Today separatists in Catalonia are celebrating their win in the regional parliamentary elections – Check it out: http://nyti.ms/1VlCFmd
In the spirit of these celebrations, here’s a post on the Catalan painter Joan Miró, who once said:
“Where I am happiest is in Catalonia, I think the pure Catalan is in Tarragona… All my life has been conceived in Mont-roig, everything I’ve done in Paris has been conceived in Mont-roig… .I don’t feel any kinship with the rest of the Spanish people, I feel Catalan.”
As a native son, the Surrealist painter and sculptor Joan Miró was fiercely proud of his Catalan identity. Like Picasso, who had moved to Catalonia at the age of thirteen, Miró periodically needed to reconnect with the land and its people. The artist had a particular affection for the town of Mont-roig del Camp, in the province of Tarragona.
In 1911, eighteen-year-old Miró was sent to Mont-roig to recover from a dangerous case of typhoid fever. His parents lived in Barcelona, but owned a farmhouse in the small village, a large white house with a tower sheltered by rows of vineyards and olive groves.
The situation at home had been difficult for Miró. His father did not approve of his painting and threatened him with two alternatives – he could either join the church or the army! Miró reluctantly agreed to finish his business studies and was soon pressured to work long hours as an accountant apprentice, leaving him little time to paint.
Somehow Miró did manage to convince his father to let him take an evening class at the Llotja School of Fine Arts in Barcelona. But the stress of his schedule, his fragile health, and the constant family tension over his future left him exhausted and severely depressed. To make matters worse, Miró contracted typhoid fever.
Once he settled in Mont-roig del camp, free to roam the countryside and capture it on canvas, Miró recovered remarkably quickly. A farmer took care of the property with his wife, who soon taught Miró the practical aspects of living away from his parents, such as cooking and making his own bed. He would later paint her portrait in Farmer’s Wife, and her four-year-old child in Portrait of a Little Girl.
Like the sculptor Aristide Maillol, his Catalan contemporary, Miró spent long afternoons sitting in nature, studying “[t]he calligraphy of a tree or a roof, leaf by leaf, twig by twig, blade by blade and tile by tile.” He was fascinated by insects like flies and mosquitoes, which often appear in his works. He believed everything in nature, from the tall carob tree to the snail, had the same relevance and should be recognized.
Growing up, Miró did not show an obvious talent for drawing however. As his friend Sebastia Gasch once described, “[W]hen he was drawing, he gave the impression of suffering horribly: he used to stick his tongue out like a child struggling to write the first letters of the alphabet.” But he was disciplined and hardworking. His teacher at the Galí art school, Francesc d’Assís Galí, encouraged him to trust his imagination.
The artist had a breakthrough when Galí taught him to “see” objects using his hands, a process that involved closing his eyes and feeling the object, then drawing it as he perceived it. In 1912 Miró also joined classes at the Cercle Artístic de Sant Lluc, which had opened up in the famous bar Els Quatre Gats in Barcelona, where Picasso had had his first exhibition in 1900.
Like so many artists, Miró eventually made his way to Paris. He was fortunate to have Picasso, who was fifteen years his elder, take him under his wing. Picasso was helpful to the newcomer in part because Miró was the cousin of his loyal friend and, later, his devoted secretary, Jaume Sabartés. Picasso introduced Miró to his friends and his art dealers, Paul Rosenberg and Henry Kahnweiler. The Cubist master eventually acquired two of Miró’s paintings, which he kept until his death.
In Paris, Miró lived in complete poverty. He later revealed that he used to chew rubber because the exercise of his jaws deceived his hunger pains. According to Miró, he did not need drugs or alcohol because “[H]unger put me in a kind of trance.” He confessed that several of his poetic paintings of the mid-1920s were a product of severe hunger-induced hallucinations.
As his career moved forward, Miró never lost contact with Mont-roig. He would return to the farmhouse in early summer and stay through the autumn harvest, looking for strength and a renewal of energy. He divided his time between painting in his studio, exploring the countryside, and exercising. Although aerobic fitness was not common in those days, Miró could be seen every day on the beach – much to the surprise of the villagers! – running, skipping rope and doing jumping jacks. During the early afternoon hours, he practiced “Mediterranean yoga,” otherwise known as a nap!
