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Together with Picasso, Miro is perhaps the most versatile and influential of 20th-century artists. Although he was born into a family of craftsmen, his father frustrated his early ambitions to become a painter, forcing him to accept a job as a bookkeeper in Barcelona. As a result, Miro suffered a nervous breakdown, but it only strengthened his resolve. He left for Paris in 1919, where he met the avant-garde Surrealists.
Miro divided his time between France and Spain, and later America, where he executed murals for hotels and universities. His natural humour and love of anecdotal detail quickly popularized his work; but it also has a savage and macabre streak which was released by the shattering events of the Spanish Civil War and World War 11. Like Picasso, Miro continued his artistic experiments into his old age.
The Modest Catalan
Miro's taciturn nature belied his profound imagination and creativity. A life of hard work, divided between Paris and the Catalonian hills, produced unrivalled work which continues to inspire.
Joan Miro was born on 20 April 1893 in Barcelona. The family lived in the Pasaje del Credito in the heart of the old city, where Miro's father Miguel ran a prosperous business as a jeweller and watchmaker. There was artisan talent on his mother's side too: Dolores Ferra's father was a skilful cabinet maker. From the age of seven, Miro was sketching careful portraits and still-life, but Dolores and Miguel constantly frustrated his artistic ambitions.
Miro announced his intention to become a painter early on, but Miguel turned a deaf ear in spite of his son's abysmal performance at school. Miro showed a complete ineptitude for academic study and was known as 'fathead' by his fellow pupils. The pattern repeated itself in 1907, when Miro enrolled at La Lonja, the Barcelona school of Fine Arts where Picasso had studied 12 years earlier. He was soon dubbed a 'phenomenon of clumsiness'. But his tutor could see a spark of originality and brilliance in his clumsy attempts, and each week, when Miguel called hoping to be assured of Miro's incompetence, he was told that one day, Miro would be a famous artist.
Miguel was unimpressed and in 1910, forced his son to accept a respectable job as a bookkeeper for a local drugstore. Miro dutifully obeyed, but it broke his spirit. The tedium of the work and the stifling of his creative energies brought on an appalling nervous depression, soon compounded by an attack of typhoid fever, and in desperation his parents sent him to recuperate at their farm near Montroig in the Catalonian hills. The surrounding landscape made a lasting impression on the young artist.
Once back in Barcelona, Miro was no longer to be dissuaded from his chosen career. He joined Francisco Gall's liberal-minded art school and associated with the artists of the Sant Lluch some of whom became lifelong friends, like Joseph Llorens Artigas. With his new bohemian acquaintances, Miro haunted the Barcelona cafés and nightclubs, but he shunned their dissipated lifestyle, indulging his fascination with the Spanish dancers only on paper. He was always the first to go home. More rewarding were his contacts with the avant-garde French artists and poets who travelled to Barcelona during the war years, and his discovery of the Fauve and Cubist paintings at Joseph Dalmau's gallery.
THE LURE OF PARIS
Dalmau offered Miro his first one-man exhibition in 1918. The public response was very poor but the artist was undeterred, knowing that success and the international recognition he already dreamed of could only be found in Paris. The French capital had a magnetic appeal for him, and in 1919, when Paris was at last safe, after the war, he made his first trip there. Over the next few years, winters in Paris and quiet summers at Montroig became his regular working pattern.
1893 born in Barcelona
1910 accepts job as a bookkeeper
1911 suffers nervous breakdown; determines to become a painter
1919 visits Paris and meets Picasso
1928 trip to Holland
1929 marries Pilar Juncosa
1936 Spanish Civil War breaks out
1940 escapes France to Palma
1942 returns to Barcelona
1944 ceramic experiments with Artigas
1947 visits America
1956 builds large studio at Calamayor
1970 ceramic mural for Barcelona airport
1983 dies on Christmas Day
Paris was a stimulating but ruthless city for obscure and impoverished artists. One of the first things Mire did when he arrived was to look up his fellow Spaniard, Picasso. Picasso bought a self-portrait from Miro to encourage his new friend, but sales were hard to come by, and Mini's financial situation was perilous. His parents provided ludicrously small sums intended to convey their utter disapproval of his activities. The tiny studio where he worked at 45, rue Blomet near Montparnasse had broken window panes, and his rickety stove, picked up for 45 francs in the flea market, refused to work. He was so poor that he could only afford one proper lunch a week.
