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Tom Gurney BSc (Hons) is an art history expert with over 20 years experience
Published on June 19, 2020 / Updated on October 14, 2023
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Joan Miro is a famous Spanish artist from the 20th century who combined surrealist and abstract styles to produce a large amount of innovative paintings, sculptures, ceramics and drawings. Few have left a bigger impact on the direction of modern art.

The Surrealist movement itself was influenced by the unconscious mind, where reality and dreams would be combined into a new language. The various members accepted this, but would have a different way of visualising it, and Miro's approach would make use of simple shapes which together formed abstract compositions. He would also make use of the bright colour palette that came from his Spanish upbringing, and this is inherent in the work of many artists from this region. In order to truly understand his paintings, we must decipher the various components which were re-used across compositions in order to go beyond the pure aesthetic enjoyment of this artist's work. Miro also saw existing artistic styles as a part of the establishment, and he famously declared war on all that had gone before.

This famous Spanish painter and innovator, over the course of his life, made a number of changes to both the style and mood of his art. Miro's work was classified loosely as surrealist, and this quickly led to comparisons with fellow Catalan painter, Salvador Dali. Dali masterpieces included the likes of Elephants and The Persistence of Memory, famously incorporating melting clocks. Related Spanish artists include Cubists Juan Gris and Pablo Picasso, plus also Joaquin Sorolla. Also, see the work of Max Ernst, the German Surrealist, with the two becoming good friends as well as working collaboratively and sharing a lot of common ground within their own artistic styles. Miro built a strong reputation from an early age which allowed him to spend time in the company of many other famous artists and the Surrealists were a group who would collaborate regularly and exchange ideas for how the future of art should be.

In a similar way to Dali, Miro is most famous as a Surrealist but was actually involved in a good variety of different art movements during his career. Young, budding art students will always tend to try out all sorts of techniques in their early years of development, still seeking to find their signature approach and both of these Catalans were the same in that regard. Whilst Salvador Dali worked with impressionism for a number of years, before moving onto expressionism and cubism before heading into surrealism, Miro was more immediately a modern artist and began as more of a fauvist. Colours was therefore key to his early work and would remain a fundamental element of his career, even after he switched to other artistic styles. The general view of his earliest work was that it showed a clear influence from the work of Paul Cezanne, someone who has inspired a huge number of 20th century artists.

Miro's work as a fauvist lasted several years, gifting us the likes of Portrait of Vincent Nubiola and Nord-Sud (both 1917), before he decided to move on in around 1920 to a style loosely termed as Magical realism. This period was characterised by very precise detail within some highly complex compositions, such as with Horse, Pipe and Red Flower. We can also see elements of Cubism within this, though it is used more sparingly than by those who specialised in that movement. One can immediately see an artist who is well aware of the new styles of the period, but is seeking to forge his own path, which perhaps could involve elements of them together. He truly desired to create a unique style of his own, and was still searching for it at this point. He would create entirely flat perspectives at this stage, which reminds us of the Cubists (Gris/Braque) certainly, but most of the objects that he added would be fairly realistic in depiction. The Cubists were also very fresh at this point, with many of their finest work appearing around just a decade earlier.

By around 1922-1923, the artist was struggling to find a market for his work and so decided to push more deeply into the surrealist, abstract world. He set about creating a series of symbols that could be used throughout his work and placed a particular importance on colour too, particularly because he had started to reduce detail drastically by this point. This new approach would immediately draw favour with members of the Surrealist groups and they became more open to promoting his work themselves, just at a time when they themselves were starting to build momentum for their own careers. Later comments by the artist would actually reveal precisely what each shape represented in each of his artworks from this period, and it was clear that Miro was now committed to this approach and that a great deal of thought had been put into creating this new visual language. An understanding of these representations is crucial to being able to fully examine his paintings, otherwise one will just see an arrangement of shapes, seemingly placed at random.

The next few years were spent perfecting this new language, as seen by the development of his work through the mid-1920s up to the end of the decade. He was now set on this path with a greater commitment than he had ever felt in his lifetime, and was also being rewarded and encouraged by a warmer reception to his paintings each time that were unveiled. He seemed to have finally discovered his own style and the next challenge would be to then translate it across other artistic disciplines, such as ceramics and sculpture, but that would come later. Some of the developments that we see would be a greater abstraction, where fewer and fewer details are now used and this represents a complete transformation from his earlier Modernist artworks of around 1917-1920 where an abundance of detail was key, with every single region of the canvas treated equally. Many who only study his most famous paintings may actually be entirely unaware of his earlier pieces, potentially even being unable to identify them as having come from Miro's own hand, such was the amount of change that occured over a decade or so.

