05. May 2016

Joan Miró’s younger years were defined by his conservative family home – that is until he broke away and sought freedom, which he ultimately would find in Paris.

By Ekkehard Tanner

At the beginning of 1920, when Miró was barely 27 years old, he headed to Paris, the center of the art world. There, he quickly became known for a taciturn demeanor. He initially occupied a studio directly next to that of Surrealist painter André Masson (1896-1987), with whom he would share a lifelong friendship. Masson was already being represented by the great art dealer Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, who eventually took a look at Miró’s work too. Yet the latter’s notorious unwillingness to talk about his work meant the deal with Kahnweiler came to naught.

On another occasion, during a lively debate, Miró refused to take a stance at all, which angered Masson to the extent that he grabbed a rope, placed it around his neighbor’s throat and threatened to throttle him if he didn’t finally give his opinion. But Miró remained silent. A photograph by Man Ray recalls the event. 

The usual operetta 

Perhaps Miró’s silence stemmed from the battles that characterized his early life: His mother, Dolores Ferrà i Oromí, was the daughter of a cabinet-maker from Mallorca, where Miró would subsequently spend a large part of his life. His father, Miquel Miró i Adzeries, himself the son of a blacksmith, was a goldsmith and watchmaker, who had worked his way up through ambition and hard work.

Joan Miró, 1934, Photo: Man Ray, Image via fondationbeyeler.ch

Miró’s family home, which also housed his father’s workshop, became the scene of the usual operetta: His mother cried a lot, on the one hand touched by the artistic talent of her only son, on the other because it seemed more and more unlikely that Miró would one day follow in his father’s footsteps. He was a daydreaming student who, in 1907 when he was 14 years old, was sent to business college in order for him to do something sensible. At the same time Miró enrolled himself at the La Lonja Academy of Art. 

Futile in such circles 

The business college and La Lonja: Both must have been misery for him. In La Lonja he was considered a poor student, his handling of the material was the subject of particular criticism. However, what was considered clumsy was actually not the result of a lack of talent, but rather an unconventional, unorthodox approach to the material. But first came the business college. Opposing his father’s will would have been thoroughly futile in the circles in which he moved.

Lonja de Barcelona, Image via Wikimedia Commons

Why else would Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot (1796-1875) have spent years in his family’s cloth business before becoming the grandfather of the Impressionists? Why else would Harry Heine, before he became known as Heinrich Heine (1797-1856), have run a cloth business thoroughly unsuccessfully? Paul Cézanne (1839-1906) was likewise originally supposed to take over his father’s bank before he became a pioneer of classic Modernism. 

Miró’s troubled soul 

An artist’s primary enemy, it seems, is always his or her own family. Miró therefore began a bourgeois career working as a bookkeeper in a drugstore. Yet he was as little suited to this life as Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880) was to studying law: Both were struck by a kind of pathological weariness that culminated in a breakdown, and only after that were they set free by their respective careers as an artist and a writer.

Mother, sister, father and Joan Miró (from left to right), Image via Wikimedia Commons

In 1911 Miró went down with a cold which then turned into typhus. His family was extremely worried about him and decided to buy a house in the country in Montroig, to the southwest of Barcelona. It was here that Miró regained his strength. His father finally consented to his son becoming an artist. Montroig remained a place of refuge for Miró in later life too, and he spent the summer there during his first years as an artist. 

A vote for dilettantism 

Between 1912 and 1915 Miró attended a private art school in Barcelona, where he met, among others, Josep Llorens Artigas, with whom he would create his ceramics some years later. In 1916 Miró joined the group of artists in Barcelona that would meet at the Josep Dalmau Gallery. He saw works by Pablo Picasso and Juan Gris, Marcel Duchamp and Fernand Léger, witnessed works by the fauvists and read avant-garde magazines. Francis Picabia, who promoted dilettantism, was particularly encouraging: “Picabia and others galvanized me because they didn’t want to get bogged down in creative problems, rather they much preferred to make a joke out of them.” (Miró)

Yet Miró could not stay in Barcelona and in 1919 he moved to Paris. Anyone who stayed in Barcelona eventually crumbled, he said, and he decided he needed to be an international Catalan. In Paris Miró came face to face with the Dadaists and surrealists, and made friends particularly among the avant-gardist writers and poets. André Breton described Miró, who was actually always too independent, too much a “bande à part” to be placed in any particular drawer, as the “surrealist of all surrealists”. 

The spirit of a bookkeeper 

It was in Paris in the winter of 1922 that, after nine months of work, Miró completed his major work “La ferme” (“The Farm”), which he had begun in the summer of 1921 in Montroig and in which he immortalizes the place of his birth as an artist. The painting exhibits a detailed realism that reveals just a little of the spirit of a bookkeeper making an inventory: No detail, however small, is missing.

It is more of a succession of details than a composition, and yet the image never appears fussy. This masterpiece was indeed exhibited, yet nobody wanted to buy it. In the evenings Miró trained in boxing and got to know Ernest Hemingway. Three years after completion of the image the writer was able to scrape together the purchase price of 5,000 francs in order to gift the painting to his wife for her birthday and never to relinquish it again. 

In the midst of civil war 

In the meantime though, Miró had changed his style of painting and thus also his speed. He threw reality and spatiality overboard, and the image backgrounds of his paintings began to resemble the faded walls of old farmhouses. In 1924 Miró painted his “Catalan Peasant with a Guitar”: He takes the form of a stick man, anticipating the figures of A.R. Penck (*1939). In his right hand he holds a pipe in which sparks burst from the black tobacco, whilst in the left – and here we have to take the painter at his word – he holds a guitar. Furthermore, the peasant wears the traditional headwear for men in the Catalonian countryside, a “barretina”, reminiscent of the Phrygian caps of the French Revolutionaries.

Thirteen years later in 1937, in the midst of the Spanish Civil War, Miró would paint a Catalan peasant once again: in a now long-lost mural painted for the pavilion of the Spanish Republic at the World Exhibition in Paris, opposite which hung Picasso’s “Guernica” at the time. “Guernica” was a denouncement, whilst Miró’s Grim Reaper was a symbol of resistance and the fight for freedom against the fascists. 

Miró made the bold statement that he wanted to assassinate painting. His poetic, bright pictorial world may mean this is initially surprising, yet Miró actually freed himself from the burden of stuffy tradition in order to reinvent what painting actually was: form and color.

Joan Miró working on the mural "Le Faucheur" at the Spanish Pavilion at the World Exhibition in Paris 1937, Image via pinterest.com