Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Joan Miró (1893–1983)

Though often pigeonholed as a Surrealist, the Catalan modernist Joan Miró considered his art to be free of any “ism.” He experimented feverishly throughout his career with different media—painting, pastel, printmaking, sculpture, ceramics, collage, muralism, and tapestry—and unconventional materials as a way of making work that expressed the contemporary moment without relying on the tools of mimetic realism.

Miró was born on April 20, 1893, in Barcelona and grew up in a family of watchmakers. At the age of fourteen, he enrolled in business school while concurrently taking art classes at the Escuela Superior de Artes Industriales y Bellas Artes. Miró exhibited his first painting at the sixth Exposición Internacional de Arte in Barcelona in 1911, an event that likely informed his decision to study with Francesc Galí at the Escola d’Art from 1912 to 1915. Through his colleagues at school, Miró began frequenting the Galeries Dalmau, a burgeoning center of artistic activity in Barcelona, reading French and Catalan avant-garde literary journals, and attending exhibitions with the likes of Maurice Raynal and Francis Picabia.

An early work such as Seated Nude Holding a Flower of 1917 (1999.363.47) reveals Miró’s growing interest in contemporary art trends. His vibrant, unnatural palette pays homage to the Fauves, while the faceted planes of the sitter’s face and backdrop and angularity of the drapery suggest Miró’s awareness of Cézanne and Cubism. His detailed treatment of the bird and individual flower petals, however, presages the development of a more personal aesthetic and conveys Miró’s deep interest in representing his surroundings.

Seated Nude hung at Miró’s first solo exhibition at the Galeries Dalmau in February 1918 and at later group shows around Barcelona. That same year, Miró began expressing an interest in traveling to Paris and retreated to his family’s farm in Mont-roig del Camp, where he painted prolifically. In Vines Olive Trees, Tarragona of 1919 (1999.363.48), he offers a stylized vision of the landscape he cherished. He renders the dense, local vegetation with precision—painting every leaf and root system in the foreground—while reducing the background foliage to a rich tapestry of pulsing colors and geometric patterns. This juxtaposition of an almost naïve naturalism with a simultaneous tendency toward abstracting form would culminate in The Farm of 1921–22 (National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.).

With Josep Dalmau’s help, Miró traveled in February 1920 to Paris, where he met Pablo Picasso, Pierre Reverdy, Max Jacob, André Masson, and Tristan Tzara, and began working in a studio on the rue Blomet. In 1921, Dalmau organized Miró’s first solo show in Paris at Galerie La Licorne, and the Catalan began exhibiting at the annual Salon d’Automne the following year. Around this time, Miró became close with the writers and artists soon to be associated with Surrealism and began working in an aesthetic vein that privileged dreams, the unconscious, and automatism—the practice of painting or writing without the intervention of rational thought.

In February 1925 (less than a year after the publication of the First Manifesto of Surrealism), the leader of Surrealism, André Breton, began purchasing Miró’s work, marking his official entry into the group. That summer, Miró began working on a series of “dream paintings” or “painting-poems,” such as Photo: This Is the Color of My Dreams of 1925 (2002.456.5), which combines text and a blob of blue paint on an otherwise sparse ground. Here, Miró plays with disparate representational registers, evoking photography, text, and painting as different systems of representation, where “the color of my dreams” is referenced with an actual paint daub. These irrational discrepancies make perfect sense in the dream world conveyed on canvas. By the end of 1925, Miró was exhibiting in the First Surrealist Exhibition at the Galerie Pierre, alongside artists like Jean Arp, Max Ernst, Paul Klee, Man Ray, and Picasso.