But there was consolation in the circle of intellectuals, poets and painters whom Miro met through his next-door neighbour, Andre Masson. Masson, Paul Eluard, Louis Aragon, Robert Desnos, Anton in Artaud and Andre Breton would frequently gather to discuss the ideas which Breton set down in the first Surrealist Manifesto of 1924. Miro was fascinated by their attempts to explore the subconscious, often through artificially induced means, and attended the meetings where the poet Desnos and the actor Artaud gave hysterical speeches in states of hallucination.
These experiments encouraged Mire to move away from the depiction of everyday reality in his own work, and to rely instead on his imagination and the hallucinatory forms and sensations he experienced through extreme hunger. He would sit for hours staring at the bare walls of his studio and sketching the strange shapes which appeared in front of his eyes. He did not take drugs himself, and he remained aloof from the internal squabbles of the group, but he began to exhibit with the Surrealists, showing his new 'dream paintings' at Pierre Loeb's gallery and the Galerie Surrealiste.
A contract with the dealer Jacques Viot enabled him to keep afloat financially, and Viot found him a studio in Montmartre at 22, rue Tourlaque where his new neighbours included Max Ernst, Rene Magritte and Jean Arp. Miro struck up close friendships with Arp and Ernst in particular, but he was rarely to be seen with them at the Café Cyrano in Place Pigalle, or the Café de la Place Blanche where the Surrealists gathered to discuss theories and write manifestos, or organize exhibitions.
Miro was working compulsively, and becoming increasingly secretive about his own paintings. He kept them all turned face to the wall, away from the curious gaze of Ernst, who worked in the studio above. One night Ernst and some drunken friends stormed his studio, sorted through all the canvases to discover their secrets, and then strung Miro up in a hangman's noose and started to squeeze the life out of him, pulling hard on the rope. The sober Mini somehow managed to extricate himself from the noose and went into terrified hiding for three days.
But Ernst's drunken revelries never soured his friendship with Miro or their admiration for each other, and occasionally they worked together, both agreeing to design the costumes and scenery for Diaghilev's ballet, Romeo and Juliet. Breton, the dogmatic leader of the Surrealist group, violently disapproved of their involvement in what he considered to be the bourgeois and frivolous world of ballet. He staged a demonstration in the theatre on the opening night, and denounced them in his magazine, La Revolution Surrealiste. But Miro had never bowed to Breton's intellectual dogmas or his authority, preferring to keep his distance when it suited him.
In 1928, Mini visited Holland, where the bourgeois interiors depicted by the 17th-century Dutch painters, and Vermeer in particular, intrigued him. He brought back postcard reproductions and used them for a series of paintings, including Dutch Interior, in which he distorted and rearranged the contents of the originals with a great sense of humour. But soon afterwards, Miro abandoned the easy charm of these pictures and started on a series of collages and constructions made from bits and pieces of debris, often salvaged from dustbins; unpleasant objects and materials put together for their shock value. He declared that he was going to assassinate painting' which had been 'decadent since the cave age'.
Miro's new troubled state of mind had nothing to do with his personal fortunes. In 1929, he married Pilar Juncosa and settled down to a perfectly happy married life. Two years later, his daughter Dolores was born. But the 1930s held horrors in store which Miro could not disguise in his art of those years.
Miro was now spending more time in Spain, increasingly alienated from the Surrealists and their political squabbles over joining the Communist party. But he was acutely sensitive to the threat of Fascism which was terrorizing the people of his own country. His pictures, which he called 'peintures sauvages', were menaced by violent distortions and aggressive monsters and a terrible sense of impending catastrophe. Miro was anticipating war.
