Painting is a large canvas in landscape format dominated by a highly saturated cerulean blue ground painted in tempera. Over this luminous monochrome surface are arranged several delicately irregular forms. The most prominent of these is an amorphous white shape floating on the left, painted in patchy brushstrokes that allow glimpses of the blue beneath. Sinuous black lines and smaller organic shapes in touches of black, red, green, yellow and brown hover between abstraction and poetic suggestions of sexual organs: breast-like forms appear in the upper centre and lower right, and the nipple of the latter is almost enclosed by a dark brown patch. On the right, small circles with lines dangling from them may suggest airborne balloons.
Painting is one of a large series of works made by Miró between 1924 and 1927 which are often referred to as ‘automatic paintings’ (Simon Wilson, Surrealist Painting, London 1975, p.5), ‘dream paintings’ (Dupin 1962, p.157) or ‘peinture-poesie’ (poetry-painting) (Lanchner 1993, p.15). With their fields of colour animated by semi-abstract symbols, they represented a marked departure from the figurative style of Miró’s earlier work.
In the 1920s, Miró was dividing his time between his native Catalonia and Paris, where he became closely associated with avant-garde figures in art and literature, including members of the emerging surrealist movement. Writer André Breton was among those interested in using art to reveal the secrets of the unconscious mind, and his 1924 Surrealist Manifesto famously advocated the practice of ‘psychic automatism in its pure state’ (André Breton, Manifestoes of Surrealism, Ann Arbor 1972, p.26). Perhaps influenced by this contemporary interest in relinquishing artistic control, Miró often described his working method as highly spontaneous. He recalled in 1948 that he was inspired at the time by hunger-induced hallucinations, and that he allowed his compositions to be directed by chance and by the movements of his paintbrush (Joan Miró, Selected Writings and Interviews, ed. by Margit Rowell, London 1987, pp.208–11). Subsequent research suggests a more deliberate approach: the Miró Foundation in Barcelona holds notebooks containing many preparatory drawings from this period (Gaëtan Picon (ed.), Joan Miró: Catalan Notebooks, London 1977, p.7). Although the details of Painting are painted in oil, the water-based blue paint chosen for the background appears in other works of 1927 and may have been the same product commonly used to paint houses in Spain and Portugal.
Miró explained in 1948 that ‘for me a form is never something abstract; it is always a sign of something’ (Miró 1987, p.207), and scholars have speculated as to the meaning of the enigmatic imagery in Painting. Although reluctant in general to describe the meaning of his works, he identified the white figure at the left as a horse in December 1977 to Sir Roland Penrose. This may connect Painting to a group of thirteen other works made in 1927 that relate to the theme of the circus horse (see Dupin 1962, p.517). Many of these – such as Circus Horse 1927 (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) – share its bright blue background, white figure and long, curving lines, resembling a horse directed by a ringmaster and his whip. Margit Rowell, meanwhile, has drawn attention to Miró’s fascination with experimental literature, and proposed a 1917 play by poet Guillaume Apollinaire, Les Mamelles de Tirésias (The Breasts of Tirésias), as a source for the painting’s apparent allusions to strings, balloons and procreation (see Ronald Alley, Catalogue of the Tate Gallery’s Collection of Modern Art other than Works by British Artists, Tate Gallery and Sotheby Parke-Bernet, London 1981, pp.524–5). A horseback figure also appears in Apollinaire’s text, and Miró may have had multiple references in mind. A label on the back of Painting reads ‘Fantaisie bleue’ (‘Blue Fantasy’), but a letter of March 1973 confirms that it should be known simply as Painting.
American critic Clement Greenberg was among those who considered this period of Miró’s work notable primarily for its formal innovations (Clement Greenberg, Joan Miró, New York 1948, p.26), and many have pointed to the affinities between his flat fields of colour and later abstract expressionist painting. Others praised these dreamlike canvases for their ‘mysterious forms relating to the basic processes of life – especially procreation – to the cosmos and to the archetypal world’ (Wilson 1975, p.6). Painting was previously owned by the artist’s friend Tristan Tzara, a dada poet who explored principles of automatism in his own writing.
Jacques Dupin, Joan Miró: Life and Work, London 1962, no.219, reproduced p.518.
Carolyn Lanchner, Joan Miró, exhibition catalogue, Museum of Modern Art, New York 1993.
Jacques Dupin and Ariane Lelong-Mainhaud, Joan Miró: Catalogue Raisonné: Paintings, Volume I: 1908–1930, Paris 1999, no.243, reproduced p.184.
Supported by Christie’s.