What You Need to Know about Joan Miró, Pioneer of Surrealism
Carl Van Vechten, Portrait of Joan Miro, Barcelona, 1935. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
When the French poet André Breton penned his Manifesto of Surrealism in 1924, cementing one of the most important movements of the 20th century, he claimed as his associates some of the leading avant-garde artists of the period: Marcel Duchamp, Francis Picabia, Man Ray, Henri Matisse, and Pablo Picasso, among others. But in retrospect, one name is glaringly omitted from Breton’s selection: the Catalan painter Joan Miró.
Just a year earlier, Miró, who was based between Paris and Spain, had begun work on The Tilled Field (1923) and The Hunter (Catalan Landscape) (1923–4), paintings whose fantastical, lyrical fields of uncanny references—swirling, abstract forms, floating body parts, and distorted animals—aligned closely with the concerns of the Surrealists. Indeed, the works reflected Breton’s embrace of dream imagery and “psychic automatism”: a practice that sought to give creative license to the unconscious mind through unmediated drawing or painting. Miró would incorporate this method into his work for the rest of his career.
For the Catalan artist, the conflict between an impulsive stream of consciousness and the careful deliberations of the intellectual mind was fertile ground and would drive his work into greater formal exploration in a number of media—from prints, sculpture, and ceramics to stained glass, set design, and even tapestry. Starting in the 1920s, Miró’s studio in Paris would be an experimental meeting place for artists and writers, introducing him to leading thinkers and cultural figures like Antonin Artaud, Robert Desnos, Jean Dubuffet, and Ezra Pound.
Envisioning his artistic pursuit as a challenge to traditional painting and an assault on the bourgeois society that produced it, Miró developed a distinctly symbolic language of simplified, biomorphic, or lifelike, forms. Before the groundbreaking Surrealist painters Salvador Dalí or René Magritte, Joan Miró helped to give visual definition to the young movement, influencing generations of artists to come.
Who Was Joan Miró?
Joan Miró was still a young man when he moved to Paris in 1920. He was born in Barcelona in 1893 and received an early introduction to the arts, taking up art classes from the age of 7. By 1912, he had already abandoned his business school education and clerk’s position—allegedly due to a nervous breakdown, a bout of typhoid fever, or both—to study at a local painter’s school.
He favored the work of the Post-Impressionists and Fauves, and his early paintings were characterized by vivid, brushy landscapes, portraits, and still lifes. In 1918, the art dealer Josep Dalmau gave him his first solo exhibition. Around that time, he began to focus more on line, form, and structure. Informed by the folk art and Romanesque frescoes of the so-called “Catalan primitives,” his compositions became more direct and clear, often homing in on a few fine details.
Miró’s encounter with the Paris avant-garde would bring more modern influences to bear on his work, as seen in The Farm (1921), a semi-realistic, semi-Cubist rendering of his childhood home. Miró’s love of the early Catalan painters is recognizable in his painstaking attention to each leaf on the tree and furrow in the soil, while his relationship with Cubism can be seen in the way he flattens the otherwise linear space of the composition with geometric forms and stretches of unmodulated pigment. (The author Ernest Hemingway bought the painting, seeing in Miró’s work the perfect encapsulation of his memories from a trip he’d once taken to Spain.)
By the mid-1920s, Miró was spending most of his time in Paris, having officially joined the Surrealists in 1924. Experimenting at his studio alongside the visual artists André Masson and Max Ernst, he found himself equally inspired by his association with the prominent literary minds of the movement, leading to a series of works from 1924 to 1927 that he dubbed peinture-poésie, or “painting-poetry.” This is the Color of My Dreams (1925), for example, consists only of those titular words and a small patch of blue pigment.
If this poetic mode provided one avenue for what Miró declared his “assassination of painting,” a trip to the Netherlands in 1928 brought him to challenge the illusionistic space of Dutch Old Master painting. In the somewhat cluttered and highly abstracted Dutch Interior I (1928), Miró reinvented Hendrick Martensz Sorgh’s painting of a lute player performing for a woman and dog as a room full of biomorphic forms in a flattened space. Loosely adapted from a postcard he bought at the Rijksmuseum rather than the original, Miró’s work rejected Sorgh’s naturalism and depth with a clever surrealist nod to Duchamp’s L.H.O.O.Q. (1919), a work that itself was famously based on a postcard of the Mona Lisa.
