Le fermier et son épouse (The Famer and his Wife) was painted in 1936, a year of extraordinary significance in the development of Miró's work. Having entered the collection of the great American film director, Billy Wilder, in 1940, who acquired it from the German- American art expert Ludwig Charell owner of a major collection of Toulouse-Lautrec, it was not seen in public until 1989. In theme and style, it is closely related to the series of six oil paintings on copper and six paintings executed in tempera on masonite executed between October 23, 1935 and May 22, 1936, at Montroig and Barcelona, all of them in small format.
Miró's love of the countryside dates back to at least 1911 when his father purchased the farmhouse at Montoig that was to play such an important role in his subsequent life and work. His early masterpiece La ferme, 1921-22 (see fig. 1) provided a panoramic view of much of the imagery that continued to fascinate him throughout his career. Summarizing the significance of this work in 1928, Miró remarked: "I came back here again after that exhibit [an exhibition at la Licorne in Paris] And again Montroig reached out to me with all its light, all its life, and I wanted to capture that whole period that I could see from Montroig and I painted The Farm. Nine months of constant hard work! Nine months of painting every day and wiping it out and making studies and destroying them all. The Farm was a resumé 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. I don't think it makes sense to give more importance to a mountain than an ant (but landscape artists just can't see that), and that's why I didn't hesitate to spend hours and hours making the ant come alive" (quoted in Francesc Trabal, "A Conversation with Joan Miró," La Publicitat, July 14, 1928, reprinted Margit Rowell (ed.), Joan Miró Selected Writings and Interviews, Boston, 1986, p. 93). La Ferme is imbued with a sense of magic realism achieved through a flattening of planes, and the simplification and reduction of forms to symbols which are precisely delineated and illuminated by an ethereal light. These conceptual and stylistic innovations progress towards a greater sense of fantasy and abstraction in the Tilled Field of 1923-34 (The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York) and their most distilled form in the present work, Le fermier et son épouse. In this remarkable work, the artist abandons half-tones and earthen hues in favor of a searing palette of primary colors: spectacularly bright reds and yellow play against cool blues and severe contrasts of blacks. Certain aspects of the bodies are composed of inflated limbs that convey an insistent sense of corporeality and mass; while other parts of the body, particularly in the male figure, become a transparent framework of colored lines, suspended against the blinding-yellow sky like a multi-colored mobile. In the foreground is the oft-repeated form of the rooster, a symbol of strength and aggression standing by and perhaps protecting the egg that appears on the verge of hatching. A few years later in Varengeville-sur-Mer in 1940, the artist would make the Rooster the sole subject of a related composition in gouache (see fig. 4).
Painted in the lead-up to the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, the intense, brilliant colors of the present work and the exaggerated biomorphic forms are highly characteristic of Miró's paintings of the period. His works are populated with striking and explosive figures rushing through blazing landscapes. The artist paints these scenes, however, with the greatest of care and precision; the fantastical creatures are minutely detailed and drawn with absolute precision and control. Miró conveys the intensity and fear that pervades Europe at this time, but never allows his art to be overwhelmed by it - he remains sure-handed and the master of his imagery.
Le fermier et son épouse is related to a group of twelve small paintings on copper and masonite that Miró worked on between summer 1935 and mid-May of 1936 (see figs. 2 and 3) but transforms their strident imagery and frequently acid coloring through the use of a different medium, gouache on board. Carolyn Lanchner has pointed out how, throughout his career, "Miró sometimes set himself the task of addressing one problem of expression in the material terms previously used to address another. Instances of these non-parallel parallelisms can be found in such series as the Ingres-paper oils of 1930- 31, as contrasted with the Constellations of 1940-41; within the group of thirteen cardboards of 1935; and in the differences and similarities between the 1935 cardboard sequence and the masonite series of 1936" (Carolyn Lanchner, Joan Miró, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1993, p. 65). Within the latter group, the slick surfaces and heightened color of the works executed in oil on copper contrast dramatically with the dry, mat surface of the temperas.
In the oils and temperas of the late 1930s, references to the increasing instability of the world political situation are oblique but nonetheless present. Miró's painting and art at this time reached a pitch of intensity and clarity that was only matched by the great series to follow, The Constellations. While the context under which these great works was painted is long gone, their power remains undiminished.
Fig. 1, Joan Miró, La ferme, 1921- 22, oil on canvas, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
Fig. 2, Joan Miró, Figures devant une métamorphose, January 20-31 1936, tempera on masonite, New Orleans Museum of Art
Fig. 3, Joan Miró, Homme et femme devant un tas d'excrements, October 15-22, 1935, oil on copper, Barcelona, Fundacio Joan Miró
Fig. 4, Joan Miró, Le Coq, 1940, gouache, watercolor and pencil on paper, sold: Christie's, London, June 18, 2007 for $ 13,098,814
Gouache on card
22 7/8 by 16 3/4 in. 58 by 42.5 cm
P. Vilada, "A Life in Pictures," House & Garden, New York, April 1989, illustrated p. 156
Ludwig Charell, New York (1940)
Billy Wilder (sold: Christie's, New York, November 13, 1989, lot 53)
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner