notebooks before attacking the canvas. In the late 1970s, the artist observed: ‘It was a period of intense work. I filled up notebooks with drawings, and these served as the starting points for canvases. I recently discovered dozens of these notebooks, with thousands of drawings in them, some of which were done at the rue Blomet’ (J. Miró, ‘Memories of the rue Blomet’, op. cit., p. 54). The number of surviving drawings and their close relation to specific paintings suggest that such practice was central to Miró’s creative process in 1925. The important role played by drawings indicates that, although seeking inspiration in fortuitous visions, in 1925 Miró aspired to distil their essence into the most suggestive, striking, elementary form, applying to the irrational manifestations of the signs a rational process of refinement. Through this process, oneiric paintings such as Painting enabled Miró to purify his visual language, enriching his vocabulary with new primordial signs that would inhabit his universe for years on end.
The power of the empty space in Painting, from which the signs seem to emanate suspended in time, was similarly the result of a careful and studied technique. Wishing to imbue his canvas with the immaterial dimension of dreams, in the oneiric paintings Miró gave great emphasis to the backgrounds, which became palpitating surfaces able to recall Miró’s visions from their undefined, yet suggestive depth. In order to bring the canvas alive, Miró would only use those made of very fine linen, which he sized with some animal gelatine glue. Transparent at first, the gelatine would yellow and darken with time, acquiring a smoky patina that gave density to the canvas, creating the perfect imaginative space for Miró’s visions to appear. In Painting, Miró achieved a rather uniform effect, only imperceptibly broken by subtle modulations. Stripping the canvas down from all superfuous elements, Miró succeeded in creating a suggestive emptiness, an infinite dimension in which the games of his mind could form and unfold. This sense of perceptive void, able to conjure the intangible contours of dreams, was at the core of Miró’s oneiric paintings: ‘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 gesture on top were the signs of my dream progression’ (quoted in ‘“Miró”, by Denys Chevalier, in Aujourd’hui: Art et Architecture (Paris), November 1962’, pp. 262-271, in M. Rowell, (ed.), Joan Miró Selected Writings and Interviews, London, 1987, p. 264). Part of a crucial series of works which would set the artist onto new artistic paths, Painting encapsulates Miró’s pivotal encounter with Surrealism in 1925 Paris.