PROPERTY FROM A DISTINGUISHED AMERICAN COLLECTION
Writing about Miró's works from 1935-36, Jacques Dupin has commented: ‘The serene works of the years devoted to concentration on plastic concerns and to spiritual control of figures and signs now gave way to a new outburst of subjectivism, to an expressionistic unleashing of instinctual forces. The volcano which for some years now had been quiescent suddenly erupted’ (J. Dupin, Joan Miró: Life and Work, London, 1962, p. 262). For all their explosive power, these works are executed with great care and precision, the fantastical creatures rendered with great attention to detail and control. Miró conveys the intensity and fear that pervaded Europe at this time, but never allows his art to be overwhelmed by it – he remains sure-handed and the master of his imagery.
The present work depicts a Catalan farmer and his wife, surrounded by farm animals in the landscape of Montroig. Miró's love of the countryside dates back to at least 1911 when his father purchased the farmhouse at Montroig that was to play such an important role in his subsequent life and work. His early masterpiece La ferme from 1921-22 (fig. 1) provided a panoramic view of much of the imagery that continued to fascinate him throughout his career. Summarising the significance of this work in 1928, Miró remarked: ‘I came back here again after that exhibit [at La Licorne in Paris] and again Montroig reached out to me with all its light, all its life, and I wanted to capture that whole period that I could see from Montroig and I painted The Farm. Nine months of constant hard work! Nine months of painting every day and wiping it out and making studies and destroying them all. The Farm was a résumé of my entire life in the country. I wanted to put everything I loved about the country into that canvas - from a huge tree to a tiny little snail. I don't think it makes sense to give more importance to a mountain than an ant (but landscape artists just can't see that), and that's why I didn't hesitate to spend hours and hours making the ant come alive’ (quoted in Francesc Trabal, ‘A Conversation with Joan Miró’, in La Publicitat, 14th July 1928, reprinted in Margit Rowell (ed.), Joan Miró, Selected Writings and Interviews, Boston, 1986, p. 93).
La ferme is imbued with a sense of magic realism achieved through a flattening of planes, and the simplification and reduction of forms to symbols which are precisely delineated and illuminated by an ethereal light. These conceptual and stylistic innovations progress towards a greater sense of fantasy and abstraction in La terre labourée (The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; fig. 2) and Paysage catalan (Le chasseur) (The Museum of Modern Art, New York), both from 1923-24, to their most distilled form in the present composition, Le fermier et son épouse. In this remarkable work, the artist abandons half-tones and earthy hues in favour of a searing palette of primary colours: spectacularly bright reds and yellow play against cool blues and severe contrasts of blacks. Certain aspects of the bodies are composed of inflated limbs that convey an insistent sense of corporeality and mass, while other parts of the body, particularly in the male figure, become a transparent framework of coloured lines, suspended against the blinding-yellow sky like a multi-coloured mobile. In the foreground is the image of the rooster, a symbol of strength and aggression standing by and perhaps protecting the egg that appears on the verge of hatching. A few years later in Varengeville-sur-Mer, the artist would make the Rooster the sole subject of a related composition in gouache (fig. 3).
In theme and style, Le fermier et son épouse is closely related to the series of oil paintings on copper as well as to a group of works in tempera on masonite, executed between October 1935 and May 1936 at Montroig and Barcelona, all of them in small format (fig. 4). In the present work, however, the artist transforms their strident imagery and frequently acid colouring through the use of a different medium, gouache on board. Carolyn Lanchner has pointed out how, throughout his career, ‘Miró sometimes set himself the task of addressing one problem of expression in the material terms previously used to address another. Instances of these non-parallel parallelisms can be found in such series as the Ingres-paper oils of 1930-31, as contrasted with the Constellations of 1940-41; within the group of thirteen cardboards of 1935; and in the differences and similarities between the 1935 cardboard sequence and the masonite series of 1936’ (C. Lanchner, Joan Miró (exhibition catalogue), The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1993, p. 65). Within the latter group, the slick surfaces and heightened colour of the works executed in oil on copper contrast dramatically with the dry, matt surface of the temperas.
In the oils and temperas of the late 1930s, references to the increasing instability of the world political situation are oblique but nonetheless present. Miró's painting and art at this time reached a pitch of intensity and clarity that was only matched by the great series that followed, The Constellations. While the context under which these great works were painted is long gone, their power remains undiminished.
The first known owner of the present work was the German-American art expert Ludwig Charell, who also owned a major collection of works by Toulouse-Lautrec. For many decades Le fermier et son épouse was in the collection of the great American film director Billy Wilder (1906-2002). Wilder put together one of the largest and most impressive art collections in Hollywood, which included works ranging from Impressionist paintings to Picasso and Calder, as well as Japanese and Chinese objects. The present work was not seen in public until 1989, when Billy Wilder’s collection was sold at auction in New York.
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