- Joan Miró
- Femme et oiseaux
- signed Miró (lower left); signed Joan Miró, titled and dated Varengeville s/mer 13/IV/1940 on the reverse
- gouache and oil wash on paper
- 38 by 46cm.
- 15 by 18 1/8 in.
Mr & Mrs Lee Ault, New York (acquired from the above in 1946)
Mrs Hildegard Ault Helm (Mrs Rolf Tjeder), East Hampton (acquired from the above by 1958)
Mr & Mrs Jan Mitchell, New York (acquired by 1964)
Mr & Mrs Michael Helm (sold: Sotheby’s, New York, 22nd October 1980, lot 83)
Joseph Wolpe Fine Arts, South Africa (purchased at the above sale)
Gillian M. Menter, Illinois (sold: Sotheby’s, London, 26th June 1984, lot 47)
Private Collection, Europe (purchased at the above sale)
Thomas Ammann Fine Arts, Zurich
Acquired from the above by the present owner in 1987
London, Tate Gallery & Zurich, Kunsthaus, Joan Miró, 1964, no. 170
New York, Acquavella Galleries, Joan Miró, 1972, no. 40, illustrated in colour in the catalogue
Zurich, Kunsthaus & Düsseldorf, Städtische Kunsthalle, Joan Miró, 1986-87, no. 124, illustrated in colour in the catalogue
New York, The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Joan Miró: A Retrospective, 1987, no. 107, illustrated in colour in the catalogue
Madrid, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía; Barcelona, Fundació Joan Miró & New York, The Museum of Modern Art, Joan Miró. Campo de estrellas, 1993-94, no. 67 (in Madrid); no. 179 (in Barcelona); no. 163 (in New York), illustrated in colour in the catalogue
Basel, Fondation Beyeler, Ornament und Abstraktion, 2001, no. 126
Basel, Fondation Beyeler & Washington, D.C., The Phillips Collection, Calder, Miró, 2004-05, no. 123, illustrated in colour in the catalogue
London, Tate Modern; Barcelona, Fundació Joan Miró & Washington, D.C., National Gallery of Art, Joan Miró: The Ladder of Escape, 2011-12, no. 98, illustrated in colour in the catalogue
New York, Acquavella Galleries, Miró: Constellations, 2017
André Breton, Constellations by Joan Miró, New York, 1959, no. 8, illustrated in colour
Jacques Dupin, Joan Miró: Life and Work, New York, 1962, no. 545, illustrated p. 542
Joan Teixidor, 'Constellations', in Gualtieri di San Lazzaro (ed.), Homage to Joan Miró, Special issue of XXe siècle Review, New York, 1972, mentioned p. 41
Marc Rolnik, Miró's Constellations: The Facsimile Edition of 1959, Purchase, New York, 1983, no. 8, listed
Os Mirós de Miró (exhibition catalogue), Fundaçao de Serralves, Porto, 1990, illustrated p. 170
Jacques Dupin & Ariane Lelong-Mainaud, Joan Miró. Catalogue raisonné. Paintings, Paris, 2000, vol. II, no. 635, illustrated p. 238
Femme et oiseaux is the eighth from a series of twenty-three extraordinary works collectively known as Constellations which Miró created between January 1940 and September 1941 and which are now widely considered as the masterpieces of his prolific œuvre. Writing to his New York dealer Pierre Matisse on 4th February 1940 about this group of works Miró confided: 'I am now working on a series of 15 to 20 paintings in tempera and oil, dimensions 38 x 46, which has become very important. I feel that it is one of the most important things I have done, and even though the formats are small, they give the impression of large frescoes. With this series... you could do a very, very fine exhibition. I am planning to work on these paintings, using a very elaborate technique, for about 3 months - making allowance for the fact that fortunately, they will lead me to conceive of other works which I will prepare at the same time.... With the series of 38 x 46 canvases [sic.] I am working on now, I can't even send you the finished ones, since I must have them all in front of me the whole time - to maintain the momentum and the mental state I need in order to do the entire group' (quoted in Margit Rowell (ed.), Joan Miró: Selected Writings and Interviews, Boston, 1986, p. 168).
