Rendered in looping flourishes of black paint, silhouetted against a stark white light with the huge red disc of a setting Mediterranean sun hovering over its shoulder, the dark personnage of the title in this painting is a marked departure from the more precisely drawn linear figures that Miró typically incorporated into his compositions during the years of the Second World War and immediately thereafter (Dupin, no. 807; fig. 1). This freer, more gestural approach to brushing on his paint, the more boldly expressive graphism by which he transfixes the viewer's gaze, as well as the deeply moody resonance of his colored grounds, are among the essential elements that Miró introduced into his work following his first visit to the United States in 1947. In the company of his wife and teenaged daughter, Miró spent eight months in America, mainly in New York, where he worked a mural commission for the Terrace Plaza Hotel of Cincinnati (Dupin, no. 817; Cincinnati Art Museum; fig. 2) that his American dealer Pierre Matisse had arranged for him.
It was timely indeed for Miró to make his presence known, in person, in the very heart of the American art world. His paintings had been seen in New York since 1926, and due to the efforts of Matisse fils, who began in 1932 to regularly show Miró in his 57th Street gallery, his work was perhaps even better known and more widely appreciated in America than in Europe. James Johnson Sweeney, the director of The Museum of Modern Art, New York, had long been an ardent advocate, and gave the artist his first retrospective in November 1941-January 1942. Although the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor on 7 December and America's entry into to the Second World War dampened the public's interest in this exhibition, American painters and critics did not fail to take notice.
Miró's work was also on hand as the war neared its conclusion. The exhibition of sixteen from among the twenty-two gouaches of his celebrated Constellations series (Dupin, nos. 628-650) at the Pierre Matisse Gallery in January 1945 was the first major show held in New York of work done during the war by a leading European avant-garde painter. The Constellations made a powerful impression: "The opinion was unanimous and the public has found your exhibition very moving," Matisse reported to Miró (quoted in C. Lanchner, Joan Miró, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1993, p. 337).
Following the war's end, Miró was eager to visit America, and he could well anticipate the impact that New York would likely have on him. In making plans for a 1947 exhibition at the Pierre Matisse Gallery, he wrote his dealer on 3 September 1946, "In the future world, America, full of dynamism and vitality, will play a primary role. It follows that, at the time of my exhibition, I should be in New York to make direct contact with your country; besides, my work will benefit from the shock" (quoted in ibid.).
The New York experience enthralled Miró."The intense rhythm of the city," Dupin has written, "the youth and vitality of the people, the gigantic dimensions of the buildings, the vast distances, and unfamiliar proportions--the difference in scale and measure between American reality and the norms of old Europe--struck Miró like 'a blow to the solar plexus,' to use his own expression" (Joan Miró, Paris, 2012, p. 276). Asked if he felt America would influence him, the artist replied, "Yes, very much so. Especially as force and vitality. To me the skyscrapers express force as do the pyramids of Egypt" (quoted in M. Rowell, ed., Joan Miró: Selected Writings and Interviews, Boston, 1986, p. 204). He went on to declare his newly acquired passion for baseball--"especially the night games"--and ice hockey. While working on the Cincinnati mural in the New York studio of Carl Holty (fig. 2), Miró met numerous American painters, including Jackson Pollock. "I admire very much their enthusiasm and freshness," he stated in a 1947 interview. "They would do well to free themselves from Europe's influence (quoted in ibid.).
Miró and his family returned to Barcelona in October 1947. For much of the time during the war he had produced only works on paper, spontaneously improvising with his materials. He also began to explore sculpture, ceramics and lithography, and became so involved in these new endeavors that in early 1944 Pierre Matisse expressed concern lest the artist might give up oil painting altogether. Miró, however, returned to painting that year, with small canvases at first, and then increasingly larger ones, into which he distilled the imagery and working techniques of the past half-decade. Composing on a large canvas format required a more deliberate and calculated approach than he had employed in freely attacking a sheet of paper, but Miró also wished to preserve the spontaneous impetus of his initial conception. Miró outlined his creative process in an interview he gave to James Johnson Sweeney in 1948:
"First, the suggestion, usually from the material; second, the conscious organization of these forms; and third, the compositional enrichment. Forms take reality for me as I work. In other words, rather than setting out to paint something, I begin painting and as I paint the picture begins to assert itself, or suggest itself under my brush. Even a few casual wipes of my brush in cleaning it may suggest the beginning of a picture. The second stage, however, is carefully calculated. The first stage is free, unconscious; but after that the picture is controlled throughout, in keeping with that desire for disciplined work I have felt from the beginning [Dupin, no. 824; fig. 3]. We Catalans believe you must always plant your feet firmly on the ground if you want to be able to jump up in the air" (quoted ibid., p. 211).
