By the time he reached his 70s, Joan Miró had become—with Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse—a pillar of modern art whose paintings graced the walls of modern museums. But he was also a contemporary artist who never stopped innovating. A small man with thin white hair and the palest of gray eyes, Miró dressed like a salesman, but his bourgeois demeanor hid a penchant for artistic shock. In his celebrated 1923-24 painting The Hunter (Catalan Landscape), for example, the hunter is a stick figure with whiskers, upturned mustache and flaming pipe. After a blink or two of surprise, an observer notices that the hunter is urinating on the ground.
When I interviewed him on his 85th birthday in 1978 on the Spanish island of Majorca, his studio was strewn with unfinished paintings strikingly different from anything he’d done before. The new work was filled with reds, yellows, blues and greens. But despite the exhilarating colors, his women were all grotesque. When I asked him why he made his women look so ugly, Miró clicked his tongue and punched the air. “Evil,” he said, referring to himself with a mischievous grin.
Though he led an ostensibly sedate life, dynamic currents obviously coursed through him. “I live like a normal citizen,” he told me. “But there is a Catalan saying that the procession marches inside you. What happens is inside.” He chuckled impishly and waved an open hand near his chest. “Inside,” he said. “Whew!”
Like his older friend Picasso, Miró, who was born in Barcelona in 1893, left Spain as a young man to join the group of writers and artists who made Paris the center of the western cultural world in the early 20th century. In addition to Picasso, the circle included Ernest Hemingway and Salvador Dalí, and French writers Louis Aragon and André Breton. For a number of years in the 1930s, Miró associated with Breton’s Surrealist movement, and his paintings brimmed with symbols such as whirling stars, cat whiskers, barking dogs and monstrous feet.
Living alone in Paris in the ’20s, Miró sometimes boxed with Hemingway at an American club. “It was rather comical, since I didn’t come up any higher than his belly button,” he told biographer Jacques Dupin in 1977. Though desperately poor, he cut a dashing figure. “Every time I went out I wore a monocle and white spats.”