Sunday, December 14, 2008

"The Farm" aka "La Masia" by Joan Miró

We really enjoyed this article about "The Farm" painting by Joan Miró that showed up in Saturday's Wall Street Journal. We love the painting even more.


After working on "The Farm" seven or eight hours a day for more than nine months beginning in July 1921 and continuing through the following spring, Joan Miró (1893-1983) threw himself into the challenging process of finding a buyer for the painting in the fickle Parisian art world. As he recalled, "In the evening, I would go to the gym to do boxing. My intellectual work all day required a physical outlet." One of his sparring partners at the popular American club was Ernest Hemingway. Miró's aggressive punching, despite his short stature, won Hemingway's respect and helped Miró score an artistic knockout -- the writer ultimately bought "The Farm" and extolled it in print as capturing "all that you feel about Spain when you are there and all that you feel when you are away and cannot go there. . . . No one could look at it and not know it was painted by a great painter."

For once, a critic's words matched the artist's intentions. "The Farm was a résumé of my entire life in the country. I wanted to put everything I loved about the country into that canvas -- from a huge tree to a tiny little snail." Miró had labored so long on the canvas because he conceived it as a true masterpiece -- a proof of his artistic achievements up to that time. In the process, it opened the path to his finest work of the later '20s and probably the greatest of his career, paintings that share "The Farm"'s central vision but reverse its celebration of plentitude with radically austere compositions of sparely drawn figures and saturated fields of color.

For a painting that Miró hoped would establish his reputation in Paris, he picked an odd subject: the family farm, or masia, outside Barcelona. The even brilliance of the sky and tawny raw earth provide an elemental setting capturing a sense of the intense Mediterranean light that illuminates every exposed surface and casts the darkest of shadows. Miró harnessed this contrast of blazing clarity and deep obscurity to create a scene both tangible and strange. Whether one's eyes are drawn to the abundance of cracks that turn the house's façade into a veritable topographic map, the motley array of buckets, pails and watering cans littering the yard, the families of rabbits and chickens in the coop, or the lizards and snails meandering over the unplowed ground in the right foreground, each object -- animate or not -- is rendered with indiscriminate, comprehensive detail and given individual prominence by appearing in isolation against a light background. The result is a vast menagerie that turns the arid farmyard into a veritable Garden of Eden.

Miró has done more than showcase his remarkable skill as a draftsman and realist. He has set his subjects in a world that tips into the profoundly unreal. In a space that should recede to distant mountains, there is hardly any difference between the very near and the very far. The hawthorn plant in the left foreground is as precisely rendered as the eucalyptus tree in the center and the horse-drawn mill on the edge of the distant woods. The house and barn flatten like cardboard cutouts instead of serving their traditional purpose of mapping three-dimensional depth. Even the square paving stones in the central foreground seem to point up to the sky rather than lead back into the illusory space of the painted world. The teaming life of Miró's farm presses forward and nearly tumbles onto our laps.

Miró had no intention of merely portraying a typical Catalan farm. For him, these ancient homesteads were deeply imbedded in the natural order. In his rendering, the woman drawing water at a trough and baby playing nearby are easily overlooked even though they are near the center of the composition, and nothing distinguishes them from the surrounding animals, plants or rocks. Miró celebrates a transcendent belief in the unity of nature, a riot of vitality that unites all things.

The great eucalyptus tree stands at the heart of Miró's conception. Its tall trunk nearly ascends the height of the painting. Next to a full moon, its rangy branches stretch across the sky with bright edges and clusters of black leaves like an inverse of nighttime constellations. Rising from the soil, its trunk bears every gnarl and pit of its ancient age. Miró juxtaposed his wildest conceit to this exacting realism. The trunk is not rooted in the ground but floats, surrounded by a black circle from which it seems to grow. This disk is Miró's symbol of the world, an abstract microcosm from which the largest and most vital thing propagates. He improvised the image from another Catalonian legacy, the remarkable 12th-century wall paintings that are among the greatest achievements of European art. In these boldly drawn and highly stylized images of damnation and salvation, the blessing hand of God appears disembodied in a surrounding sphere of deep colors. Miró metamorphosed it, freed of Catholic doctrine, into the central emblem of a pantheistic natural order.

For all its evocation of Catalonian culture, "The Farm" was completed in Paris, where Miró famously tore a fistful of grass from the Bois de Boulogne to guide his finishing touches. Even more than a celebration of Miró's native land, it is a picture that demonstrates the power of the imagination to transform reality, preserving the uniqueness of every little thing and sweeping them together in a grand vision of universal vitality. This resort to the fantastic soon made Miró a darling of the Surrealists, even if they never understood that his inspiration lay in the countryside of Catalonia rather than the cafés of Paris. Still, Miró left a clue that he wasn't thinking only of his homeland. The watering can in the central foreground of the picture sits on a folded newspaper whose masthead read in full L'Intransigeant -- the Parisian journal most favored by the avant-garde.

Despite this bow to his chosen audience, Miró did spend months drumming up interest after he completed the painting in the spring of 1922. He finally found a dealer willing to take it on consignment after Picasso stepped in to aid his friend. Hemingway's purchase three years later not only helped diminish that neglect but started the picture on an odyssey through Hemingway's family that finally ended with its donation to the National Gallery of Art in 1987.

Mr. FitzGerald teaches the history of modern art at Trinity College.

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