“My latest work is a wall”
Joan Miró in DERRIÈRE LE MIROIR (Paris), June – July 1958
In 1955, the directors of UNESCO asked me to participate in decorating the new buildings the organization was putting up at the place Fontenoy in Paris. They offered me two perpendicular walls near the conference building. Each was 3 meters high; one was 15 meters long and the other was 7.5 meters long. I suggested doing them in ceramics with the help of Llorens Artigas– following the same high-temperature kiln procedures we had used recently in making over 200 pieces, which were exhibited at the Galerie Maeght in 1956. My idea was accepted, and I met with the architects. I wanted to work closely with them so that my walls would blend in as perfectly as possible with the overall architectural design. Mural art is the opposite of solidary creation; but although you must not give up your individual personality as an artist, you must engage it deeply in a collective effort. It is a fascinating experience, but one filled with risks – one that takes place on a construction site rather than in the solitude of a studio. I therefore looked for my ideas on the site itself; it was there that I conceived and developed my project. I was given a room next to the architect’s office. My conversations with them, as well as with the engineers and the workers, my study of the mock-ups, and specially my periods of meditation before the concrete walls, the scattered materials, and the commotion of the construction site were a great help to me. The forms of the buildings themselves, their spatial organization, the light conditions- all these things suggested forms and colours for my walls. I wanted my work to be part of the overall effect, but I also wanted it to serve as a contrast to the architecture. Thus, as a way of reacting against the huge cement surfaces that would surround it, the idea of a big bright red disk began to emerge for the large wall. Its counterpart on the smaller wall would be a blue crescent- because of the narrower, more intimate space it would occupy. These two forms, which I wanted to be very brightly coloured, would be further enhanced by hollowing them out. Certain details of the construction, such as the design of the windows, inspired checkered patterns and the shapes of the figures. I wanted a brutal kind of expression for the large wall, a hint of something poetic for the small one. Inside each composition, I also looked for a contrast between the brutal and dynamic black lines and the calm forms coloured in flat monochromes or diamond patterns. And so I drew and painted small models at 1/100th scale and submitted them to the committee in charge, which accepted them.
These first compositions underwent considerable changes when I worked on larger models. As a matter of fact, there were changes at every step along the way. Like going from paper to clay, each move to greater dimensions necessitated important alterations of form and colour.
The second stage of the job was to work with Artigas and investigate the ceramic techniques the project would require. No ceramist had ever had to pit himself against a work of such proportions. In addition, we had to take into account the resistance of the materials to fluctuations in temperature, humidity, and sunlight, since the two walls were to be placed outside without any protection. All these problems were extremely difficult to solve, and there is no doubt that only Artigas could have done it. The techniques used today produce either faiences or stoneware. The first would not resist the Paris climate well; the second does not lend itself to my palette. Artigas devised a mixed technique: a chamotte covered by a white slip fired at 1000° and then coated with a sandstone-based enamel (different for each tile) and baked at 1300°. Then the firing for the decoration – enamel and color- at 1000°. Everything was baked with wood fires, which create effects that cannot be obtained with gas, coal, or electricity.
Llorens Artigas worked like and old alchemist to find the clays, the sandstone enamels, and the colours he would be using. This research was a true creation that combined many natural elements – feldspar from Palamos, clay from Alcañiz, sand from Fontainebleau, metallic oxides, copper, cobalt, uranium, etc., from all provenances- in doses and proportions that are secrets as old as the world, secrets that were lost and found again through Artigas’s science and intuition. During this time, I worked with Joan Artigas on a full-scale model of my project, which I drew in charcoal on paper and coloured with gouache. The preparatory stage was finished; we were ready to begin the work.
At that point we decided to travel to Santillana del Mar to have another look at the famous cave paintings of Altamira and ponder the oldest example of mural art in the world. In the old Romanesque church of Santillana, the Collegiata, we marvelled at the extraordinary beauty of the texture of an old wall eaten away by dampness. Artigas would remember it when choosing the material for his grounds. After this journey to the source, we also wanted to absorb the spirit of the Catalan Romanesque and of Gaudí. The Barcelona Museum contains admirable Romanesque frescoes that have been a lesson to me ever since my earliest days as a painter. I hope they have inspired me again, and I feel that the rhythm of the big wall especially owes a great deal to them. Finally, we went to visit the Gaudí of the Park Güell. My imagination was struck there by an immense disk hollowed out in a wall and uncovering the bare rock below, which was very similar to what I was planning to engrave and paint on the big wall. I took this encounter as a confirmation, a sign of encouragement…
We returned to Gallifa, the old village of stones and greenery where Artigas has his kiln and studio. The village is dominated by an immense cirque of steep rocks; I pretended that these rocks were the tall concrete walls at UNESCO. I prepared my large-scale models with them in mind. Confronting this grandiose landscape was necessary test, and it suggested many changes to me. The surface was divided into identical rectangles that corresponded to the tiles. These now had to be modelled in clay, dried, and fired with only one layer of sandstone clay to give them the necessary resistance. After that, I was to paint them with sandstone enamel and colour before the second and last firing.
When Artigas had fired 250 tiles in 33 batches, he called to tell me that he was worried. He was not satisfied with the material as a ground, and he also left that the geometric regularity of the pieces endangered the sensitivity and even the life of the work. He recognized that his technical virtuosity had carried him too far and that the grounds he had obtained, no matter how extraordinary in themselves, were not suitable. It was then that he remembered the name of Collegiata. After a number of experiments, he was able to capture its marvellous sensitivity. The irregular walls of the old chapel in Gallifa also opened our eyes. We felt that the vibrant irregularity of the stones should inspire us in dividing up the surface of our walls. Everything had to be redone with tiles of different dimensions. This unfortunate experience cost us 4,000 kg of clay, 250 kg of enamel, and 10 tons of wood, not to speak of the work and time that were wasted.
Now that we had found the structure of the tiles and the substance for the grounds, the first firing took place without incident. Then it was my turn to come in and carry out my design, using coloured enamels to paint the pieces spread out on the ground. Once again my forms were modified. As for the colours, I had to reply on Artigas’s expertise, because the enamels do not attain their true colour until after firing. In spite of the precautions one can take, however, the ultimate master of the work is fire. Its action is unpredictable, and its power can be deadly. That is what creates the value of this means of expression. Another difficulty: the huge dimensions of the surface I had to paint. Certain forms and strokes had to be done in a single gesture to preserve the dynamism of their original inspiration. In order to do this, I used a broom made of palm fronds. Artigas held his breath when he saw me grab the broom and begin to trace the five- to six-meter-long motifs, with the good possibility that I would destroy months of work.
The last firing took place on May 29, 1958. Thirty-four firings had come before it. We used 25 tons of wood, 4,000 kg of clay, 200 kg of enamel, and 30 kg of colours. So far, we have only seen our work in pieces, spread out on the ground, and have not had a chance to step back from it. That is why we are so anxious and impatient to see the small wall and the big wall go up in the space and the light they were made for.
Joan Miró in DERRIÈRE LE MIROIR (Paris), June – July 1958 in: ROWELL, Margit. Joan Miró: Selected Writings and Interviews. New York: Da Capo Press 1992.
Published in Ethics and Aesthetics: Miró/Artigas. Barcelona, 2018. Mayoral. p 45.