The Catalan artist

The Catalan artist

One of Spain's wealthiest and most productive regions, Catalonia, has been in the news recently. While the region has its own distinct history, language, parliament, flag and anthem, the constitutional tension between the local Catalan administration and the central Spanish government has been festering for long. It came to head when, on October 20, the Catalan regional parliament voted to declare independence from Spain, even as the Spanish parliament approved imposing of direct rule over the region. Earlier, the so-called referendum to create a sovereign republic was marred by violence; the high drama in the region continues unabated.

Joan Miró (1893-1983) hailed from Catalonia, and along with Pablo Picasso (1881 -1973) and Salvador Dali (1904 -1989) was among the most celebrated artists of the 20th century. Born in Barcelona, the capital and the largest city of the autonomous community of Catalonia,  Miró trained to be an accountant but also enrolled at the Academy of Fine Art much against his father's wishes. He eventually gave up any interest in accountancy and held his first solo show of paintings in 1918. Two years later, he took the crucial decision of moving to Paris. Over the next few years, he was constantly shuttling between the French capital and his family farm in Catalonia; this routine was to be disturbed by the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936.

A Paris meeting

When he went to Paris in 1920, Miró called on Picasso that resulted in a long-lasting friendship between the two artists. Picasso introduced Miró to dealers, collectors and the radical artistic society of Paris, and even declared that their work had things in common because "we inhabit the same world." While he admired Picasso as "a very fine, very sensitive, and great painter," Miró also found that "a visit to Picasso's studio was like visiting a ballerina with a number of lovers… Everything is done for his dealer, for the money."  

In the mid-1920s, Miró was in the heartland of the Surrealists which included the likes of Max Ernst, René Magritte and Paul Eluard, who were producing their most groundbreaking work. Miró also came under the influence of several poets and writers in Paris. This helped him develop a unique artistic style which often incorporated calligraphic writings, organic if abstracted forms, and flattened picture planes. The group of images he produced then came to be known as 'dream paintings', and are considered to be among his best works. Historians also point out that it was Catalonia which gave him the force to become a great artist. His art was, in many ways, a personal storehouse of memories and images of Catalonia.

Among Miró's famous paintings is The Hunter (Catalan Landscape)/1924 in which he presents a  compulsive detailing of an abstracted but colourful landscape  filled with rich iconography  and suggestions of political strife. Another feted painting created by him during the same period is Head of a Catalan Peasant/1925. "The Catalan peasant whom Miró imagines is bearded and pipe-smoking, and most recognisably wears a red snail-shaped hat, the  barretina," writes Matthew Gale, head of displays at Tate Modern. "It is a sign of resilience and associated with the cap of liberty worn in the French Revolution. That he painted this at the moment when the dictator Miguel Primo de Rivera had suppressed the official use of Catalan would suggest that Miró was, quietly, subverting the new political status quo. The result is a series unlike anything produced by any artists of that  moment."

Many decades later, two of Miró's paintings of that period were to smash auction records. First, at Christie's London auction on February 7, 2012, his painting Poem/1925   ­- in which he combined words with visual art - came with a high estimate of GBP 9 million; it eventually went on to realise GBP 16.84 million. Secondly, at Sotheby's London auction on June 19, 2012, his Peinture (Étoile Bleue) /1927 sold for GBP 23.56 million!  

Playing with dots  

Miró was known for his affability and generosity towards others all through his life. When Salvador Dalí arrived in Paris in 1929, it was Miró who introduced him to Surrealism and many of its proponents.  He even persuaded his own Paris dealer to look at Dalí's paintings. "Miró was such a respectful person with everybody, absolutely generous with everyone, and with very clear ideas concerning what was right," recalls Feran Cano, gallerist. "He did not care about the money at all. I don't think he ever understood why so much money was paid for his works… Above all, he totally abhorred the absolute power of Fascism, which we had to put up with for so many years."

Miró was prolific in his output and worked painstakingly till the fag end of his life. Critics and art aficionados are awestruck by the pulsating colours and rich symbolism of his canvases to this day. "Miró could not put down a dot without it being in just the right place," observed eminent sculptor Alberto Giacometti. "He was so much a painter, through and through, that he could leave three spots of colour on the canvas and it became a painting."

On his part, Miró, who maintained a strict regimen of working, considered his studio to be a kitchen garden. "I work like a gardener, like a grape-picker. Things come slowly. For example, I have never discovered immediately my dictionary of shapes. It formed and I almost did not notice it. Things follow their natural course. They grow, they ripen. I must graft. I must water, as it is with lettuce. Ripening goes on in my mind."

A vital aspect of Miró's art was finding meaning and essence in the smallest of creatures and objects, as well as the brightest of landscapes. "For me an object is always alive," he once observed. "A cigarette, a matchbook contain a secret life much more intense than certain humans… I see a tree, I get a shock as if it were something breathing..."

 

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