A black and white photograph of Joan Miró working on his mural The Reaper in the Spanish Pavilion at the Paris World Fair in 1937 .
Joan Miró working on his mural The Reaper in the Spanish Pavilion at the Paris World Fair in 1937

In 1937, at the height of the Spanish Civil War, several Spanish artists were commissioned by the Republican Government to make a work for the Paris World Fair. Picasso’s contribution was Guernica, while Joan Miró created an extraordinary 5.5 metre high anti-war mural called The Reaper. Miró would continue to produce many politically charged works throughout his life

In the old black-and-white photograph, Miró stands atop a tall ladder defiantly looking out at the camera. He is dwarfed by the monumental figure behind him of a man, arms outstretched, the face contorted into a cry of despair. The peasant in revolt against the horrors being perpetrated by Franco’s fascist army was to be one of the artist’s most vociferous declarations of his political sentiments. On his head the figure wears the characteristic barretina hat – a potent symbol of Catalan identity and a sign of subtle resistance (the hat had previously been banned) that cleverly combined popular symbolism with a political message.

Along with Picasso, Miró felt passionately about the opportunity to express his support of his people’s plight: “Of course I intended it as a protest,” he said. “The Catalan peasant is a symbol of the strong, the independent, the resistant. The sickle is not a communist symbol. It is the reaper’s symbol, the tool of his work, and, when his freedom is threatened, his weapon.” He described the act of painting The Reaper (also known by Miró as Catalan Peasant in Revolt) in urgent tones that reflected his passion: “I painted on a scaffolding directly in the very space of the building. I first made a few light sketches to know vaguely what I needed to do, but… the execution of this work was direct and brutal.”

His declarations received much support from his fellow countrymen. Among them was the writer Juan Larrea, who wrote in an article in Cahiers d’Art magazine, published a few months later:

 Miró, by dint of putting his bruised people right in front of his canvas, has seen emerging within his painting a peasant armed with his scythe, a reaper unleashed by a strange phenomenon on an artistic level with the song Els Segadors, the Catalan hymn of freedom. He stands before us, enclosed within his incorporeal beauty, as fraught with harmonies as a marine jewel, held at the bottom amongst the seaweed, the jellyfish and the starfish.

However, Larrea warned against simplistic readings of Miró’s work as “uneasy caricature”, and saw in his painting an element of hope not just for Catalan, but for the new Republican Spain emerging from the “end of history”. He wrote that beyond the horror he saw “the birth of a new  world… the world of light and freedom, the world of the reaper gazing on the harvest in which are gathered the hopes of all men whose bodies have been truly entrusted to the earth”.

 The Reaper was not Miró’s first politically charged work. Several years earlier he had created what he called his “savage paintings”, a group of large coloured pastels of figures with grotesque heads which were “based on reality”, after the declaration in Barcelona of a Catalan Republic led to the government army’s bombardment of the city’s Generalitat. And a few months before he embarked on The Reaper, he had painted the feverishly coloured Still Life with Old Shoe 1937 – in which everyday objects (bread, bottle, apple, fork) are transformed into a nightmarish landscape. Even though the artist had been engrossed in the formal painterly issue of making the work, he later realised that “without my knowing it this picture contained tragic symbols of the period”. When he showed the painting to a fellow Spanish artist 30 years later, he told him: “The fork attacks the apple as if it were a bayonet. The apple is Spain.”

During those decades Miró was living in a form of internal exile within Franco’s regime. It was a turbulent period marked by repression, but he was not a passive observer. In 1970, for example, he joined a band of intellectuals, along with fellow artist Antoni Tàpies, on a march in protest against the death sentences passed on Basque separatists. His disquiet with these events would find its way into his paintings, such as the Burnt Canvases 1974, works that had undergone violent transformations in their making – painted and then slashed, ignited in petrol and stamped on. Miró’s empathetic climax was the more reflective, yet no less energetically painted triptych The Hope of a Condemned Man 1973, done when he was 80 years old. In this case his comment on the violent political repression of the anti-Franco opposition was clear: the work made reference to the execution of the Catalan anarchist Salvador Puig Antich, who the artist had described as “this poor Catalanist boy”. As in the Burnt Canvases, the surfaces are full of physical gestures – frenetically applied colours, patches of white paint thrown at the canvas and numerous black vertical striations. The anguish that Miró had articulated in The Reaper was to stay with him in his paintings throughout his life.