Miro was someone who clearly took inspiration from both the Dada and Surrealist movements but did not wish to be an official member of any artistic group. Both of these groups were not only home to painters, but also creative figures from other disciplines, including poetry. Literature would also influence Miro too, although it can be hard to see that when viewing his most abstract pieces which came about as this period of his career developed over time. Those groups also believed in automatism, where art is produced without any conscious thought. His interest, and use, of this is why many connected him strongly to the Surrealist movement, as they were behind the idea in the first place and would often sit about together, passing paper from one to the next, each completing a drawing before turning over the paper and passing over to the next member. They were a collective who would not always be in agreement, and he prefered to remain on the fringes, even though he held their respect once his transformation to abstract art had been completed.

Joan Miro was another Spanish artist who was deeply impacted by the Spanish Civil War. Facism rarely finds a middle ground with modern artists, as seen in Germany too. The likes of Pablo Picasso and other contemporary artists would not be accepted by these ultra conservative regimes and as such many were forced to move abroad to make the most of their creative talents. In terms of Catalan creativity, Antoni Gaudi was also another highly significant artist to have come from this region and made use of historical references to this region in many of his designs. He was an architect who also became involved in sculpture, furniture and interior design. His buildings in Barcelona have become part of a UNESCO cultural protection order in honour of their beauty and brilliance. You will find the same stunning, warm palettes within the careers of most famous Catalan artists, with their inspiration being the dry landscape in which they all grow up.

The artist would concentrate on sculpture in the latter part of his career and became much more ambitious with his work in this medium once he had hit his fifties. Prior to that, he probably had neither the reputation nor financial clout to be able to work quite as boldly. He produced a number of items that were installed outdoors and some of these remain in the same locations today. It helps to draw new followers into sculpture who would perhaps not normally choose to visit art galleries. By this stage he already had a visual language from his paintings and would translate that into three dimensional art, which both excited him and also offered new technical challenges. Today his sculptures serve as a reminder of his flexibility as an artist, but also underline how the surrealist art movement was not only involved with painting, but actually a much wider group of creative interests, many of which Miro would experiment with during his long and distinguished career.

Miro loved producing ceramics but it required techniques and tools which were not always available to him. He tended to work intensely for a period of time, before then taking a break and focusing on other art forms. Across his career he produced hundreds of ceramics, most frequently as plates and vases, although he also worked on other formats such as small pebbles. He made use of his abstract shapes and lines which displayed influences from his paintings, but also resembled some ancient civilizations, of which he would have studied in his younger days. Today his ceramics are highly regarded and seen as an important element to his oeuvre, rather than simply a passing fad in his career. Efforts have been made in recent years to document them more accurately and to provide a single source of truth about his work in this medium, and several recent publications have manaaged to achieve that, to a certain degree. Miro was someone who spent his early years defining his style, before then translating it across all manner of different artistic disciplines.

Whilst being an accomplished draughtsman, Miro's drawings have sometimes been forgotten as compared to his huge canvases which have wowed crowds right across the globe. His sketches would always be the starting point from which everything else followed, and so cannot be overestimated in terms of their significance. He worked tirelessly to create his abstract language and would have created it using pencil and ink prior to commencing in oils. As a surrealist, he would also have become involved in their drawing games where a form of automatic drawing was encouraged. As greater efforts have been made to collate his work in different disciplines, so his drawings have now started to be referenced more accurately and comprehensively, giving us valuable tools with which to better chart his development as an artist, particularly in his earlier years where much more variation and experimentation can be found.

This Catalan artist developed a reputation which placed him amongst the biggest names of the modern art world, which stretched across the 20th century. One regularly will see him discussed alongside the likes of Picasso and Dali, and this is reflected in the exhibitions that have been curated from his large output of work. The world's most prominent modern art galleries have offered retrospectives of his work frequently, both notably within North America and Europe. His original pieces are thinly dispersed around the world, which makes it possible for many of us to see his work in person, though then more tricky to arrange these large exhibitions. It tends to be the likes of New York, London, Paris and Madrid who have the resources needed to put together 50-60 piece displays, often using their own pieces alongside a variety of loaned artworks from public and private collections, perhaps offering favours in return in order to acquire the paintings on a temporary basis.

Miro would share his time between France, Spain and America once his career was established. His later years were devoted more to sculpture than anything else, perhaps because he had come to the point where he did not feel he could take his paintings any further than he already had, after working on them for many decades. He also appreciated the opportunity of taking his abstract shapes into a third dimension, giving his ideas a tactile nature for the first time. Commissions also came in for his sculptures, which could be placed outdoors and enabled many more people to enjoy his work, including those who would not normally enter art galleries of museums. Sculptures were placed in Chicago and Mallorca, for example. The Fundació Joan Miró Museum in Barcelona and Pilar and Joan Miró Foundation in Palma de Mallorca, home to his former workshop, have also been set up to best represent his career and legacy.