In Joan Miró’s Femme dans la nuit, 1945, a female creature is shown on the left-hand side of a large canvas while the rest of the composition is filled with an array of characters, signs and glyphs. At the top is a black star, radiating against the light background. These elements, rendered with painstaking precision, have been contrasted with more freely rendered elements: caterpillar-like squiggles that wind through the picture, the loops of their meandering forms containing spots of color—green, mauve and orangey yellow. The resulting composition, one that rhythmically pulses with life, is comprised of elements that are found throughout the entire cycle of 14 paintings Miró conceived in 1945.
Created against the backdrop of World War II, Femme dans la nuit forms part of this ambitious series of 14 large paintings, each featuring Miró’s signature ideograms on an atmospheric white background that the artist undertook between January 26 and May 7, 1945 – the final work painted the same day as Germany signed the unconditional surrender in Reims. Painted on March 22, Femme dans la nuit is an important example from this group, its singular position reflected in its inclusion in the artist’s seminal retrospective at the Musée National d’Art Moderne in Paris in 1962. Other examples from the series now reside in important institutional collections including the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, the Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Dusseldorf and the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid.
Femme dans la nuit: An Heir to Miró’s Constellations
Femme dans la nuit was acquired in 1947 by Pierre Matisse, Miró’s most significant art dealer since 1933. The son of Henri Matisse, Pierre had moved to New York and set up an esteemed gallery to introduce primarily European avant-garde artists to the American market. In spite of wartime restraints, it was at the Pierre Matisse Gallery in January 1945 that Miró’s earliest images inspired by World War II were first exhibited to unprecedented acclaim – the so-called Constellations, modestly scaled works on paper primarily in gouache. Discussing the Constellations and subsequent works a few years after Femme dans la nuit was painted, Miró explained: “The night, music and the stars began to play a major role in suggesting my paintings. Music had always appealed to me, and now music in this period began to take the role poetry had in the early twenties – especially Bach and Mozart when I went back to Mallorca after the fall of France” (Joan Miró, quoted in Hershell B. Chipp, ed., Theories of Modern Art: A Source Book by Artists and Critics, Berkeley, 1984, p. 434). It was this series, coupled with the tragic passing of the artist’s mother on May 27, 1944 that brought about an inflection point in the artist’s work, laying the foundation for him to undertake his most ambitious body of work since the onset of the war.
The Turning Point of 1945
Coinciding with the exhibition’s success in New York, Miró chose to undertake a second, concluding cycle of works inspired by the war, doing so with the belief that these would become his magnum opus. Since 1937, nothing but war had featured in Miró’s work; its trials had completely sidetracked not just his art career but his personal life as well. Writing to Georges Raillard, Miró exclaimed, “I remember very well this time of fascism. I took refuge here in Palma, and I said to myself: ‘My old man, you're done! You're going to go to sleep on a beach and draw in the sand with a cane. Or you'll make drawings with the smoke of a cigarette...you will not be able to do anything else...all is ruined!’ I had this impression clearly at the time of Hitler and Franco” (Joan Miró, quoted in Ceci est la couleur de mes rêves. Entretiens avec Georges Raillard, Paris, 1977, p. 75). Writing to Roland Penrose in retrospect, he explained of his psyche at the time, “I believed in the inevitable victory of Nazism, and that everything which we loved and which constituted our reason for being was forever thrown into the abyss” (Joan Miró, quoted in Lilian Tone, “The Journey of Miró’s Constellations”, MoMA, no. 15, Autumn 1993, p. 2). When the war did ultimately end in May 1945 and Miró was able to consider the importance of the series of works he began earlier that year, conceived in the darkest hours when peace had seemed so far away, he understood them to be a watershed moment, not just in his own art, but also for the future of art. He was immediately inspired to explore the possibility of exhibiting his war works in totality. Writing to Christian Zervos less than two months after Femme dans la nuit was painted, Miró explained, “during this period of time one had to enter into action in one manner or another, or blow one’s brains out; there was no choice…This exhibition should not be considered as a simple artistic event, but an act of human import, by reason of being an oeuvre realized during this terrible time when they wanted to deny all spiritual values and to destroy all that man holds precious and worthy in life” (Joan Miró, quoted in Lilian Tone, “The Journey of Miró’s Constellations”, MoMA, no. 15, Autumn 1993, p. 4).