The first ten Constellations were executed during Miró’s exile in France, where he had lived since 1936, following the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. ‘In mid-1939, when he moved from Paris to Varengeville on the Normandy coast, he found a landscape altogether different from Montroig; yet it too provided Miró with a place in the country where he could work in tranquil seclusion and an environment that would prove propitious to the conception of the Constellations. Miró’s correspondence provides the most vivid account of the atmosphere in which the Constellations were conceived, and of the tumultuous journey that would interrupt their execution. By January 12, 1940, when he wrote to Pierre Matisse from Varengeville, the series was already underway: “I am now doing very elaborate paintings and feel I have reached a high degree of poetry – a product of the concentration made possible by the life we are living here”’ (Lilian Tone, ‘The Journey of Miró’s Constellations’ in MoMA, no. 15, Autumn 1993, p. 1).
In May 1940, only weeks after Miró executed the present work, Germany invaded Paris and the artist fled to Spain. Many years later, in a letter to Roland Penrose from 1969, Miró wrote about his and his family’s dramatic journey through war-torn France: ‘We had to leave Varengeville in a hurry, with the Germans in the area, which had remained largely free from merciless bombings. When we took the train to Paris, in the middle of the allied armies’ collapse, and the middle of bombings, Pilar held the hand of Dolores, who was then a little girl, while I carried under my arm the satchel with a series of already-finished Constellations and the sheets of paper which would be used for the complete series’ (quoted in ibid., p. 2). Barely managing to leave France, Miró finally reached his native Spain, settling in his wife’s town Palma de Mallorca, where he completed the next ten Constellations; the last three would be done at his family home in Montroig in 1941.
Unveiling in America: A Sensation
‘A great stroke of fortune decreed that, shortly after the allied landing, Miró’s “Constellations” comprised the first message relating to art to reach America from Europe since the beginning of the war. It would be impossible to overestimate the depth of the gap that this message filled.’
André Breton, Surrealism and Painting, Boston, 2002, p. 264
It was not until 1944 that Miró started marking arrangements for the Constellations – hidden away until this time – to be shown in public. He wished to exhibit them abroad, and through an intermediary the works came to the attention of Philip L. Goodwin at The Museum of Modern Art in New York, with the artist’s written instructions on how the group of twenty-two Constellations (one having been kept for Miró’s wife) should be exhibited. Although the group of works arrived in the United States as planned in July 1944, The Museum of Modern Art was not prepared to pay for the cost of shipping, and Pierre Matisse, Miró’s New York dealer, took control of the entire group.
Femme et oiseaux and its companion pieces were exhibited at Pierre Matisse's gallery in January-February 1945. Just as Miró had kept them together while he worked on completing the entire series, these works were intended to be seen collectively as 'an uninterrupted network of intimately related signs, each of which can be inferred from the other, that intangible themselves in a constantly renewed rhythm, in an unfailingly sustained tonality that is always of equal density' (Guy Weelen, Miró, New York, 1989, p. 122). Although Pierre Matisse did show all of the twenty-two gouaches over the course of the exhibition, he rotated them so that sixteen of the works would be displayed at any time. The exhibition caused a sensation in the New York art circles and was universally praised. Reviewing the show for the New York Sun, a critic wrote about the Constellations: ‘It is impossible to pick out the best picture in the display because all of the twenty-two pictures are the best’ (quoted in Pierre Matisse and His Artists (exhibition catalogue), The Pierpont Morgan Library, New York, 2002, p. 202).
From the very start Miró had a vision of this group of works as a series in the purest sense of the word – they were all executed on paper from the same block, using the same technique. As his work progressed, the individual elements became more abstract and the compositions increasingly complex. Femme et oiseaux is a mesmerising example of the artist's celebrated lyricism and freedom of expression: Miró enlivened the picture with swirling lines that shape and direct the flow of energy within the composition. The ground has been brushed, scraped, polished, moistened and rubbed, creating the gradated pockets of light and dark that convey the celestial boundlessness in which the objects float. The bold reds and ultramarine blues, along with flickers of yellow and white comets, electrify the surface of the paper, while the great black voids add a spatial depth to the picture plane. Interspersed amidst the crescent moon, suns, comets and stars are the pseudo-sexual amoeboid shapes and fragmented body parts that were often featured in Miró's surrealist paintings of the 1920s. Much like his earlier dream-inspired works, unrelated forms join together in frenzied activity to create this united cosmic vision.
