A Catalan painter, sculptor, printmaker and decorative artist, Miró is best known for his semi-abstract fantasy forms and dream landscapes. In Surrealist images of floating amoebic shapes and in threatening lithographs denouncing war he commentated on the relationships between nature, art and twentieth-century society.
Joan Miró i Ferrà was born on 20 April 1893 in Barcelona into a family of artisans; his father was a goldsmith and his maternal grandfather a carpenter. He was already interested in drawing by the age of eight but at 14, in accordance with his parents’ wishes, enrolled at Barcelona’s business college. At the same time he attended La Llotja, the School of Industrial and Fine Arts where Pablo Picasso had studied 12 years previously. Completing the three-year art course, he took a job as a clerk, but left in 1911 due to severe illness. Miró convalesced at his parents’ farmhouse in Montroig, near Tarragona, a place to which he would frequently return. Certain now that he wanted to be an artist, he attended Francesc Galí’s School of Art in Barcelona from 1912 to 1915 and subsequently took drawing classes at the Artistic Circle of Saint Luke.
Miró’s local landscapes and portraits of this period show traits of the pure, bright colours of Fauvism, the broken forms and precision of Cubism and the two-dimensionality of Catalan folk art. In 1918 he held his first solo exhibition at the avant-garde Barcelona gallery run by Lluís Dalmau. A vibrant cultural centre at that time, the city hosted artists who had fled the First World War, but Paris was a greater hub of the arts and when peace came, Miró went there for a trial visit. Moving to Paris in 1920, he then alternated between Spain and France until the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936.
In Paris, Miró came into contact with Dada and Surrealism, participating in their activities but resisting allying himself with any one group. Dalmau organised Miró’s first one-man show in Paris, at the Galerie de la Licorne in 1921, and his work was exhibited at the Salon d’Automne in 1923 and in the first Surrealist show at the Galerie Pierre in 1925. During the 1920s he truly established a distinctive visual language. Art critic and poet José Corredor-Matheos cites Harlequin’s Carnival (1924–1925) as ‘his first characteristic image, in which the space is populated by fantastic shapes suggestive of living organisms’. Tending towards abstraction, Miró created a number of virtually monochromatic paintings from 1925 to 1927 that would later influence Abstract Expressionism. In 1928 he visited the Netherlands and responded to the masterpieces he saw in a series of ‘Dutch Interiors’; that year he made his first papiers collés, incorporating collage materials into paintings as objects.
Miró married Pilar Juncosa on 12 October 1929 and in 1931 their daughter Dolores was born. This was a period of artistic experimentation for him in many media – including lithography and etching, pastels, reliefs, sculptures incorporating found objects and collage paintings – and of breaking conventions and pushing forms to their limits. He even spoke of ‘the murder of painting’. Mirroring the political situation brewing in Spain, he produced a series of ‘Wild Paintings’ (1934–1936) brimming with violence, sexuality and grotesque human imagery. His poster Help Spain (1937), sold to raise relief funds, expresses his anger at injustice yet more blatantly, with a fearsome figure clenching his fist at the end of a huge, upraised, yellow arm.
During World War II Miró ensconced himself in the countryside, first in the Normandy village of Varengeville and then in Mallorca and Montroig. The ferocious protest of his art of the 1930s gave way to disengagement from conflict, and his ‘Constellations’ series of small gouaches (1940–1941) uses a poetic, colourful style characterised by a swirling linearity against backgrounds that suggest the infinitude of the cosmos. ‘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’, he told an interviewer in 1948. ‘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.’
In 1941 The Museum of Modern Art, New York, held Miró’s first major museum retrospective, which was significant in attracting worldwide recognition. During that year he began creating ceramics with Josep Llorens Artigas, exploring the sculptural potential of clay and its decoration. He resumed printmaking in a range of media and in the 1950s launched into large-scale sculpture, including the ‘Projects for a Monument’ series (1954). Miró won the Venice Biennale’s Grand Prize for Graphic Work (1954) and the Guggenheim Foundation’s Grand Prize (1958), awarded for his ceramic murals of the moon and the sun, produced in collaboration with Artigas for the UNESCO building in Paris. Commissions followed for ceramic murals at Harvard University (1960), the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York (1966), the Osaka World Fair (1970), Barcelona Airport (1970) and the Museum of Fine Arts in Zurich (1971).
Miró’s late paintings became bolder, with thick black line and fewer graphic elements; large canvases of the 1960s see him using colour expressively, as in the ‘Blue’ series of 1961 and such semi-abstract canvases as The Lark’s Wing (1967). Ever searching for new techniques, he worked with Josep Royo on sobreteixims and tapestries (1972–1979). He collaborated with the experimental Barcelona theatre group Claca on puppets, masks and sets for the play Mori el Merma (Death to the Bogeyman, 1977–1978) – a denunciation of tyranny in the tradition of the Catalonian street parade. With Charles Marcq he made stained-glass windows for the Fondation Maeght at Saint-Paul de Vence and at the royal chapel in Senlis.
Among the awards Miró received were the Carnegie International Grand Prize for Painting (1967), honorary doctorates from Harvard (1968) and the University of Barcelona (1979), and Spain’s Gold Medal for Fine Arts (1980). Two organisations are dedicated to his work: the Fundació Joan Miró, Barcelona (1975) and the Fundació Pilar i Joan Miró, Mallorca (1992). Suffering at the end from heart disease, he died in Palma de Mallorca on 25 December 1983.