Joan Miró

A Star Caresses the Breast of a Negress (Painting Poem)


Not on display

Joan Miró 1893–1983
Original title
Une Étoile caresse le sein d'une négresse (peinture-poème)
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 1295 × 1943 mm
frame: 1365 × 2001 × 90 mm
Purchased 1983

Display caption

Miró’s painting-poems combine painted and written elements. This work was built around the first line of an erotic poem, balancing words and signs. The two touching triangles represent a woman in Miró’s language of signs, and the bulbous outline with hairs relates to his usual sign for the female sex. The word ‘negress’, the female form of ‘negro’, was commonly used in French and English in this period. It is now acknowledged as highly offensive. The star appears only as a word, although the ladder alludes to the desire to reach for the stars. This exemplifies Miró’s ability to combine simple imagery with ancient symbolism and make contact with deeply held instincts.

Gallery label, April 2021

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Catalogue entry

Joan Miró 1893-1983

T03690 A Star Caresses the Breast of a Negress (Painting-Poem) 1938

Oil on canvas 1295 x 1943 (51 x 76 1/2)
Inscribed ‘miró' b.l., ‘une étoile | caresse le sein d'une | negresse' t.l. and ‘JOAN MIRÓ | peinture-poème. | IV-938' on back of canvas t.l.
Purchased from Pierre Matisse Gallery, New York (Grant-in-Aid) 1983
Prov: Acquired by the Pierre Matisse Gallery from the artist by 1941
Exh: Joan Miró, Museum of Modern Art, New York, Nov. 1941-Jan. 1942 (no number, repr. p.74, as ‘Painting-poem'), exhibition travelled to Smith College, Vassar College, Portland Art Museum, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Feb.-June 1942; Joan Miró, Museum of Modern Art, New York, March-May 1959, County Museum, Los Angeles, June-July 1959 (70 as ‘Painting-poem - Une étoile caresse le sein d'une négresse'); Kunsthaus, Zürich, Oct.-Dec. 1964 (no cat.); Joan Miró Exhibition - Japan, National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, Aug.-Oct. 1966, National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto, Oct.-Nov. 1966, (59, repr. in col.); Joan Miró, Haus der Kunst, Munich, March-May 1969 (53, repr., as ‘Ein Stern liebkost den Busen einer Negerin'); Joan Miró, Grand Palais, Paris, May-Oct. 1974 (55, repr. pp.54 and 123, as ‘Une étoile caresse le sein d'une négresse'); Joan Miró, Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Humlebaek, Nov. 1974-Jan. 1975 (28, repr., as ‘Une étoile caresse le sein d'une négresse'); Spagna/avantguardia artistica e realtà sociale 1936-1976, Spanish Pavilion, XXXVII Biennale, Venice, July-Oct. 1976 (no number, listed p.183 as ‘Une étoile caresse le sein d'une négresse'); Le Surréalisme 1922-1942, Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris, June-Sept. 1977 (318, repr. as ‘Une étoile caresse le sein d'une négresse'); Dada and Surrealism Reviewed, Hayward Gallery, Jan.-March 1978 (12.100, repr., as ‘Une étoile caresse le sein d'une négresse'); Antologica Joan Miró, Museo Español de Arte Contempor neo, Madrid, May-July 1978 (38, as Una estrella acaricia el seno de una negra'); Miró: Selected Paintings, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C., March-June 1980, Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, June-Aug. 1980, (29, repr. in col., as ‘Une étoile caresse le sein d'une négresse, A Star Caresses the Breast of a Black Woman'); Cuatro Maestros Modernos: De Chirico, Ernst, Magritte, Miró, organised by the International Council of the Museum of Modern Art, New York, exhibition travelled to Museo de Arte de Sao Paulo, May-July 1981, (no number, as ‘Uma estrela acaricia o peito de uma mulher negra'), as Cuatro Maestros Modernos: De Chirico, Ernst, Magritte, Miró, Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, Buenos Aires, July-Sept. 1981, Museo de Bellas Artes de Caracas, Sept.-Nov. 1981, (50, as ‘Una estrella acaricia el seno de una negra'), and as Four Modern Masters: De Chirico, Ernst, Magritte and Miró, Glenbow Museum, Calgary, Nov. 1981-Jan. 1982, (no number, as ‘Une étoile caresse le sein d'une négresse, A Star Caresses the Breast of a Black Woman'); Miró in America, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, April-June 1982 (20, repr. in col., as ‘A Star Caresses the Breast of a Black Woman'); Miró's People, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh, Aug.-Oct. 1982 (24, repr. in col., as ‘Picture-poem'); Joan Miró, Kunsthaus, Zürich, Nov. 1986-Feb. 1987 (118, repr. in col., as ‘Une étoile caresse le sein d'une négresse'); Surrealism in the Tate Gallery Collection, Tate Gallery Liverpool, May 1988-March 1989, (no number, repr. p.44 in col.)
Lit: James Johnson Sweeney, Joan Miró, Museum of Modern Art, New York 1941, p.72, repr. p.74 as ‘Painting-poem'; Alexandre Cirici-Pellicer, Miró y la Imaginación, Barcelona 1949, p.37, repr. pl.51 as ‘Poema pictórico'; James Thrall Soby, Joan Miró, Museum of Modern Art, New York 1959, pp.96-8, repr. p.97 as ‘Painting-poem'; Jacques Dupin, Joan Miró: Life and Work, 1962, p.307, repr. no.496 as ‘A Star Caresses the Breast of a Negress' with alternative title ‘Picture-poem'; Roland Penrose, Miró, 1970, p.91 and p.185, repr. fig.65, as ‘Une étoile caresse le sein d'une négresse'; Four Modern Masters: De Chirico, Ernst, Magritte and Miró, exh. cat., Glenbow Museum, Calgary 1981, pp.114-115, repr. in col., as ‘Une étoile caresse le sein d'une négresse (A Star Caresses the Breast of a Black Woman)'; Rosa Maria Malet, Joan Miró, Stuttgart 1984, p.17, col. pl.50, as ‘Ein Stern liebkost den Busen einer Negerin'; Tate Gallery Report 1982-4, 1984, p.49, repr. in col. Also repr: Tate Gallery Report 1982-4, 1986, p.49, repr. in col.

