Miró made it his habit in the 1920s – that moment of great excitement when he was deeply immersed in surrealism – to work in Paris in the winter and at his farm at Mont-roig in Catalonia in the summer. On unpacking some that had appeared finished in Spain, he sometimes returned to the canvas again. All of this meant that he had to have a pretty systematic approach alongside the spontaneity of creation. He made lists of works that travelled and lists of those left behind unfinished, as well as sketching compositions that sometimes linked works in series.
One of the most important series of 1924–5, of which we have an intense group in the exhibition, is his Head of a Catalan Peasant. Miró was engaging with surrealism through friendships with artists like André Masson and poets like Michel Leiris. This had a liberating effect. It sanctioned his inclination to make inventive, sometimes improbable images and in the Head of a Catalan Peasant series he abbreviated forms to great effect. The Catalan peasant whom Miró imagines is bearded and pipe-smoking and, most recognisably, wears a red snail-shaped hat, the barretina. This appears in all of the series and related paintings. It is a sign of resilience and associated with the cap of liberty worn in the French Revolution. That he painted this at the moment when the dictator Miguel Primo de Rivera had suppressed the official use of Catalan would suggest that Miró was, quietly, subverting the new political status quo. The result is a series unlike anything produced by any artists of that moment.
Matthew Gale is head of displays at Tate Modern and co-curator of Joan Miró: The Ladder of Escape