Joan Miró

Message from a Friend


Not on display

Joan Miró 1893–1983
Original title
Message d'ami
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 2620 × 2755 mm
frame: 2640 × 2775 × 60 mm
Purchased with assistance from funds bequeathed by Miss H.M. Arbuthnot through the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1983

Display caption

Miró believed that ambiguity was essential to the poetic effect of his work. Accordingly, he deliberately left the identity of the shapes in this painting unclear. Soon after its completion he compared the central black shape to both a cloud and a whale. However, preliminary sketches show that the composition was derived from an arrow drawn on an envelope by Alexander Calder, the friend of the title. As one commentator has remarked, the work as a whole became a ‘meditation on communication’.

Gallery label, July 2008

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Catalogue entry

Joan Miró 1893-1983

T03691 Message from a Friend 1964

Oil on canvas 2620 x 2755 (103 1/4 x 108 1/2)
Inscribed ‘JM' b.l. and on back of canvas ‘MIRó', ‘MESSAGE | D'AMI' and ‘12/4/64' t.l.
Purchased from Galerie Maeght, Paris (Grant-in-Aid) with a substantial contribution from funds bequeathed by Miss H.M. Arbuthnot through the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1983
Prov: Bt from the artist by Galerie Maeght, Paris 1964
Exh: XXVe Salon de Mai, Musée d'art moderne de la Ville de Paris, May-June 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, (92, repr. in col., as ‘Message d'amis'); Joan Miró, Grand Palais, Paris, May-Oct. 1974 (81, repr. in col., as ‘Message d'amis'); Joan Miró, Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Humlebaek, Nov. 1974-Jan. 1975 (33, repr. in col., as ‘Message d'amis'); Un Cami Compartit (Miró-Maeght), Galeria Maeght, Barcelona, Dec. 1975-Jan. 1976 (24, repr. in col., as ‘Message d'ami'); Joan Miró Pintura, Museo Español de Arte Contemporaneo, Madrid, May-July 1978 (59, as ‘Mensaje de Amigos'); Joan Miró: Peintures, Sculptures, Dessins, Céramiques 1956-75, Fondation Maeght, Saint-Paul-de-Vence, July-Sept. 1979 (6, repr. in col., as ‘Message d'ami'); Miró Milano: Pittura, Scultura, Ceramica, Disegni, Sobreteixims, Grafica, Castello Sforzesco, Milan, Oct.-Dec. 1981 (no number, as ‘Message d'ami (Messaggio di amico)')
Lit: Yvon Taillandier, ‘Pour une cosmogonie de Miró', XXe Siècle, vol.24, Dec. 1964, pp.107-11 repr. opp. p.25 (col.), as ‘Message d'ami'; Yvon Taillandier, ‘"Message to a Friend", Miró's Journey to Van Gogh Via Calder', in [G. di San Lazzarro (ed.)], Homage to Joan Miró, Special issue of XXe Siècle Review, New York 1972, pp.84-7, repr. p.84, as ‘Message to a Friend'; Tate Gallery Report 1982-4, 1984, p.54, repr. (col.) and on front cover (col.). Also repr: Pere Serra, Miró and Mallorca, New York 1986 repr. fig. 203 (col.), as ‘Friend's Message'

Miró exhibited ‘Message from a Friend' at the Salon de Mai in 1964 in response to a request of the exhibition organiser, Jacqueline Selz, to contribute to the Salon's twenty-fifth anniversary celebrations. Shortly afterwards he was interviewed by a French writer, Yvon Taillandier, who in 1964 and 1972 published two separate accounts of their conversation about this painting.