From the time of its first exhibition until the early 1960s, this work was known as ‘Painting-poem' in accordance with the artist's inscription on the back of the canvas. However, in his major study on the work on Miró published in 1962, Jacques Dupin gave the inscription on the front of the canvas as the first of two alternative titles. Thereafter the painting has been known in almost all subsequent publications by its current distinctive title. In a letter to the compiler dated 4 November 1987 Dupin explained, ‘When I wrote my book on Miró, and the catalog of his paintings, I worked in close collaboration with Miró, who has, therefore, approved the texts in the catalog. As far as the painting ‘Une étoile ...' is concerned, it has been decided, as for all the ‘peinture-poèmes' to use the sentence written on the painting as a title'.

Evidence of Miró's approach to the titling of his works can be found in a letter he wrote in October 1934 to Pierre Matisse, his dealer in New York. Here Miró explained that he favoured ‘unpretentious and ordinary' titles in order to avoid appearing to be allied to either of the two main tendencies in contemporary art, Surrealism and abstraction. He wrote that, having broken with the Surrealists some years previously, he wanted to avoid the literary titles, full of complex allusions, favoured by André Breton and his circle. At the same time, he disliked non-descriptive titles such as ‘Composition'. He wanted people to realise that, however abstract some of his works appeared, they were all based on some aspect of the material world (quoted in Margit Rowell (ed.), Joan Miró: Selected Writings and Interviews, 1987, p.124). It is possible that Miró's original choice of the plain title ‘Peinture-poème' reflected his reluctance in the mid-1930s to use overly complex titles.

The inscription on the canvas is the first line of a poem which Margit Rowell has translated from the French, always Miró's preferred language of poetic expression, as follows:

A star fondles a black woman's breast
a snail licks a thousand tits
gushing the pope-king's blue piss
so be it (ibid., p.138).

In selecting the first line to use as the inscription of T03690 Miró clearly chose the most mellifluous and gentle image in what is otherwise an overtly sexual poem. Dated 25 November 1936, the poem was the first entry in a private notebook which Miró filled with writings, drawings and notes over the following three years. This was a difficult period in Miró's life. When he wrote the poem and began the notebook, he was living in the cramped quarters of a hotel room in Paris, with no studio other than a room lent to him by a friend. He was uncertain as to when he would be able to return to Spain, then racked by the Civil War, and was anxiously awaiting news of whether his wife and daughter would be able to leave Spain and join him. In these years he painted works which in their ever darker and more savage imagery expressed his horror at the events of the day. As this notebook reveals, he also returned to the path of poetic expression he had abandoned in the late 1920s. Margit Rowell suggests that his poetry served as a diversion and substitute for some of the painting he was unable to do through a lack of material facilities (ibid., p.135). For other examples of Miró's poetic writings in this period see Fundació Joan Miró, Obra de Joan Miró, Barcelona 1988, pp.189-203.

