Like a fantastical fertility goddess risen from the dawning of time, Joan Miró’s Femme (Femme debout) of 1969 is one of the landmark series of monumental bronze sculptures that the artist created over the course of the last two decades of his life. Regarded as the crowning works of Miró’s career, this group of predominantly female figures together serves as a powerful visual embodiment of archetypal femininity, their often exaggerated, abstracted or imagined forms offering a symbolic expression of womanhood. With works such as Femme, other casts of which are housed in the Centre Pompidou, Paris and the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, Miró attained an artistic freedom akin to that which he had channeled into his painting, giving form to his world of floating, imagined signs and shapes, and in so doing, creating an entirely novel form of sculpture. “In painting,” Jacques Dupin has written, “Miró produced his pictograms through the reduction and stylization of reality. Sculpture, on the contrary, allowed Miró to begin with concrete reality and collected objects, which were then internalized and plunged into the fires of his imagination, thereby producing three-dimensional images” (Miró, New York, 1993, p.361).
It is in sculpture that I will create a truly phantasmagoric world of living monsters”
In contrast its monumental scale and imposing presence, Femme was in fact conceived as a small, tabletop sized figurine in clay two decades prior, in 1949. At this time Miró was immersed in the creation and production of ceramics with Josep Llorens Artigas in his studio in Barcelona, creating, alongside vases, plaques and dishes, a small number of sculptures of women and birds that looked as though they had stepped out of one of his fantastical paintings. Miró cast the first clay model of the present Femme in bronze in Barcelona in 1949 (Miró and Chapel, no. 35) and had it enlarged in marble the same year (Miró and Chapel, no. 33; Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C.). Twenty years later, he returned to this same figure, maintaining the same formal attributes—the undulant, circular torso, protruding breasts, truncated arms, and tear-drop like opening—yet he transformed this smaller, more whimsical figure into a commanding monument of femininity; a new conception of l’éternel féminin. “The figure of the opulent, massive and maternal woman is predominant,” Joan Teixidor wrote about the early conception of Femme, “and is the new version of a primitive Venus who, through successive metamorphoses, becomes the principal figure of Miró’s spatial creations” (op. cit., 1973, p.103).
Femme marks Miro’s joyful reembrace of sculpture. Although he had created surrealist painting-objects during the late 1920s and 1930s as part of his quest to “assassinate painting,” it was not until a decade later, while he was living in Palma, Montroig and Barcelona during the Second World War, that he considered making free-standing sculptures in their own right. It was the ceramics he created alongside Artigas that initially led him to rediscover the elemental nature of art making and the aesthetic potential in this plastic form of artistic creation. Manipulating the clay with his hands allowed him to engage with the material directly, which, combined with the unpredictable process of firing the clay, alighted his imagination. Soon, the idea of creating larger and more significant free-standing pieces—not as objects but as sculpture, in which he composed mass and volume in space—became an imperative he could no longer resist. He wrote in his Working Notes, 1941-1942, “…it is in sculpture that I will create a truly phantasmagoric world of living monsters; what I do in painting is more conventional” (quoted in M. Rowell, ed., Joan Miró: Selected Writings and Interviews, Boston, 1986, p. 175).
The only aspect that held Miró back from this new endeavor was an area in which to work, the “big studio” of which he had dreamed since the 1930s. The completion in 1956 of the large, light-filled atelier that José Lluís Sert designed and built for him in Palma, Mallorca, finally afforded Miró that space, as well as a huge window on the world, from which he drew endless inspiration. He brought the outside in, filling the studio with a host of found objects that he discovered outside, each piece ripe with artistic potential. Finally, he had the perfect setting with which to create a space “full of sculptures that give you a tremendous feeling of entering a new world…unlike the paintings that are turned facing the wall or images done on a flat surface, the sculptures must resemble living monsters who live in the studio—a world apart” (quoted in ibid., p. 175).
The sense of plenitude conveyed by these sculptures springs from the mastery with which Miró contrasted the full and the void, space and light. He balanced the salient forms by the main mass, which was animated, harassed, and contradicted by eloquent incisions, and bristling with spines and other prickly protuberances.”
Soon, numerous bronzes began to stream forth from Miró’s studio. These three-dimensional works were comprised of two distinct types: those he initially modeled in clay, and others assembled from found objects, or “raw materials” as the artist called them. Like the present work, the former are usually smooth and exaggeratedly volumetric, their monumental forms and overt plenitude and wholeness projecting an iconic presence in the spaces in which they preside, appearing as if they have existed already for centuries. The latter, by contrast, are often assemblage pieces, constructed from disparate found objects to create playful reimaginings of the human form, each one appearing freely improvised in their conception.
With the large scale pieces in bronze such as the present work, Miró allowed his imagination to take full flight. Sweeping incisions flow down the figure’s back, an indication of her flowing locks of hair. Seen as a whole, the figure can be read as an enlarged human face, the breasts serving as eyes, the arms as ears. In this way, Femme reflects the constant metamorphosis that had remained at the heart of Miró’s oeuvre since the early days of his career. It was this world of fluctuating figures, shapes and symbols that Miró sought to capture in his work, a place where, he described, “forms give birth to other forms, constantly changing into something else. They become each other and in this way create the reality of a universe of signs and symbols in which figures pass from one realm to another, their feet touching the roots, becoming roots themselves as they disappear into the flowing hair of the constellations” (quoted in ibid., p. 240).
Of the 7 casts of the present sculpture, two are in public institutions, including the Musée national d'art moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris and the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis.
Lot Essay Header Image: Present lot illustrated (detail).