Femme et oiseau devant le soleil (1942) is in many ways a highly characteristic work by Joan Miró (1893-1983). It contains several of the staple ingredients in his private language of signs: a woman, a bird, stars. It is at once earthy and ethereal, abstract and concrete. The picture comes from an interval in his long career which could be seen either as the conclusion of the first part of his long career or the prelude to the second. In its meandering lines and soft colour washes, it presages much that Miró did in the 1950s and 60s.
In December 1942, when he completed it, he was at a low point, but also at a moment of transition. He was approaching 50, a famous artist whose influence was at that very moment profoundly affecting the rising generation of painters in New York. But he himself was living almost clandestinely in his native land and close to despair.
In 1942 Miró had passed through what the art historian Carolyn Lanchner has described as "the most harrowing episode" he ever experienced. He had been faced with a choice that determined the remaining four decades of his life and survived a frightening ordeal. Simultaneously, he had produced some of the most important work of his career.
From 1937 Miró had been living in Paris with his wife and daughter. His visits to his native Catalonia ceased during the Spanish Civil War, in which he was a well-known supporter of the Spanish Republican government. His monumental painting The Reaper (Catalan Peasant in Revolt) – subsequently lost – was as prominent a feature of the Spanish Pavilion at the Paris World's Fair of 1937 as Picasso's Guernica.
Shortly after the declaration of war between France and Germany in 1939, he moved to Varengeville, a village on the coast of Normandy. There Miró began a series of small works on paper that he entitled Constellations. This, however, proved only a temporary refuge. In mid-May of 1940, by which time Miró had painted ten Constellations, German forces captured Belgium and the Netherlands and began to advance through northern France. He had to make a decision. His wife, Pilar Juncosa, recalled how they hesitated between exile in the USA – an option taken by prominent Surrealists such as André Breton and Max Ernst – and a return to Spain.
Obviously for a prominent Catalan, anti-Fascist and avant-garde artist, the latter was the more perilous option. Nonetheless, Juncosa felt Miró would work better on his native soil, and urged him to go back to Catalonia. En route she looked after their daughter Dolores, while he guarded the Constellations. By June 6, they were at Perpignan in the Pyrenees, and shortly afterwards slipped over the border. At first they avoided the mainland, and lived in Palma on the island of Majorca. He used his mother's maiden name, Ferrà, rather than Miró, to be on the safe side.
For a Spanish Republican who looked to Paris as the international capital of modern art, this was a time of utter darkness. "Everything seemed lost to me," Miró remembered. "I was certain that they would not let me paint any longer, that all I would be able to do was go to the beach and draw in the sand or sketch figures with the smoke from my cigarette. I had a real feeling that I was working clandestinely, but this was a liberation for me as I was not thinking of the tragedy that surrounded me." After finishing a picture, he would go out and treat himself to a café con leche and an ensaïmada (a type of Majorcan pastry), which "was a fine prize, because I didn't have a cent". It was a piquant position for a world-famous artist whose work was, at that very time, receiving a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, which opened in November 1941.
Still, Miró had chosen correctly, because his art was symbiotically linked to his native landscape and culture. Miró was, the critic Robert Hughes wrote in his book Barcelona (1992), "the greatest artist Catalunya had produced since the 12th century". And not only that, Hughes contended that he was emblematic of the Catalan mentality in his combination of the two qualities known as seny and rauxa.
The first is practical, cautious rationality: what in English is known as common sense. Miró's possession of this characteristic is suggested by the description of him by the photographer Brassaï in his book, The Artists of My Life: "There was nothing bohemian about Miró. His round head and pink face, like a doll's, did not prevent him from being turned out like a real dandy, all dapper and spick and span. His passion for order and cleanliness also prevailed in his studio, where brushes and tubes of paint were as meticulously arranged as if it had been a laboratory."
This aspect of Miró's character was crucial to the way he functioned as an artist. "An essential factor in my work," he insisted, "has always been my need for self-discipline. A picture had to be right to a millimetre – had to be in balance to a millimetre." On another occasion he observed that, "the Catalan character is not like that of Malaga or other parts of Spain. It is very much down to earth. We Catalans believe you must always plant your feet firmly on the earth if you want to jump up in the air." (Miró's choice of Malaga as the antithesis to Catalonia was distinctly pointed, as that Andalucian town was the birthplace of Picasso.)
The opposite of seny – the ying to its yang – is rauxa, a tendency to be wild, uncontrollable and explosive. And this too was characteristic of Miró, an artist who took his inspiration from the most haphazard of chances, at a later point partially burning his pictures. As Hughes explained, "Rauxa and seny coexist like heads and tails on a coin; you cannot separate them, and the basic reason why Joan Miró is seen as so quintessentially a Catalan artist is that he displayed both at once in such abundance."
The Constellations had involved tight precision. Miró completed the last one in September 1941. By this point he was beginning to feel a little less insecure. He revisited Barcelona and spent the summer of 1942 on the family farm at Montroig near Tarragona. In the autumn he moved to Barcelona and began to work in a large new studio on the top floor of a building.
Now he felt the urge to paint in a different way, with more rauxa. As the Constellations had been, he recalled, "so exacting both technically and physically I now felt the need to work more freely, more gaily". Instead of controlling everything, "now I worked with the least control possible – at any rate in the first phase, the drawing". He began from a mark, a splodge, the random result perhaps of wiping his brushes on the paper. On one sheet he spilled some blackberry jam to give him a starting point. As he wrote, "I begin painting and as I paint the picture begins to assert itself, or suggest itself under my brush. The form becomes a sign for a woman or a bird as I work." There he could be describing exactly the process by which Femme et oiseau devant le soleil came into being.
Martin Gayford's most recent book is A Bigger Message: Conversations With David Hockney (Thames & Hudson, £18.95)