Mischief Maker

A new exhibit showcases the neglected, playful sculptures of artist Joan Miró

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.”

He married Pilar Juncosa, the daughter of family friends from the island of Majorca, in 1929, calling her “the most beautiful and sweetest bride in the world.” They had one child, a daughter, Maria Dolores, and the couple lived together until his death in 1983 at the age of 90. Pilar died in 1995; Maria Dolores still lives in Majorca.

The Spanish Civil War and World War II induced a deep pessimism in Miró. His spirits lifted after the wars, when he was living in Majorca, his mother’s original home. In 1956 the architect Josep Lluís Sert, a close friend, designed a spacious studio for him there, and Miró started turning out the exuberant and brilliantly colored paintings and sculptures of his later years.

Since Miró’s death, his later work has been rather neglected, especially in the United States. “After he died,” says Laura Coyle, curator of European Art at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, “art historians and curators took over, and they cared only about his early work.” Coyle wanted to redress the imbalance by organizing, with William Jeffett, curator of exhibitions at the SalvadorDalíMuseum in St. Petersburg, Florida, a rare exhibition of the whimsical, sly, brightly painted sculptures of Miró’s later years. “We looked for four years and could not find a single painted sculpture by Miró in a public American museum,” she says.

Having completed its run at the Corcoran, the show, “The Shape of Color: Joan Miró’s Painted Sculpture,” is at the Dalí museum through May 4. Though it comprises only a dozen sculptures and a pair of models for his monumental structures, it is amplified by photographs and drawings from Miró’s notebooks. Some visitors may feel hoodwinked; Miró’s sketches for sculptures look deceptively like doodles, and the finished pieces look as if Miró had collected a bunch of odd objects, glued them together, then painted them in bright colors. In fact, Miró loved to collect junk and oddshaped stones for his sculptures. But as his lifelong friend Joan Prats, a Barcelona publisher and art collector, once noted, “When I pick up a stone, it’s a stone; when Miró picks up a stone, it’s a Miró.” And while the wonderful colors cloak the sculptures in airy lightness, heavy bronze lies beneath.

Miró would assemble objects on the floor, without gluing them together, and photograph them. (He would sometimes alter the images on the photo with a ballpoint pen.) Then he’d take the objects to a foundry for casting into a bronze sculpture, using the photos and drawings as guides. Most sculptors revel in the patina and solidity of bronze, especially for use in monuments and memorials, and Miró made several such bronzes earlier in his career. But in 1967, he began painting his new bronzes.

Though he usually did the painting himself, in 1971 he sent several unpainted bronze sculptures to the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis along with several cans of paint and explicit instructions on how to apply it. Dean Swanson, the museum curator, did not touch brush to paint until he received written confirmation from Pierre Matisse, Miró’s American agent, that it was all right to do so. (Once they got the go-ahead, the Walker staff reveled in completing the work and took pictures of one another painting the pieces.)

Why would Miró cast something in costly, heavy bronze if he intended to paint it? It makes no sense. But that may be the point. “It’s quite a joke to find out that there is bronze underneath,” says Coyle. Jeffett agrees. “It’s slightly subversive of our traditional way of looking at bronze, which is generally associated with memorials to dead people,” he says. “He is trying to give bronze another dimension, a very lively one. He is trying to show it is not a dead medium.” Or, as Miró, then 81, told Alexander Calder in 1974, “I am an established painter but a young sculptor.”

Some of the fun of these sculptures comes from their parts. Take the ten-foot-high La caresse d'un oiseau (Caress of a Bird), the tallest painted bronze in the show and one of the most delightful. Miró created a figure of a woman made up mainly of a donkey’s straw hat (with holes for the animal’s ears), a toilet seat from a farm outhouse, and an ironing board; two soccer balls define her buttocks. Miró, whose sketches note that he wanted the woman “decorated in violent colors,” painted her yellow, red and green. A blue bird, cast from a stone and a crescent, sits on her head. Judging by Miró’s notebooks, he had the ironing board and toilet seat in mind long before he went to work on the sculpture.

In the 1970s Miró started preparing models for monumental multicolored sculptures 50 feet or more high, represented in the exhibition by models and photographs. Several such projects were realized—Femme et oiseau (Woman and Bird) in Barcelona, Couple d’amoureux aux jeux de fleurs d’amandier (Lovers Playing among the Almond Flowers) in Paris, and Personnage et oiseaux (Figure and Birds) in Houston—but his plans for a grand structure in three other cities in the United States were thwarted.

From 1971 to 1979, he negotiated with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the city of New York and the Smithsonian Institution’s HirshhornMuseum and SculptureGarden for a monumental sculpture of an abstracted naked woman (see model, p. 102). New York wanted the sculpture for either Central Park or CarlSchurzPark, near the East River. There was a good deal of discussion about material (Miró at first proposed fiberglass and then shifted to more expensive bronze), but in the end, all three cities rejected the project, most likely because of cost, though there is lingering suspicion Miró’s woman might have been too raw for American tastes at the time.

Miró did succeed in 1981 in winning a commission for a less controversial large sculpture. His Personnage et oiseaux (Figure and Birds), a 50-foot abstract naked woman made of steel and bronze, was placed in front of architectI. M. Pei’s ChaseTower in downtown Houston. Miró was too ill to attend the unveiling in 1982. But it was a high society event in Houston with a guest list that included former president Gerald Ford and his wife, Betty, as well as Pei, who told the press: “It was Miró’s mischievous aspect that appealed to me. His work is a celebration of life.”

On the whole, Americans embraced Miró, and he returned their affection. “America has influenced me greatly because of the vitality you have,” he told me. “It has push,” he added, punching his fist in the air. “From the moment his work reached American shores until the day he died nearly six decades later,” Coyle notes in the catalog, “Miró consistently enjoyed more success—sales, exhibitions, favorable reviews, admiration, and emulation—in the United States, and especially in New York City, than anywhere else in the world.” Now, a little-known aspect of his work—his whimsically painted sculptures—make us smile and applaud his impish sense of humor once again.

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