This week saw the birthday the legendary Catalan, Spanish painter, Joan Miró – born 20th April 1893.
Earning international acclaim, his work has been interpreted as Surrealism; a sandbox for the subconscious mind, a re-creation of the childlike, and a manifestation of Catalan pride. But in this article, by looking at one painting from 1927 – I wish to delve a little deeper into the reality underpinning Miró’s production.
In 1925 Joan Miró embarked on what would be a two year long experiment into the world of ‘dream paintings’, the culmination of which can be seen in his Peinture of 1927. This small Miró painting is situated in the Roland Penrose room of the Edinburgh Dean Gallery, placed unassumingly to the left of a Giacometti sculpture Femme égorgée and above an Andre Breton assemblage Poème Objet. In line with the other two works which push at the traditional boundaries of their discipline, Miró’s Peinture quietly destroys the boundaries of conventional notions of painting. In the words of André Breton, Miró ‘crossed at one leap the final barriers restraining him from total spontaneity of action’.
However, although Miró stated that many of his works from 1925-7 were painted automatically, and indeed many of Miró’s paintings often started out as automatic drawings (with the hand being allowed to move randomly across the paper, or at least without a conscious form of self-censorship), the Fundació in Barcelona possesses an incredibly similar pencil sketch. Hence it would be extremely problematic to speak of this work as solely an outpouring of the much explored unconscious mind.
What Peinture does do, is represent a highly personalized language of pictorial forms and symbols – placed upon a loosely painted, many layered blue-grey background. Blue, universally being acknowledged as the colour of infinity (and a colour which Miró explicitly associated with dreams) is often seen as the background to what could be considered Miró’s ‘dreamscapes’.
Colour in this instance has not been used in a pictorial, realistic fashion but as a subjective signifying device. The textured, openly applied brush strokes of blue-grey tones rather than lending the work an air of perpetuity and tranquillity give it a slightly darker and more ominous quality, hinting at fear within the dreams, but perhaps not going as far as to give the work nightmarish qualities.
The signs and pictographic shapes utilized by Miró gradually developed within his oeuvre from the 1920’s onwards, and these developments signaled a dramatic departure from his earlier objective interpretations of Catalan life.
The most easily identifiable form within Peinture is the stick woman on the left hand side of the composition which is reminiscent of the central mother-figure in Maternité (also owned by the Edinburgh galleries). This figure introduces Miró’s frequent preoccupation with birth and sexuality, continuing the time honored tradition within human arts of representing the natural life cycles of birth, sex and death. The thorough metamorphosis which Miró’s figures have undergone does not go so far as to obscure their sexual nature, and when the viewer delves deeper into Miró’s language, disturbing and violent undertones begin to appear.
The red triangle of the woman (and to some extent the spider shape on the top right) not only summon associations with her genitalia, but also the traditional colour connotations of blood, lust, danger and anger (the black whole of the spider also forming a dangerous abyss). Through these thin shapes, the constant and solid background is always visible and brought into sharp juxtaposition with the fragile and quickly executed black lines. This spontaneity of line brings a restless and somewhat anxious element to the painting, ensuring that no simple reading of the forms presents itself to the viewer.Typical of surrealist ambiguity, Miró represents an ambivalent attitude towards women; a threatening force, yet one mixed in with primitivistic representations of fertility.
‘As far as I am concerned, when I am painting a large female sex organ… It looks like a spider and it becomes malicious… It is fertility, but threatening all the same’.
Sexuality, often expressed in it’s female form, is crucial to Miró’s vocabulary. but it should be clear that this is not simple eroticism, sexuality is understood in its broadest cycles of fertility and procreation. This can even be identified in the simple title of Peinture. In Miró’s title, the viewer’s attention is drawn solely to the mode of production itself; the birth of the shapes themselves, emerging in their painted forms directly from the murky and dreamlike imaginings of Miró’s subconscious mind. In my experience, it was only when contemplating the actual painting; the actual paint that the artist has manipulated – that this mysterious and complex aura presented itself in its fullest form.
Whilst the left hand side of Peinture represents the female domain, the right is male; the green shape on the top right strongly resembles a spermatozoa whilst the bottom shape (could) recall a man’s head. The roughly rectangular white form, in regards to the other shapes could resemble the pillows and bedding which contextualize the sexual act. The composition forms four segments around the central cross of the canvas supports; the uppermost part of the painting representing the isolated forms of reproduction with the bottom segments delineate the male and female bodies.
Whilst these four contrasting elements of Miró’s Peinture can be identified, it is the blue-grey background which ties the composition into a unified whole. The eerie atmosphere, at once both modern and primitive suggests a translucency highlighted by glints and recesses of tonal colour. It is important to note, that whilst this may seem to represent an empty and negative spatial formation, Miró is actually employing a highly theoretical conceptualization of ‘emptiness’ as opposed to the negative form of ‘nothingness’. This creates a paradox within Miró’s work, these two concepts at the same time being indistinguishable, yet contrary to one another, forcing the viewer to re-examine their notions and perceptions of existence and its representation on the canvases of Miró.
Surface is the defining condition of painting for Miró; the visible modulations of the canvas accentuate the effects of his undulating blue-grey, occasionally punctuated by the strident points of significance that are Miró’s forms. However, it should be noted that especially in Peinture, these signs are used in strict economy, only really taking on significant meaning when considered in their full relations to each other. In Peinture, Miró characteristically sequesters what he sees as the ‘real’ objects most distinctive attribute; ‘in his hands the sign is re-invested with its primordial function and lives a life of its own’. It is the eye of the imagination which makes the associations and connections between Miró’s primeval shapes and our everyday perceptions of reality, carrying us beyond first direct interpretations through to connotations and equivalences which evoke many unexpected yet significant encounters.
In light of these observations it is not surprising that Miró was indignant when in the 1930’s he became categorized by many as an abstract artist. All of his forms, however abstract they may seem ultimately draw their impetus in and from the world and nature:
‘Form is never abstract; it is always a sign of something…. Painting is never form for form’s sake’.
Despite this, within Miró’s work, the dream like ambiguities can never be separated from any ‘logical’ interpretation of it. Miró’s Peinture is paradigmatic of the surrealist attempt to access to things below the surface which the rationalized enlightenment of recent history simply could not produce. Even the unmixed colours Miró has used to depict the forms of Peinture have been reduced to their most primal and unadulterated states; red, blue, green, black and white, all partaking in the analysis of our most basic traits.
In conclusion, the literal meanings of forms gradually lessen in importance within the work of Miró; they are signs that the artist has conjured up, not as representations, but more as archetypes. Even if they remain un-deciphered, it is their strangeness which creates the curiously compelling nature of his 1927 Peinture. It is of less interest to the viewer to attempt an explicit identification the prototypal images, than to ascertain the complex and rewarding conceptualizations behind such metamorphosis. In the words of Andre Breton again;
‘Miró has succeeded in ‘that fusion of two states, seeming so incompatible – reality and the dream – in a sort of absolute reality, a super reality’.
Miró’s work is simultaneously general and particular, investing universal significance into his highly personalized narratives. The overall themes of sex and procreation within Peinture stimulate our basic drives of passion and excitement, mixed in with Miró’s personal fear and characteristic humor. Such paintings, although forming the basis for Miró’s anti-art revolt and his wish to ‘assassinate painting’ do not however signal his intended death wish on the genre. Far from it – Peinture signals the triumph of the artistic vanguard’s metamorphoses and explorations into the modern world.
Happy Birthday Miró!