“I think it’s very good that you’ve postponed my show for January of 1935,” wrote Miró to Pierre Matisse, “it’s very important that you also show what I have done this summer-autumn season.
a) large gouaches
b) emery papers, that, however, have nothing to do with the preceding ones
c) large pastels
These pastels are very painted. I intend to fix them very solidly, so don’t worry.
You could do a very diverse show, with very different endeavors that will, I hope, prove to be of great interest. The most recent pastels are, as I have already told you, very painted” (letter from Joan Miró to Pierre Matisse, October 12, 1934, reproduced in Joan Miró, 1893-1993 (exhibition catalogue), Fundació Joan Miró, 1993, p. 305).
Miró’s 1935 exhibition at Pierre Matisse’s gallery was the third dedicated exhibition of the artist’s works at this venue. The centerpiece was Miró’s celebrated painting La Ferme from the collection of Ernest Hemingway, but this stood in complete contrast to the artist’s more recent works, which constituted the bulk of the exhibition. In addition to a series of works of gouache and collage on black paper and another in oil on and collage on sandpaper were the fifteen large pastels, which are generally thought to be the first manifestations of what Miró was to call peinture sauvage. As described by Jacques Dupin: “These are in remarkable contrast to his other works of the same period: the collage paintings on sandpaper for instance, or the gouache drawings. In these pastels Miró abandons his technique of flat painting, his cursive writing, and his predilection for pure colors. He resorts to modeling and makes use of a certain chiaroscuro to create a disturbed anxiety-laden atmosphere. The massive, stylized figures seem to represent elementary organic forms; they suggest bones and such inner organs as the kidney and the liver. They seem as though blown up, suspended in some thick, viscous fluid, and are bathed in a murky light that gives off a nightmarish glow” (J. Dupin, Miró, New York, 1994, pp. 186-87).
In the same letter to Pierre Matisse, Miró insisted that, quite unlike many of his other works of this time (which were untitled or which he invited Matisse to provide names for) he would title this group of works. Marko Daniel and Matthew Gale assert that this, too, was an illustration of the delicate political situation in Spain and these specific works demonstrate Miró’s reaction to it: “The [political] tensions of this moment appear to be captured in his group of large, extraordinarily colored pastels on paper. On 12 October he told Pierre Matisse about these new works: ‘I will give them titles, since they are based on reality.’ The fact that he inscribed almost all of them ‘Octobre 1934’, and ensured that this was specified in the caption when one was published in Barcelona two months later, confirms that this ‘reality’ encompassed the turbulent events on the streets. While they may at first appear child-like in their exaggerated physiognomy, these are violent bodies…. They have the swollen heads of protestors and victims; Miró called them his ‘savage paintings” (M. Daniel & M. Gale, “The Tipping Point: 1934-9” in Joan Miró, The Ladder of Escape (exhibition catalogue), Tate Modern, London; Fundació Joan Miró, Barcelona & National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 2011-12, p. 76).
As works of art in their own right, the series is groundbreaking. The tactile nature of both the support and the medium lends these compositions a striking immediacy. Each figure pushes forward from the support, possessing a totemic quality both rooted in the most ancient aspects of human nature and the immediacy of the present moment. Miró had declared some years prior that he wanted to assassinate painting. Over the course of the decade-long period between 1927 and 1937 he took on this task in a variety of ways, using non-traditional materials as media and supports as well as strong shocks of coloration and purposely distorted bodies. This “anti-painting”, nevertheless, resulted in some of the artist’s best physical paintings, a fitting paradox for what Miró sought to accomplish during these years. Anne Umland asserts that in Figure and other works from the series “…pastel offered Miró options that traditional oil or water-based paints did not: a vast range of readymade colors and tints and a literal dimensionality—a real, physical depth of tone created by light scattering off the irregularly shaped pulverized and pigmented particles trapped in the flocking of the textured papers. Unlike the airy, atmospheric pastels of the Impressionists, who in the nineteenth century aimed to capture ephemeral effects of movement and light, Miró’s works are eerily static. At once humorous and horrifying, seductive and repellent, his protagonists appear frozen, stonelike, even petrified, despite their pneumatically swollen contours, with dense solid limbs, heads, and torsos impregnated with chromatic matter. The engorged, luridly colored anatomies of these creatures… seem to strain out from the picture plane, perpetually suspending them between their world and ours. This effect is enhanced by dramatic directional lighting, implying a light source outside the picture, and by the particular optical character of the pastel, which makes the figures seem to jump from their support” (A. Umland, Joan Miró, Painting and Anti-Painting, 1927-1937 (exhibition catalogue), The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2008-09, pp. 150-52).
Miró’s great friend and fellow Spaniard Pablo Picasso was in these years producing works that veered between disembodied, surreal figures, who appeared to be formed through pieces of bone and other corporeal abstractions, and serene scenes of his young lover Marie-Thérèse resplendently asleep, her Grecian profile held on hands, against shoulders, cupped in the crevices of forearms and supported in the arms of other figures. Just a few years after Figure was created, Miró and Picasso would each create monumental works for the 1937 Spanish Pavilion which spoke to the despair of the Spanish Civil War and the associated rise of Fascism across Europe. Le Faucheur (The Reaper) and Guernica would make an indelible impression; each artist confronting their contemporary reality and foreshadowing the difficulties ahead.
Across the Atlantic a new generation of artist’s was coming into their own. Miró already had a close kinship with Alexander Calder and his influence on young avant-garde artists in the United States was to have a lasting impact on the history of twentieth century art. The Abstract Expressionists looked towards Miró—in technique, coloration and imagery. Miró himself would see their work on a visit to New York in 1947, later recalling the experience as a “blow to the solar plexus.” Pollock, de Kooning, and Rothko amongst others would not only take inspiration from Miró’s work but would in turn inspire Miró, an artistic dialogue that would last for decades.
At the time Figure was created Miró's art reached a pitch of intensity and clarity that was only matched by the great series that followed, The Constellations. It was in the 1930s and early 1940s that Miró’s universe was created and completed, generating new possibilities for the artist himself and his fellow painters across countries and continents.
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