What Inspired Miró?
Like Duchamp, Miró retired from painting at several points in his career, though never for quite so long as the French artist. In a sense, Miró’s attack on bourgeois painting reflected a radical desire to renew the medium through contact with other media. In 1926, Sergei Diaghilev—of the wildly famous Ballets Russes—commissioned him and Max Ernst to design sets and costumes for a production of Romeo and Juliet.
Two years later, Spanish Dancer I (1928) saw Miró expand into collage (with grease pencil and steel nails on card) while reducing his forms. The sparseness of his mark-making forces the viewer to complete the dancer from very limited visual information, a further rejection of traditional painting. His painted earthware Vase (1942) at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is an example of his prolific ceramic production beginning in that decade. It features an almost childlike painting of two figures who appear to be flying a kite in a sunny sky.
Miró’s experimentation wasn’t merely formal, however. He also introduced politics into his art. During the Spanish Civil War, Miró and Picasso were commissioned to decorate the Spanish Pavilion at the 1937 Paris World’s Fair with murals. Where Picasso created Guernica, Miró painted The Reaper (Catalan Peasant in Revolt), which was destroyed or lost the following year. Known only from black-and-white photographs, the mural reveals Miró’s support of Spain’s Republican government through a semi-abstract portrayal of a powerful figure wielding a sickle.
More than just a Soviet symbol, Miró noted, the sickle was also the weapon at hand for the rebellious peasant, who takes up the cause heroically—a proud, nationalistic counterpart to the tragedy and violence that pervades Guernica.
Why Miró’s Work Endures
Where other late-career artists might rest on their laurels, Miró pushed again and again into new territory. For a stretch in the 1950s he focused almost exclusively on printmaking and ceramics, and his prints were honored at the 1954 Venice Biennale, receiving the grand prize for graphic work. Personnages and Animals (1950), a color lithograph, exemplifies this foray into printmaking, where Miró’s biomorphic depictions of various people and animals in a non-naturalistic space take fittingly to the print’s flatly two-dimensional format.
Miró would be fêted again and again in his older years, with a major career retrospective at MoMA in 1941; inclusion in the first Documenta in Kassel in 1955; a Guggenheim International Award for his murals in Paris’s UNESCO building in 1958; three more retrospectives in Paris in 1962, 1974, and again in 1978; an honorary doctorate from Harvard in 1968; and even the Spanish Gold Medal for Fine Arts, awarded by King Juan Carlos himself in 1980.
Among Miró’s last major works was a tapestry for the World Trade Center in New York City, created in 1974. As in his Vase, the colorful, largely abstract image reveals the applicability of Miró’s semi-representational, dreamlike imagery to the so-called decorative arts. One of many public or semi-public commissions the artist was offered in his later years, the World Trade Center Tapestry was lost alongside works by Alexander Calder, Louise Nevelson, and Romare Bearden, among others, in the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001.
Miró’s influence, however, was never lost on his contemporaries or his followers. He embraced the early automatic practice of the Surrealists, bringing to it his cool artistic intellect and attention to detail—“conceived with fire in the soul but executed with clinical coolness,” to use the artist’s own words.
His automatism and biomorphic figures intertwined to become one of Surrealism’s dominant modes of painting, influencing contemporary painters such as Ernst, Yves Tanguy, and Dalí. Alexander Calder’s mobiles also recall Miró paintings, rendered in hanging, open-form sculpture. Miró spent significant time in New York in the 1940s, where he and other Surrealist émigrés inflamed the imaginations of the next generation’s Abstract Expressionists.
The work of Arshile Gorky—often considered the first AbEx painter—surely owed debts to Miró’s scattered, quasi-abstract biomorphs, as do Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Adolph Gottlieb’s mythic images from the 1940s. His backgrounds, sometimes flat, but often with mild gradations of color, were valuable resources for the Color Field painters as well, as in the work of Helen Frankenthaler.
Miró was a prolific and influential multimedia artist who developed a unique visual language and never lost his flair for experimentation. He helped found the Joan Miró Foundation and Center of Contemporary Art Studies in 1975 in Barcelona to encourage the development of experimental techniques in art and, in so doing, helped to cement his legacy for future generations.