Miró continued working with the Surrealists throughout the late 1920s. Animated Landscape of 1927 (1999.363.49) features a cast of surreal characters that float weightlessly in a roughly articulated space. Similarly, in Dutch Interiors (III) of 1928 (1996.403.8), Miró transformed a Dutch masterpiece into a whimsical dreamscape. Following a trip to Holland in the spring of 1928, he made a series of works based on postcard reproductions of Dutch Golden Age paintings. Dutch Interior (III) is likely a reference to Jan Steen’s Woman at Her Toilet, ca. 1661–65 (Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam). Miró’s thick, curving black line references the curved top of Steen’s canvas, while the dog and shoes from the masterpiece can be identified in the 1928 canvas.

Dutch Interiors marked a turning point in Miró’s career. By 1929, he had grown frustrated with Breton’s increasingly rigid constraints for the artistic group and sought to produce work beyond the confines of any movement or “ism.” Gradually distancing himself from the Surrealists, Miró began experimenting fervently with new materials and techniques as a means of “assassinating painting,” or undoing the conventions of the medium and the bourgeois values for which it had come to stand. Throughout the 1930s, he produced small-scale sculptural objects, collages, and works on paper, some of which were made in unconventional ways. Collage Painting of 1934 (2002.456.147), for instance, makes use of found materials like sandpaper, a mirror fragment, and thread. The rough sandpaper ground, pockmarked with pinholes, is a pointed critique of the refined and elevated tradition of painting. In 1932, he even designed the set, costumes, and props for the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo’s production of Jeux d’enfants (Children’s Games).

Other works from the 1930s seem to be in tangible dialogue with political events of the interwar years. Though Miró never considered his work abstract, he turned to a more overtly figurative style in these socially engaged works. “Aidez l’Espagne” (“Help Spain”) of 1937 (2002.456.109), for example, is a design for a one-franc stamp that raised funds for the Republican government in Spain. And Woman of 1934 (2007.247.5), a pastel drawing on flocked paper, depicts a monstrous female figure wrenching her head back in anguish. The series of similarly distressed figurative forms was possibly a response to the entry of a semi-fascist party, the Confederation of Autonomous Right-Wing Groups (CEDA), into the Spanish Republican government.

When the Spanish Civil War broke out in 1936, Miró remained in Paris. He was commissioned to paint The Reaper (now lost), a mural to adorn the Spanish Pavilion at the Paris Exposition Internationale in 1937. He and his family moved to Varengeville-sur-Mer, France, at the outset of World War II, and were forced to move again to Palma de Mallorca in 1942, where they escaped the war. During this stressful period, Miró produced a series of gouaches now known as the Constellations. Signs for birds, stars, and other references to escape, flight, and refuge invade the series, as in Constellation: Women on the Beach of 1940 (1999.363.52). His calligraphic line and system of symbols take over the canvas completely in Constellation: Toward the Rainbow of 1941 (1999.363.53), where the evocative title and the use of bright red imbue the work with a sense of optimism and levity.

Miró’s first major museum retrospective took place at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1941. Pierre Matisse (son of Henri Matisse), Miró’s dealer in New York since the early 1930s, played a critical role in familiarizing the American public with his diverse oeuvre. Following the war, the artist settled in Palma, where he began experimenting with ceramics. By 1945, he was working in terracotta to make maquettes for large-scale sculptures in bronze, such as Moonbird of 1946 (2002.456.121). His monumental work in ceramic and bronze led to several public commissions in the 1950s: a painted mural at Harvard University and a ceramic wall for the UNESCO headquarters for which he won a Guggenheim International Award. Miró received the Grand Prize for Graphic Work at the Venice Biennale in 1954 and was included in the first documenta exhibition in Kassel the following year. Other public projects include a ceramic mural for the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York; murals for the Osaka World’s Fair in 1970; and murals for the Barcelona airport and La Défense in Paris. The Centre d’Estudis d’Art Contemporani, Fundació Joan Miró opened in Barcelona in 1975 as a museum and research center dedicated to his work. The Fundació Pilar i Joan Miró opened in Mallorca in 1981, just two years before the artist’s death on December 25, 1983.