Head of a Catalan Peasant is one of Joan Miró's most important works of the mid-1920s. It fuses the explicitly Catalan imagery, which had characterised much of his work between 1923-4, with the 'automatic' style he had developed in Paris, under the influence of the Surrealist group.
Miró began the work by painting his canvas with a white ground. He then applied a very thin, almost translucent wash of blue oil paint mixed with turpentine. This created an airy space which contrasts with the graphic quality of the semi-figurative imagery. The composition was long believed to have been drawn in a dreamlike state, as if spontaneously from Miró's unconscious. This myth was endorsed by Miró himself, who described how, 'in 1925, I was drawing almost entirely from hallucinations' (Joan Miró Selected Writings and Interviews, edited by Margit Rowell, London, 1987, p.208). However, the grid-like structure under the blue wash suggests that Miró mapped the composition with the same meticulous care he used for such earlier works as Catalan Landscape 1923-4 (Museum of Modern Art, New York). A tiny preparatory drawing relating directly to Head of a Catalan Peasant has been identified, which includes a grid similar to that visible in the final painting, thus confirming a degree of pre-meditation. The sketch has been torn out and stuck into the so-called 'Montroig sketchbook'. However, its date, 10 March 1924, suggests it was made before Miró left Paris to spend the summer at Montroig in Catalonia (reproduced Joan Miró, Campesino Catalán con Guitarra, exhibition catalogue, Museo Thyssen Bornemisza, Madrid, 1998, p.61, FJM 639).
The image of the Catalan peasant first appears in Miró's work in The Hunter, 1924 (Museum of Modern Art, New York). Miró stated that this work was inspired by the sight of a Catalan peasant out hunting, wearing his distinctive 'barretina' cap. This cap was regarded as a symbol of nationalism, and was probably included as a response to the Spanish government's suppression of Catalan nationalism and specifically the Catalan language at the time. The other elements in the composition are more ambiguous: shapes which suggest two eyes and a beard might also be interpreted as two breasts and an area of pubic hair, generating a characteristically Surrealist element of sexual ambiguity. The wisps of hair also suggest roots, implying an intimacy between the peasant and the soil he works. In the upper left hand corner of the painting biomorphic forms appear to float freely in the pictorial space: these do not appear in the preparatory sketch.
Miró painted four versions of Head of a Catalan Peasant. The first, dated 1924, is in the National Gallery of Art, Washington. It has a yellow ground and the imagery is highly schematised. Catalan Peasant with Guitar, 1924 (Fundación Colección Thyssen- Bornemisza, Madrid), which Miró painted at the same time, has a markedly similar composition. The second version of Head of a Catalan Peasant is dated 1924-5, and was last recorded in a private collection in France, but its present whereabouts is unknown. Photographs reveal it to be the busiest of the four compositions, filled with floating animal and still-life imagery. The present work is believed to be the third version, dating from the early months of 1925. The fourth version (Moderna Museet, Stockholm), painted in spring 1925, has a dense cobalt blue background, and is sparser than the previous versions, having no 'beard', only one 'eye', and a smaller cap.
The version of Head of a Catalan Peasant now jointly owned by Tate and the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, formerly belonged to the British Surrealist artist and collector Roland Penrose, who acquired it in 1937 after it was exhibited at the Zwemmer Gallery in London. In 1970 Penrose wrote a monograph on Miró, in which the work was prominently illustrated (Joan Miró, London, 1970, second edition 1990).
Christopher Green, The Thyssen Bornemisza Collection: The European Avant-gardes, Madrid 1998, see entry on Catalan Peasant with Guitar, 1924, pp.312-321
Carolyn Lanchner, Joan Miró, exhibition catalogue, Museum of Modern Art, New York 1994
Jacques Dupin and Ariane Lelong-Mainhaud, Joan Miró: Catalogue raisonné. Paintings, Volume I: 1908-1930, Paris 1999, catalogue no.110, p.99, reproduced in colour