According to Taillandier's first article, published in December 1964, the identity of the mysterious black form was the main theme of the two men's conversation. Miró began by mentioning that friends of his had seen the central dark shape of the painting as a cloud and a whale. If this large, irregularly rounded shape could be a cloud or a whale, the conversation continued, could it not also be interpreted as a bird or perhaps a strange form of future humanity? According to his account of their discussion, Taillandier then suggested that the lower projection of the dark shape was some sort of composite ‘head/foot', claiming that the three ‘hairs' on the ‘foot' of the central form were normally Miró's sign for a head. Then he suggested that the three lines might be spouts of water from the ‘whale'. Miró himself suggested that the black horizontal form at the base of the picture might be a mountain ‘devouring' the ‘cloud', or the sea-bed ‘trapping' the ‘whale' and thereby depriving it of the air it needed to breathe.

On the basis of this comment Taillandier felt that the painting was tragic in mood. ‘That death is evoked in Message from a Friend - a title which thus appears to be tragically ironic - appears to me certain' (Taillandier 1964, p.110). An indication of something more hopeful, however, then emerged from the conversation. Miró had suggested that the discs to the right of the central shape were emissions from the dying ‘whale'; but he then decided that they were, in fact, stars. This led Taillandier to conclude that the essential message of the painting was that, ‘humanity could die, but would not die out completely. A part of it would survive to fly off to the stars' (Taillandier 1964, p.111).

Miró always welcomed the fact that his imagery was open to multiple interpretation and he seems to have willingly joined his friend in this game of free association, so beloved of the Surrealists. In the course of their meeting, however, Miró also revealed to the writer the source of the image; but Taillandier did not disclose this until much later.

In a second article published in 1972, Taillandier reproduced a series of illustrations which document the genesis of the central black shape of the painting (repr. Taillandier 1972, pp.86-7). This series shows that the source of the image lies in a large upward-sweeping arrow painted on the envelope of a letter postmarked 25 November 1958 sent to Miró from America by Alexander Calder. The contents of the letter from Calder, a sculptor and longstanding friend of Miró, were never discussed with Taillandier: it seems they were irrelevant to the development of the imagery of the painting: Miró's eye had simply been caught by the flourish of Calder's arrow. However, the friendship Miró felt for Calder, whom he had first met in Paris in the late 1920s, was probably not irrelevant to his choice of this particular motif. In 1960, in response to a request by Perls Gallery, New York, to write about Calder, Miró wrote a poem showing great affection for his friend:

My old Sandy, this burly man with the
soul of a nightingale who blows on mobiles
this nightingale who makes his nest
in his mobiles
these mobiles scraping the bark
of the orange-coloured
where my great friend Sandy lives
(reprinted in [Margit Rowell (ed.)], Joan Miró: Selected Writings and Interviews, 1986, p.255).

The transformation of Calder's arrow began shortly after Miró received the letter. On a scrap of cardboard bearing the date 7 December 1958, Miró drew an upward-pointing, bulbous arrow, bisected near the base by a rectangle. To the right is a rounded scribble which echoes the placement of the postage stamps on Calder's envelope. To the left is a circle with three ‘eyelash' or ‘hair' lines. This was perhaps the source, not revealed in his first article, of Taillandier's interpretation of the lower portion of the dark shape as a ‘head' as well as a ‘foot'. In a second drawing on the same piece of cardboard, two circles hang from the forked base of the arrow in a manner suggestive of a pince-nez. In a third drawing, also dated 7 December 1958, but this time sketched on an envelope, Miró drew a large arrow form surrounded by four indeterminate scribbles. Five days later, on the back of a letter, Miró again drew four seemingly scribbled lines, though in one, at the bottom of the group, there is a hint of the forked arrow shape. At the top of this piece of paper Miró wrote ‘3 messages d'ami I/II/III', suggesting that at this point he envisaged making three pictures with the same title, or three variations of the same theme. The next drawing in the sequence, dated 11 December 1963 (that is, five years after the first), begins to foreshadow the final image. On a sheet torn from a diary, Miró drew the outline of a form which, with its bulbous body and downward-pointing forked tail, resembles a whale. This drawing he labelled simply ‘message'.