THE OUTBREAK OF CIVIL WAR
In 1936, civil war broke out in Spain, and Mini was forced to return to Paris. The following year he designed the poster Aidez l’Espagne to be sold for one franc to help the Spaniards in their struggle for liberty. It showed a Catalan peasant shaking a swollen and defiant clenched fist. He also painted The Reaper for the Spanish Republican Government, to hang next to Picasso's Guernica at the International Exhibition in Paris, and the dramatic Still-Life with an Old Shoe, in which an apple, symbolizing Spain, is aggressively pierced by the bayonet-like prongs of a fork.
But soon the problems of Spain were eclipsed by the shattering events of World War H. Paris was no longer safe, and Miro found a temporary retreat in a small cottage, 'Le Clos des Sansonnets', near Varengeville-sur-mer in Normandy, not far from the house his friend Braque had built for himself a few years before. '1 was very depressed', Miro later wrote. 'I believed in an inevitable victory for Nazism and that all that we love and that gives us our reason for living was sunk forever in the abyss.' Only a few months later, German bombardments threatened Varengeville and Miro was on the run once more, heading south through Paris and arriving in Spain just a few days before the Germans marched into the French capital.
Miro settled temporarily in Majorca, finding some respite in peaceful hours spent at the cathedral of Palma, listening to organ recitals and watching the soft light filtering through the stained-glass windows. In 1942, he took his family back to Barcelona. His lasting anger at the senseless ravages of war surfaced in some horrifying lithographs The Barcelona Suite but he also found a vital creative outlet in ceramic experiments with his childhood friend, Artigas.
By now his international reputation had grown, particularly in America where his work was shown regularly at the Pierre Matisse gallery. He made the first of many trips to America in 1947, invited by the Directors of the Terrace Hilton Hotel in Cincinnati to paint an enormous mural for their Gourmet Restaurant. This coincided perfectly with a new desire to communicate with the public and express himself on a huge scale.
Miro also visited New York, where the exciting pace of the city and the youthful optimism of the people gave him a new lease of life and a desire to pick up with old friends, ending a long period of introspection and detachment. On his return to Paris in 1948, after eight years' absence, he was given a hero's welcome and an exhibition of his work at the Galerie Maeght was a resounding commercial success.
Miro was soon weighed under with monumental commissions from the Americans, the French and the Spanish, including paintings and ceramic murals for Harvard University, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, the ceramic Wall of the Sun and Wall of the Moon for Unesco, Paris, a large monument for the Cervantes Gardens in Barcelona and, as late as 1970, an enormous ceramic mural for display at Barcelona airport.
To work more effectively for the public, Miro increasingly devoted his energies to lithographs, engravings, etchings and popular crafts ceramic vases and dishes, for example all of which were much cheaper than easel paintings and could be widely disseminated. In 1954, he was awarded the Venice Biennale Grand Prize for engraving, and from the hands of President Eisenhower he received the Grand International Prize of the Guggenheim Foundation.
To cope with the flood of commissions and the time-consuming organization of regular world-wide exhibitions, the Foundation Maeght was set up in his honour at St Paul de Vence in 1964 Ceaselessly energetic, Miro spent the last two decades of his life rushing from Montroig to his printers in Paris, back to Artigas's kilns in the mountains of Gallifa, and, if he needed to work alone, to the enormous studio specially built for him by Jose Luis Sert among the terraces and olive trees of Calamayor neat Palma. This was the only large studio he had ever owned, but of which he had always dreamed while working in the cramped conditions of his Paris studios and his tiny room in the Pasaje del Credito, where he remembered banging his head against the walls when things got too much for him.
Right up until his death on 25 December 1983, Miro worked exhaustively, learning the techniques of monotype when he was 84, and at 86 producing his first stained-glass windows for the Foundation Maeght. But with an output and a reputation rivalled only by that of Picasso, the frail, modest old man remained undazzled by his glory to the end.
Writer – Marshall Cavendish