The birth of signs | Jacques Dupin

When we look back on Miró’s long and impressive career and try to understand it in its entirety, the enigma that proves to be the most complex and disturbing is the change that occurred in the 1920s, the crucial and decisive shift from realist art to the painting of sign-like forms. One only need place a painting from 1923—La espiga de trigo (The Ear of Wheat, p. 8), for example—next to another one from 1924, such as Le baiser(The Kiss, p. 9). The gap between the two is enormous, incomprehensible. How could one man have painted two works as different and diametrically opposed in the course of a year? The first is a still life of an acute realism: it is a work of very precise strokes, austere, cold and carefully considered. The second, which is reduced to a few strokes, is an almost abstract ideogram suspended in an undefined space. What happened in the interval between these two pictures? Was there perhaps some break, some cataclysm? As far as we know, nothing happened in Miró’s life or in his immediate environment to suggest a revolution of this kind. Nothing, of course, but three landscapes he painted in 1923 and 1924, in which the transition from object to sign, from figurative to imaginary space, from descriptive realism to visionary and fantastical art takes place. Between these two irreconcilable approaches, there was no sudden break or clear-cut decision. What took place was the extraordinary acceleration of a creative process that strictly adhered to its own laws and logic.

This radical transformation of forms did not take place in Paris, where Miró had lived in the fertile intellectual environment of the nascent Surrealist movement, influenced by his close friend André Masson and poets of the Rue Blomet. It happened in Mont-roig, in the stillness of a landscape that the artist knew well, amidst trees and vineyards, among the people, animals and birds of La ferme (The County House, p. 23), enveloped by the clear air that permeates the last figurative canvases.

The idea—an idea that is at once very simple, and very mysterious—consists of extracting from each shape the latent sign it contains, freeing the sign from the matrix of realist representation, stripping it down completely, giving it breathing space. Miró carried out numerous studies of the details, in which he developed in meticulous fashion the metamorphoses of cactus and carob trees, rabbits and insects, frogs and dogs. He worked calmly; his letters convey a joyful tension, the certainty he was heading in the right direction. One step at a time, he was taking possession of his imaginary territory, perfectly aware of how much was at stake. The principle of alternation that dominated his work made any form of transgression possible, and he remained very faithful to this principle, even taking it to its limits. This principle helps us understand the changes in style, the oscillating development that allowed periods of caution to give way to outbursts of freedom, which would lead meaningful moments of concentration to culminate in outbursts of frenetic improvisation. It also explains why works from that period can be so different, why some are bursting with life while others show empty, uninhabited spaces. La masía (The Country House), for example, which is a collection of everyday objects, an accumulation of figures and signs, was followed by austere still lifes and the extraordinarily sober and eager painting La masovera(The Farmer’s Wife). It is as if he had removed one or two elements from many and vested them with the energy of the whole. He merely needed to isolate an object, change its situation or context, to give it intensity and enormous plastic tension. As a result, the figure becomes so taut that it seems on the verge of exploding. Despite appearances, La espiga de trigois, at heart, not so different to Le baiser. The latter is an ascetic representation that defines and inhibits Miró’s figurative reality to the point of strangling it, leaving it no alternative but to implode and become a sign, completely subverting the space.

The alternation (the pendulum movement that dominated Miró’s life and work) would lead him back to other compositions that look like constellations. However, these were more intense than earlier ones because they were instilled with a power and freedom that was the product of plastic pressure applied to still lifes. Like a butterfly emerging from its chrysalis, this explosion of objects and the appearance of signs were easier for Miró when he increased the number of items and began to disperse them all over the canvas. It is as if the pain and effort of giving birth had become more bearable as the number of offspring increased. In the landscapes of 1923-1924, in which this revolution takes place, we find the same proliferation that can be observed in the country house. Although his transformation is now irreversible, we see the same animals, trees, plants and insects of Mont-roig. However, they appear to have been internalized and turned into poetic ideograms.

It is difficult to explain this change, this transgression of limits to venture into new territory. We can see how, but not why this rabbit and cactus are simplified, stylized and lightened in such a sudden and shocking manner. They have lost their volume, relief and realist appearance. Freed from the illusion of similarity and depth, flattened on the surface as if they were written words, they appear willing to carry out any daring act, take any risk. The shape, based initially on the geometric structures composing it, gradually opens up to the vagaries and distortions of fantasy, which transfigure the lines and colours to make way for a radical absence of hierarchy that inaugurates a new order of values.

Three landscapes, all painted very slowly, allowed Miró to carry out a stylistic revolution that marked the birth of his art. The three paintings are dated 1923-1924, but the defining moment, the leap into the unknown, took place during the summer of 1924. La terre laboureé(Arable Land, p. 26) has been analyzed and decoded many times, no doubt because the transformations taking place in the work are very striking. By applying pressure to the known appearance of objects in La masía, Miró brings out an internalized reality that is invested in the power of levitation, metamorphosis and access to the realm of fantasy. From this moment on, there is no point in attempting to identify human beings, animals and objects, since their uprising has been a success and they have gained their freedom. Miró himself is also freed from the rules of representation, except his own, of course, which are born in that instant. A crack has appeared in the wall. From this moment onwards, Miró inhabits his own world.

Through unhurried and patient toil, Miró was determined to build fashion the instrument of his own freedom, a creative tool that suddenly came to life. It was a victory achieved through meticulous, but also abrupt and radical, work. One after another, the three landscapes reveal a naive, transparent and cryptic progression towards revelation. Everything is imbued with clarity, everything takes place under the light of a Catalan summer and yet nothing can be truly explained, with even the clarity obscuring the mystery.


Published in Mirós Barcelós. Barcelona, 2010. Mayoral.