The procedure Miró undertook in painting Personnage obscure follows this approach. The artist surely began the picture with the freely conceived and broadly brushed sign in black, the very essence of a figure, at its center. While retaining a surrounding aura of untouched white canvas, he then applied thinner washes of black, blue, green and ochre to fill in the background, thus establishing the emotional timbre of his conception. The crowning touch--the final "enrichment"--was the addition of the opaque red circle as the glowing sun. The overall result is a succinct and harmonious balance of dynamically interacting forms and contrasted methods of paint handling.
The primordial signs that Miró drew out of his deeply animistic spirit strongly appealed to a new generation of American painters who were seeking a vital and liberating path to abstraction. His intuitively poetic impulse offered a promising alternative to the strictly formal principles, derived from Cubism and De Stijl, which had fostered a prevailing taste for geometric composition in America during the 1930s, ideas which after the war seemed superficial and empty. Barbara Rose has written, "Miró's dictum, quoted by Sweeney in his [1941 MoMA retrospective] catalogue, that 'painting or poetry is made as we make love, a total embrace, prudence thrown to the wind, nothing held back,' provided a rationale for the intense abandon and total emotional involvement demanded by the group that included personalities as troubled and desperate as Pollock, Gorky and Rothko. They, like virtually every ambitious New York School artist, were profoundly affected, to an extent that altered the course of their art, by the 1941 Miró retrospective" (Miró in America, exh. cat., The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1982, pp. 19-20).
Miró's eight-month sojourn in New York during 1947 bolstered his profile as a pre-eminent modern European painter of international stature and further spread his influence among a new and rising generation of American artists. He remained a force into the next decade, as Abstract Expressionism enjoyed its heyday, and beyond. "The artist's visit to the United States thus marked an important date in his life," Dupin has written. "It was there he found confirmation of the importance of his work and evidence of the widespread interest it aroused...he discovered that the primitive magic of his art was consonant with the most dynamic of modern societies" (Miró, Paris, 2012, p. 277). Applying his remarkable ability to seek out and stay closely attuned to the currents of the day, Miró came away from his first visit to America enriched in his own work as well (Dupin, no. 896; fig. 4), having absorbed significant elements of relevant contemporaneity that subsequent trips to America--in 1959, 1961 and 1964--would renew and broaden.
(fig. 1) Joan Miró, Le rouge, le bleu, le bel espoir, 1947. Sold, Christie's, New York, 4 May 2004, lot 33. BARCODE: 22867353
(fig. 2) Joan Miró in the studio of Carl Holty, New York, with the Cincinnati mural painting, September 1947. Photograph © by Arnold Newman. BARCODE: 28854821
(fig. 3) Joan Miró, Le Soleil rouge ronge l'araignée, 1948. Sold, Christie's, New York, 1 November 2005, lot 39. BARCODE: PW553_2_BIG_FLIPPED
(fig. 4) Joan Miró, L'arête rouge transperce les plumes bleues de l'oiseau au pâle bec, 1951. Sold, Christie's, New York, 1 May 2012, lot 16. BARCODE: 29365234_001
Personnage obscur devant le soleil
Oil on canvas
Property from a Private European Collection
Signed and dated 'Miró. 1949' (on the reverse)
Joan Miró , 20th Century, Paintings, France, Modern
San Francisco, Legion of Honor, The 1952 Pittsburgh International Exhibition of Contemporary Painting, January-March 1953.
Seattle, World's Fair, Art Since 1950: American and International, April-October 1962, p. 114, no. 70 (illustrated, p. 115; titled Red Sun).
IMPRESSIONIST & MODERN ART
51 3/8 x 38 in. (130.5 x 96.5 cm.)
J. Dupin, Joan Miró, Paris, 1961, p. 541, no. 752 (illustrated).
J. Dupin, Joan Miró, Life and Work, New York, 1962, p. 557, no. 752 (illustrated).
G. Néret, 30 ans d'art moderne: peintres et sculpteurs, Fribourg, 1988, p. 13, no. 9 (illustrated in color, p. 12).
J. Dupin and A. Lelong-Mainaud, Joan Miró, Catalogue raisonné. Paintings, 1942-1955, Paris, 2001, vol. III, p. 157, no. 863 (illustrated in color).
Pierre Matisse Gallery, New York (by 1952).
Galerie Rosengart, Lucerne (acquired from the above, 21 November 1969).
Galería Theo, Madrid (acquired from the above, 8 January 1988).
Acquired from the above by the family of the present owner, 1988.