Galerie Berggruen, Paris
Acquavella Galleries, Inc., New York
Private Collection, USA (acquired from the above. Sold: Christie’s, New York, 3rd November 2010, lot 25)
Purchased at the above sale by the present owner
Paris, Galeries Nationals du Grand Palais, Joan Miró, 1974, no. 56, illustrated in the catalogue
New York, The Museum of Modern Art, Joan Miró, 1993-94, no. 150, illustrated in colour in the catalogue
Jacques Dupin & Ariane Lelong-Mainaud, Joan Miró Catalogue Raisonné. Paintings, 2000, vol. II, no. 604, illustrated in colour p. 213
Painted in 1938, Peinture (L’Air) is populated by playful creatures and animate shapes painted in bold primary tones and resonating with vibrant energy. Elements of the composition recall the small-scale works on copper and Masonite that Miró painted in 1935-36 (fig. 1). However, these desert-like or volcanic landscapes inhabited by curious, oneiric forms are chaotic and filled with an oppressive intensity that is very different from the atmosphere of the present work. In Peinture (L’Air) the figures have been liberated from the oppressions of the terrestrial realm and given the freedom of the sky.
The composition perhaps offers insight into Miró’s own state of mind. He was able to write in a letter to Pierre Matisse in 1938: ‘The situation in Spain is very agonizing, but far from being desperate; we have the firm hope that some event will take place to tip the balance in our favour’ (letter to Pierre Matisse, 7th April 1938, in Margit Rowell, Joan Miró. Selected Writings and Interviews, Boston, 1992, p. 159). It could also be seen as part of his own contribution – limited by his exile in France – to the Spanish struggles. The palette is restricted to the red, yellow and blue of the Estelada – the Catalan flag of independence. They are colours that appear repeatedly during this period, notably in the design he produced in 1937 for a stamp that is now known as Aidez L’Espagne as well as other major works from this time. The idea for Peinture (L’Air) originated in 1937 with a gouache titled L’été that Miró intended as illustration for the magazine Verve, edited by E. Tériade. The resulting image culminated in 1938 with the present oil, on of the most striking paintings Miró created that year.
1938 was the year that saw the height of his engagement with political themes. He was commissioned to produce a large panel for the Spanish Pavilion at the 1937 World Fair and responded with the monumental Le Faucheur (The Reaper), known also as Catalan Peasant in Revolt (fig. 4) which was shown alongside Picasso’s Guernica (fig. 3) and constitutes Miró’s own, distinctive plea on behalf of his people. Over the following year his work shifts between different moods – many of the works have an ominous, anxious atmosphere whilst others seem open to the optimism that pervades the present work. In 1939 Miró clarified the relationship between his art and life, writing that: ‘The outer world, the world of contemporary events, always has an influence on the painter […]. If the interplay of lines and colours does not expose the inner drama of the creator, then it is nothing more than bourgeois entertainment. The forms expressed by an individual who is part of society must reveal the movement of a soul trying to escape the reality of the present, which is particularly ignoble today, in order to approach new realities, to offer other men the possibility of rising above the present’ (J. Miró, ‘Statement’, in Cahiers d’Art, Paris, April-May 1939).
Yet the political context of works such as Peinture (L’Air) should not obscure their formal inventiveness. As Jacques Dupin observed: ‘The paintings of 1938 will demand a rigorous control of form, economy of means, and research into colour intensities, all of which imply extreme spiritual concentration. [The work] is dominated and as though surmounted by a spirit of grandeur, by concern for plastic and colour values alike which is so successfully realised as to transcend the original affective content’ (J. Dupin, Joan Miró. Life and Work, London, 1962, p. 300). The composition of Peinture (L’Air) is rigorously organised; the lower half of the painting is firmly grounded, framing the blue sky above, whilst the floating elements appear subject to a centrifugal force that provides much of the work’s energy. Miró skilfully uses the distribution of colour across the canvas – and particularly the red pigment – as a means of further harmonising the separate elements. It is worth noting that an ‘air’ is both an atmosphere or mood and a musical composition. As Dupin writes, works such as this offer, ‘a glimpse of what his mature style will be – a style based on a restricted number of pure colours applied in flat areas, whose richness and power spring only from vigorous contrasts, from the rightness of the layout, and from an extraordinary rhythmic disposition: a style based on the increasing simplification of flat forms in process of being transmuted into signs’ (ibid., p. 310).
In this respect Peinture (L’Air) clearly shows Miró moving in the direction of his celebrated series of Constellations (fig. 5), begun two years later in 1940. Looking back on these works Miró described his mood in 1939: ‘a new stage in my work began which had its source in music and nature. It was about the time that the war broke out. I felt a deep desire to escape. I closed myself within myself purposely. The night, music, and the stars began to play a major role in suggesting my paintings’ (quoted in James Johnson Sweeney, ‘Joan Miró: Comment and Interview’, in Partisan Review, no. 2, February 1948, p. 210). All of these elements can be found in Peinture (L’Air), although unlike the Constellations it still belongs to a period of direct engagement with outside affairs.
Like so much of his other work, Peinture (L’Air) does not directly confront the politics of the day, instead it speaks to the artist’s own perception and emotion. In this case Miró harnesses the full powers of his distinctive artistic vision to create a work that wholly embodies what Dupin described as a ‘renunciation of despair’ (J. Dupin, op. cit., London, 1962, p. 302) in a celebration of colour and form.
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