As the following passage from a letter to Pierre Matisse written in December 1936 makes clear, Miró saw a spiritual value in his poetic writings and entertained the idea of publishing them:

I am also writing some poems in French, or rather some poetic texts that are conceived simultaneously with the pictorial ideas that go along with them - as the Japanese and Chinese masters used to do in the past - those great lords of the spirit. I am working on the layout of this book as though it were an art object; it is thus a kind of poetry art or art poetry, which could be of considerable interest. It is the expression of man's mind that counts, the baring of his soul. Alas, these are two things that are fatally lacking today, when all human thought grovels in the most disgusting filth (ibid., p.134).

The book project never came to fruition, but from this period date a number of drawing-poems. In these, texts are accompanied by drawings, or else, linked together and spread across the page, the words themselves form the image. By late 1938, if not before, Miró had come to think of his poems in relation to his ‘painting-poems' of the mid-1920s. In the last few pages of the notebook he wrote in note form, ‘reproduce paintings with very poetic titles. parallel between poetry and painting like that between music and poetry' (ibid., p.135). T03690, however, was the only ‘painting-poem' of the immediate pre-War years, a rare effervescence of the artist's interest in the idea of the equivalence of visual and verbal imagery that had fueled his earlier series of ‘painting-poems' of c. 1925.

In ‘A Star Caresses the Breast of a Negress' Miró has sought to suggest an equivalence between painting and poetry in the subtle echoing of the formal and syntactic structures of the visual and verbal elements of the imagery. The accents of colour (red, yellow and white) which have been painted on top of the black ground create a pictorial rhythm across the surface of the canvas. In a sense, this can be seen as echoing the strong linking of the three images of the poetic phrase (star, breast and negress) by the rhyming assonance of the repeated syllable (‘caresse', ‘négresse') and the combinatory force of the preposition ‘of' and the verb. Whereas much surrealist poetry is dominated by a strong sense of a forward progression within a sequence of dramatic and heteroclite images, it is typical of Miró's poetic inscriptions that here the verb ‘caresse' suggests a more or less static relationship between the subject and object of the phrase. In this sense, the verb and the preposition function like the neutral black ground linking the separate elements of the visual image. The poetic phrase can be seen as combining grammatical correctness with a surrealist defiance of what is logical and possible in much the same manner as Miró's hieroglyphics wed simple visual shapes to a potentially vast realm of surprising and illogical meanings.

The identity of some elements of the imagery in T03690 is unclear. Miró often developed ideas for his work in a sequence of drawings in which he successively simplified a motif to the point where its original identity was literally lost from sight and new meanings or associations suggested by the image were pursued. Without clues from any preparatory drawings, the meaning of some of the mysterious elements in this painting remains uncertain. Recognisable, however, is the ladder on the right hand side of the painting. Constructed with lines and dots reminiscent of charts of constellations (a motif repeated in the ‘Constellations' series of gouaches of 1940-41), in Miró's work the ladder symbolised hope and the man's desire to ‘reach for the stars'. One of the earliest appearances of the ladder motif was in ‘Dog Barking at the Moon', 1926 (Philadelphia Museum of Art, repr. Dupin 1962, no.177), a painting which also has a black background suggestive of night-time. The two touching triangles are Miró's sign for a woman, an image he had derived from prehistoric cave painting (see S. Stich, Joan Miró: The Development of a Sign Language, exh. cat., Washington University Gallery of Art, St. Louis 1980, p.48). The outline's bulbous form with sprouting ‘hairs' is reminiscent of Miró's sign for the female sex. In echo of primitive, and, again, prehistoric art, Miró almost invariably included in his representations of the human figure clear indications of sexual attributes.

These themes are echoed in the text in the painting. The connotations of sexuality and procreation found in Miró's sign for the female sex, for example are also suggested in the word ‘breast' (‘sex' replaces ‘breast' in a similar phrase Miró used as the title of a work in the ‘Constellations' series, ‘The Rose Dusk Caresses the Sex of Women and of Birds', 1941, repr. Dupin 1962, no.559). Used to represent paths of contact between the self and the external world, the sexual organs and bodily orifices depicted in this painting can be seen as the physical equivalents of the yearning for contact with cosmological forces expressed in the image of the ladder. In fact, the hope symbolised by the ladder appears to be answered by the message of the text: the star, symbol of cosmic forces, is exercising a gentle and benevolent power over mankind.

Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1984-86: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions Including Supplement to Catalogue of Acquisitions 1982-84, Tate Gallery, London 1988, pp.533-6

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