‘Miró consistently used the same painting technique throughout the entire series: oil and gouache washes were splashed and rubbed over the already abraded paper surface, creating a textured ground which was then partially veiled by motifs executed in painstakingly applied gouache. At first sight, the bright solid colors stand out, defining elements like blobs, stars, eyes, and vaginas. Only at a second glance is one able to distinguish the diaphanous personages alluded to by Miró in the titles, silhouetted by sinuous lines interweaving the solid elements. These contouring lines, when passing through a solid element, divide the solid into distinct colors, retaining the continuity of the line. The transparent personages are thus delimited by such lines while the ground is left exposed within them, occasioning a vanishing presence. Through this device, Miró establishes an alternative figure-ground relationship, creating places of shifting ranks within the picture, unlike the traditional configuration in which the figure is rendered visible by contrast to the ground’ (L. Tone, op. cit., p. 4).
Jacques Dupin wrote of the Constellations: ‘Never before has his “touch” been so delicate or so subtle in the sensual animation of pigments. On the moistened paper, sufficiently scraped or “stirred to life” to bring out the texture, the hand engages in patient operations of rubbing, abrading, impregnating, massaging into life variously pigmented, variously somber or transparent gleams over the entire surface, realizing imperceptible transitions from one color to another or blending them in a single misty cloud. The background of the different gouaches are by no means the same, but all have a capacity for setting up vibrancies which create a living space and irresistibly summon up line, form, and pure color’ (J. Dupin, Miró, Paris, 2012, p. 250).
Defying the Destruction
‘Constellations are a sublime expression of the spirit of revolt, understood as unconstrained freedom, and of escape as transcendence of the external world, with its passing human catastrophe.’
Carolyn Lanchner in Joan Miró (exhibition catalogue), The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1993, p. 70
Over the course of almost two years, Miró worked on the Constellations group with a seamless devotion and unrelenting concentration that distracted him from the hostile political climate of war-torn France and later Franco’s Spain. In an extolling text written in 1958, André Breton defined Miró’s creative output as ‘an integral part of the whole resistance movement’. Breton continues: ‘It would seem that an absolutely pure and impervious tensile reflex impelled Miró, at this hour of extreme anguish which encompassed the whole period of production of his “Constellations”, to unfurl the full range of his voice in the fan of all possible charms. So his voice rang out in every direction, not only outside this world but outside time as well, in any direction where it might echo most resoundingly and most enduringly, thus joining the loud chorus of the most inspired voices of all time' (A. Breton, Surrealism and Painting, Boston, 2002, p. 263).
By all accounts, Miró, who was deeply anguished about the political situation in both Spain and France, and profoundly concerned about both countries’ future. He found a much needed escape in his work, and the Constellations, with their otherworldly subject-matter and their meticulous execution, reflect the artist’s complete absorption in the creative process. As his biographer Jacques Dupin commented: ‘There is no slightest hint, when we look at the Constellations, of the shocks and sufferings that Miró, like so many others during the years 1940-1941, was going through. There is no hint in them of what an ordeal it was merely to look on at the relentless progress of the forces of oppression. […] Miró kept right on painting, and the works he produced were his most exquisitely meticulous to date. He had made a decision and he kept to it: to close his eyes to the dark night creeping over civilization; all his energies, keyed to the highest pitch, were concentrated upon the only harmony that remained, the only order that still prevailed, the order and harmony of his inner constellations’ (J. Dupin, Miró, Paris, 2012, p. 248).
Looking back at the time when he painted the Constellations, Miró said in an interview in 1978: ‘I was very pessimistic. I felt that everything was lost. After the Nazi invasion of France and Franco’s victory, I was sure they wouldn’t let me go on painting, that I would only be able to go to the beach and draw in the sand or draw figures with the smoke from my cigarette. When I was painting the Constellations I had the genuine feeling that I was working in secret, but it was a liberation for me in that I ceased thinking about the tragedy all around me. While I was working, my suffering stopped, but the small format made my work difficult… I gave the paintings very poetic titles because that was the line I had chosen to take and because the only thing left for me in the world then was poetry’ (quoted in M. Rowell (ed.), op. cit., pp. 294-295).