In Mont-roig, Miró also began the intense calligraphy painting titled The Farm, in which he tried to include every piece of the landscape around him, “an inventory of the rural world,” as his biographer described.
When Miró was ready to sell it for five thousand francs, the American poet Evan Shipmand and the writer Ernest Hemingway both wanted to purchase it. As Hemingway recalled, “When I first knew Miró, he had very little money and very little to eat, and he worked all day every day for nine months painting a very large and wonderful picture called The Farm.” When Miró was finishing the painting in Paris, he even had a Catalan friend send him grass and herbs from Mont-roig so he could get the details just right.
Shipmand and Hemingway threw a dice to decide who could buy the painting, and Hemingway won. Unfortunately, as Hemingway noted, the cost “was four thousand two hundred and fifty francs more than I had ever paid for a picture.” After making a few regular installments, Hemingway could not come up with the money for the last one.
Never short of imagination and audacity, Hemingway proceeded to go bar to bar begging for money, and taking up loans, until he could take the painting home. Hemingway, who at the time worked as a foreign correspondent for the Toronto Star, kept Miró’s artwork until his death. In 1979, when his wife Hadley passed away, The Farm was donated to the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
In the 1930s, Hemingway visited Miró in Mont-roig. Miró remembered the writer as “warm, friendly, and as poor as me… [To] earn money he worked as a sparring partner for heavyweight boxers… Sometimes I sparred with Hemingway.” Together they climbed the mountain to the hermitage Mare de Deu de la Roca and visited the nearby chapel of Sant Ramon and the abbey of Scala Dei. Miró proudly showed Hemingway the Romanesque frescoes and Catalan sculptures that had made their way onto his paintings. One day, as Hemingway contemplated Miró’s farmhouse, he decided to add a similar tower, on a larger scale, to the home he was building in Havana, Cuba.
Miró soon moved away from his early influences of Fauvism and Cubism to a more poetic style of painting. He embraced Surrealism and its goal of of becoming “an artistic response to the power of dreams and the subconscious.” Miró instisted that all of the shapes in his paintings were derived from real objects, but that they had been interpreted through his subconscious, leaving only, as he described it, the “underlying magic.” In 1925, André Breton, the founder of Surrealism, called Miró “the most Surrealist of us all.”
Just as Picasso had extended a hand to Miró when the artist was beginning his career, Miró turned his attention in 1927 to the work of a young fellow Catalan painter named Salvador Dalí. Miró introduced Dalí to Breton and the group of Surrealists and, soon, hosted dinners in his honor and invited him to watch him box at the gym.
At Dalí’s film premiere of L’Age d’Or, Dalí’s father took Miró aside and inquired about his personal opinion on his son’s potential future as a painter. Miró gave a glowing review of Dalí’s work, much to the delight of the young artist. Dalí had great respect for Miró and his contributions to Surrealism. In 1928, Dalí wrote an article praising Miró in L’Amic̹ de les Arts, a Catalan magazine based in the coastal village of Sitges.
However, “Miró made it plain that he detested the human side of Dalí,” explained his biographer. Dalí’s political views, and his ruthless support for General Franco during the Spanish Civil War, alienated the artist from most of his friends. During his years in power, Franco banned all forms of Catalan expression and tried to suppress the region’s culture and identity, but he succeeded only temporarily.
After the atrocities of the Spanish Civil War and World War II, Miró finally returned to Mont-roig. Now married and the father of a little girl, Dolores, the artist was grateful to return to work and enjoy the peaceful village with his family.
Now an internationally-recognized artist, Miró was in the midst of finishing his famous series of 23 gouaches titled Constellations. Considered one of his greatest achievements, the series was inspired by his desire to escape all the war atrocities going on in Europe at the time. “I shut myself deliberately,” Miró stated, “The night, music and the stars began to play a role in my painting.”
As he walked on the beach in Mont-roig, “where…the human and sheep’s footprints look like constellations,” Miró drew women, birds, and the moon in the sand with a stick – subjects that dominated his paintings until the very end – realizing once more, “All my work was conceived in Mont-roig…”
Mink, Janis. (2006). Miró. Köln, Germany: Editions Taschen.
Permanyer, Lluis. (2003). Miró: The life of a passion. Translated by Paul Martin. Barcelona, Spain: Edicions de 1984.