The large canvases that Miró painted in 1945 saw him address the legacy of his artistic contemporary and friend Wassily Kandinsky, who had declared “my stories…are not narrative or historical in character, but purely pictorial” (Wassily Kandinsky, quoted in Kandinsky in Paris: 1934-44, exh. cat., Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 1985, p. 30). Just before Miró fled France, both had been living in Varengeville when Miró created his first Constellations in 1939. At the end of 1944, just before Miró commenced his white paintings, Kandinsky had died. Miró was taking up the mantle – all the more so as Kandinsky’s old friend Paul Klee had also died four years earlier. Miró had never met Klee, but his discovery of the Swiss artist’s pictures earlier in his career had been a revelation, particularly Klee’s notion of a line “that goes out for a walk, so to speak, aimlessly for the sake of the walk” (Paul Klee, in Jurg Spiller, ed., Paul Klee Notebooks, Volume 1: The Thinking Eye, London, 1961, p. 105).
A Picture for a Newborn Humanity
This 1945 series represented Miró’s dramatic return to painting on canvas after several years of focusing on prints, drawings and watercolors due to the dearth of opportunities to produce or market works conceived on the ambitious scale he would undertake with this cycle of paintings. These works, along with the notebooks that he kept during the war, act as a repository of sorts from which to excavate his source inspiration for the paintings of 1945. Miró’s notebooks indicate the extent to which he planned Femme dans la nuit and its sister-works during the war years, while also revealing how much the concepts evolved. While Miró originally intended to use earlier drawings as his inspiration for the series, he explained, “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” (Joan Miró, quoted in Hershell. B. Chipp, ed., Theories of Modern Art: A Source Book by Artists and Critics, Berkeley, 1984, p. 435). Discussing these intended paintings in his notebooks, Miró wrote in terms that clearly relate to Femme dans la nuit: “the lines that I shall draw in over it [sic] should be very sharp, the poignant outcries of the soul, the whimperings of a new-born world and a new-born humanity arising out of the ruins and rottenness of today” (Joan Miró, quoted in Gaetan Picon, ed., Joan Miró: Catalan Notebooks, London, 1977, p. 124).
Miró led a quasi-monastic existence during this period, recalling his time in Montroig during World War I, when he compared himself to Dante in a letter to E.C. Ricart. This is all the more apt as Femme dans la nuit recalls Dante’s Paradiso: with the woman’s entrance into a clear world of light, the picture echoes Beatrice leading the poet into the Empyrean realm. This is evidenced in Femme dans la nuit where Miró deliberately distilled his visual iconography and lent it a greater impact by presenting it against the atmospheric white backdrop. These fields find their precedent in the monochromatic fields of color, predominately in blue, yellow, and brown, which the artist established in the mid-1920s that had become a signature of sorts. It is no surprise then, that his dramatic return to painting after years working on a more diminutive scale would inspire the artist to revisit his revolutionary mode of covering the ground of his canvases that was quintessential to his work at the height of his career in the years before the war. The uneven field of white paint succeeds in projecting a space for his main pictorial elements to dominate: gone is the all-over decoration of the earlier Constellations. Refining the iconography of his earlier series, the works of 1945 avoid density in favor of allowing more emphasis on the individual elements. The various forms in Femme dans la nuit, and in particular the dumbbell-like shapes linked by lines, take on the rhythmic appearance of musical notations, adding a pulsing visual cadence to the composition. And yet they also have a distinctly figurative reading within the composition as well as specifically address the worst horrors of the war: bombs raining from airplanes. Miró speaks of capturing this terror in his notebooks from the period, “up in the sky a plane done like a bird of fantastic shape in the spirit of Bruegel or Hieronymus Bosch…” (Joan Miró, quoted in Gaetan Picon, ed., Joan Miró: Catalan Notebooks, London, 1977, p. 33).
