Few moments in the history of art have been as radical as the 1920s in Paris. Its heady atmosphere of innovation and experimentation fostered some of the greatest cultural figures of the 20th century, from Ernest Hemingway to Pablo Picasso. The hotbed of the modernist avant garde, Paris was the place where artists could throw off old Edwardian constraints and, in the words of émigré American poet Ezra Pound, ‘make it new’. Painter Joan Miró, the son of a Catalonian goldsmith, was drawn to the city after having trained as an artist in Barcelona. He arrived as a near-penniless painter of skilled Fauvist canvases, but the following decades of his long career would see him hailed as one of the most unique and important artists of his generation.
Miró’s early career was dogged by doubt and crisis. His first solo exhibition in Barcelona in 1918 was a failure and three years later, in 1921, having exhibited in Paris for the first time, he experienced a crisis of doubt. His breakthrough came in 1924 when, under the influence of Dadaists and Surrealist writers André Breton and Louis Aragon, he freed his work from the restraints of realistic representation. With Tilled Field (1923-4) and Harlequin’s Carnival (1924-5), Miró invented a new representational space, in which ideas of reality could be subjected to the artist’s unconscious and imagination and simplified to haunting biomorphic abstraction.
Although Breton would describe him as ‘the most surrealist of us all’, Miró’s work would resist being so neatly pigeonholed. Even as modern art became more and more concerned with ideas of abstraction, he continued to explore ideas of representation and its relationship to the human unconscious, perhaps most beautifully exampled in his 1940s masterpieces Woman and Bird in the Night (1947) and Bullfight (1945).
Returning to Spain during the Nazi occupation of France, Miró settled in Mallorca. Eight years before his death, when he was now the grand master of the old avant garde, a museum dedicated to his work, the Fundació Joan Miró, was opened in the hills above Barcelona.
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