Wednesday Art Idol

Joan Miró: the Spanish surrealist who inspired Dalí and Magritte
By Finn Blythe | Art | 8 September 2021
This article is part of HERO Dailies – Essential culture, curated daily and also part of Wednesday Art Idol

HERO DAILIES: Essential culture, curated daily
WEDNESDAY ART IDOL: Careers of artists with unparalleled vision

A driving force during the formative years of Surrealism and an early forebear to the likes of Salvador Dalí and René Magritte, Spanish artist Joan Miró was a prolific innovator across painting, sculpture and ceramics. 

Though he was born in Barcelona and retained a life-long connection to Catalonia, Miró’s artistic legacy is rooted in Paris, where he moved in 1920, aged 27. Having received his debut solo show two years previously in his home city, where works like Seated Nude Holding a Flower (1917) revealed his early interest in Cubism, it was Miró’s encounter with Paris’ burgeoning avant-garde scene that accelerated his style towards innovative forms. Surrounded by the likes of Pablo Picasso, Andre Masson and Max Ernst, Miró’s work soon reflected the dramatic aesthetic developments that were happening all around him, with paintings like The Farm (1921) revealing his tentative first steps towards the more abstract and geometric forms that became a defining feature of his work.

The Farm, Joan Miró, 1921

By 1924, Miró was a fully fledged member of the Surrealists, part of a wider cultural movement that had lost faith in the power of reason following the inexplicable horrors of World War I. Embedded within its literary and academic circles, a new period emerged in his work that culminated in a series produced between 1924-7 which he referred to as “peinture-poésie,” or “painting-poetry”. Around this time Miró had begun to adopt key Surrealist ideology within his work, drawing heavily from the subconscious, dream-states and automatism, the practice of liberating oneself from rational thought with the aim of attaining higher creative consciousness. Key works from his painting-poetry included Photo: This is the Colour of My Dreams (1925), which combined painting and text, compulsive energy and considered intellect, contravening every rule of painting in the process. 

Miró’s rejection of what he saw as the bourgeois nature of painting would see him retire from painting altogether at several points during his career but not before he’d ruffled a few more feathers. In 1928, after a trip to the Netherlands brought him into contact with the work of the Dutch Old Masters, Miró produced Dutch Interior I (1928) as an abstracted riposte to Hendrick Martensz Sorgh’s painting of a lute player. Miró rejected the naturalism of the original, in other words, the shading, modelling and perspective that gave it an illusion of reality. By dramatically changing the proportions of the original composition into discrete abstract forms, Miró destroyed what he saw as an outdated perception of reality and replaced it with his own.

Central to Miró’s life and artistic development were the events that took place in his native Catalonia. In the years of hardship that followed the Great Depression, the region twice requested an autonomous government during the 1930s and old tensions between royalists and socialists re-emerged along new lines of fascism and communism. While still based in Paris, Miró’s oil paintings at the time reflected his growing despair, with nightmarish works like Man and Woman in Front of a Pile of Excrement (1935) reflecting prescient visions of Spain’s imminent Civil War.

Man and Woman in Front of a Pile of Excrement, Joan Miro, 1935

Constellations, 1940-41

Among Miró’s most famous works are a series of 23 paintings he produced on paper from January 1940 to September 1941 that he referred to as Constellations. Having hastily left Paris for the Spanish island of Mallorca to escape the German advance, the near-two year period in which the series was created came at a time of great fear and uncertainty. Often without electricity, Miró and his family took to stargazing from their house’s balcony, prompting Miró to continue the nocturnal series he had begun in Paris.

Using the same abstract shapes and geometric forms of a decade previous, the series elevated Miró’s aesthetic vocabulary to new heights. Having stumbled upon the series’ wash technique while cleaning his paintbrushes on paper, this happy accident became the basis for the blotchy coloured backgrounds of each painting and in turn inspired the birth of complex forms, from planets and moons to stars and ciphers. These intricate compositions of celestial skies reveal a period of focussed spirituality for the legendary artist, who no doubt turned to their transcendent beauty to relieve him from the horrors that surrounded him.

Constellation. Ciphers and Constellations in Love with a Woman, Joan Miró, 1941


Read Next