Taillandier included in this sequence a further drawing, again on the back of a letter, but this one may not have been a preparatory sketch. In it the ‘whale' shape floats above a hollow in the horizon line. The forked ‘tail' has become a two-pronged extension, similar to the heel and ball of a foot, linked to the main body of the form by a narrow ‘neck' or ‘ankle'. It is dated 29 April 1964, that is, seventeen days after the date inscribed on the back of T03691. If this date is correct, the drawing may have been a note of an ancilliary idea which sprang from the process of painting ‘A Message From A Friend'. It is known that a small gouache (Collection Jacqueline Selz, repr. Taillandier 1972, p.84 in col. as ‘Message to a Friend') records an intermediate stage of the development of the painting. The gouache closely resembles the completed work, but the central black form is more curvilinear (Miró likened it to a cello) and the arrangement of the red, yellow and blue colours in the lower right of the painting is different from that of the finished image.

These drawings demonstrate how Miró used sketches both as aide-mémoire and sources of inspiration in their own right. The ambiguous identity of the shapes shown in these sketches suggests that, over the course of the six year gestation of the theme, the artist had entertained, at least occasionally, thoughts of whales and clouds, although the ambiguous shapes of the final painting escape precise identification. In the light of what is know about Miró's sign language, however, it is possible that the three ‘hair' lines represent the female sex and, more generally, that the large central shape should be seen as overtly phallic. Miró may not have discussed the sexual connotations of his imagery with Taillandier, but this, of course, does not mean that these were irrelevant.

In 1972 Taillandier explained that he had not discussed the sequential development of the imagery in his earlier article because it had seemed to him at the time to be less significant than the poetic multi-valency of the imagery. He claimed it was later experience of ‘postal delivery art' by conceptual artists in the late 1960s that had reminded him of the source of Miró's imagery and had shed new light on the meaning of the work. As he now understood it, the central dark shape in the painting had in a sense completed the adventure of the letter sent to Miró by Calder. Summarising the transformation of the images of the drawings he wrote:

First it was an arrow pointing upwards like a rocket at the moment of launching, the point was blunted, the rocket grew softer and, at one moment, it seemed to explode, but it regained its shape and it had obviously turned round. It is now pointing downwards. It approaches the ground (the penultimate state). It touches it - this is the painting (Taillandier 1972, p.87).

The work as a whole, Taillandier concluded, was a ‘meditation on communication'. The message was truly the medium. Developed from Calder's idiosyncratic symbol for ‘Airmail' and personalised by the artist in a series of ‘messages' to himself on the appropriate media of the backs of envelopes, letters and on a page from a diary, the painting's imagery was a mysterious and multivalent message of no fixed import.

A central aspect of Message From a Friend, not touched upon by Taillandier, is its sheer size. This sprang from Miró's recent experience of mural painting and, more generally, from his admiration for the large canvases of contemporary American abstract painters. Miró had seen the work of artists such as Pollock and Rothko in exhibitions in Europe and, in particular, during his visit to America in 1959. Barbara Rose has written that in this year Miró ‘began to look at the impact of his work on American art and to be fed back in return, gaining confidence to return to his most radically minimum monochrome field paintings and to enlarge a single ideogram to fill a whole field' ([Barbara Rose (ed.)], Miró in America, exh. cat., Museum of Fine Arts, Houston 1982, p.39). Like some American artists, Miró felt that it was possible to create objects of contemplation and meditation in paintings of a grand scale. Following his acquisition of a big studio in Palma in 1955, it became possible for him to work on large format paintings for the first time. No preliminary drawing or underpainting show through, but it is likely that Miró would have painstakingly transferred an enlarged version of his seemingly casually drawn sketches onto the canvas before beginning to paint. Although the canvas is large, Miró chose to work with relatively small paint brushes. Both the painting's size and its small, vigorous brushstrokes were typical of his works of the period.

Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1984-86: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions Including Supplement to Catalogue of Acquisitions 1982-84, Tate Gallery, London 1988, pp.536-8


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