Most, if not all of the works featuring these dumbbells—and all those featuring the rough-hewn squiggly creatures—date from the World War II period. Evoking bombs and planes, air fraught with potential danger, they recall the essential theme of Pablo Picasso’s Guernica as well as René Magritte’s Le drapeau noir, both 1937. This context is all the more pointed as Femme dans la nuit was painted at a time of the most vigorous bombings by the Allied and Axis forces in Europe and Asia in early 1945.
The female figure who dominates Femme dans la nuit echoes the form in El segador, 1937, a colossal large-scale mural of a Catalan peasant Miró created for the Spanish Pavilion at the Exposition Universelle in Paris, where it hung near Picasso’s Guernica. This was a protest picture, a cry of anguish about the aerial bombing of Spain. Miró’s relentless ambition had him musing on how he would go beyond what Picasso presented in 1937, writing around 1940, “let these canvases be in a highly poetic and musical spirit, done without any apparent effort, like birdsong, the uprise of a new world or the return to a purer world, with nothing dramatic about them and nothing theatrical, full of love and magic, in their conception as unlike Picasso’s canvases as possible, for his represent the end and dramatic summing up of an era with all its impurities, contradictions and expedients” (Joan Miró, quoted in Gaetan Picon, ed., Joan Miró: Catalan Notebooks, London, 1977, p. 116). Eight years later, in Femme dans la nuit, this ambiguous and engaging image of doom and defiance retained much of its currency. While light and optimism were tentatively raising their heads in this luminous sequence of 1945, there is nonetheless a keen awareness of the toll of war, made all the more vivid by the presence of a sky laden with weighty forms. In many ways, the woman in Femme dans la nuit and several of its sister pictures can be seen as an analogue for the screaming and wailing figures of Picasso’s Guernica.
A Timeless Legacy
The connections across the years between Femme dans la nuit with the earlier El Segador and the Constellations series provide an insight into Miró’s working practice, whereby chance marks served as a springboard for an initial concept that he would elaborate over time. The marks in those paintings and in Femme dans la nuit all recall ancient cave art while also reverberating with the concerns of the existentialists who were coming to the fore in intellectual circles in Paris and elsewhere. At the same time, the “ideograms” that punctuate Miró’s works from the 1920s onwards often echoed the letters from his own name—his signature—using them as the seed for a composition. This was especially true with his initial “M”. In The Potato, for example, now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, the white portion of a figure’s hand is emblazoned with an “M” that terminates with a curlicue that echoes the “o” from the end of his name. While these letters occasionally punctuated Miró’s paintings over the years, in the series of pictures from the end of the World War II to which Femme dans la nuit belongs, there is a remarkable density of their occurrence. In Femme dans la nuit itself, the more freeform element that loops across the upper part of the canvas, which doubles as a Bosch-like bomber, also appears to contain at least an “M” and an “o”. This revealed Miró entwining his entire identity with the process of painting, an art form to which he was now returning with gusto. And the centrality of his name was all the more apt as it appears linked to the Spanish and Catalan verb “mirar” —to look.
The impact of Miró’s paintings was seemingly immediate, where the insights expressed in these paintings of war were recognized, both in Europe and in the United States. Post-war paintings by Arshile Gorky, Jackson Pollock and Robert Motherwell all share the same anguish and unprecedented graphic universality through abstraction that is so intensely presented in this work. It is through works such as Femme dans la nuit that we can associate Miró more so with the generation of artists that would succeed him than with the previous generation who came to prominence before the war. And this becomes apparent why upon reading Miró’s own hopes for his art at that time – he was looking forward to envision a new art, conceived “as a good poem or the breath of air or the flight of a bird, and just as fine and pure”, and in doing so, he shaped a new generation of artists (Joan Miró, quoted in Gaetan Picon, ed., Joan Miró: Catalan Notebooks, London, 1977, p. 116).
Looking at Femme dans la nuit, one can see that Miró’s example found fresh soil in the form of Motherwell in particular, as evinced in the freedom, lyricism and restraint of works such as Open No. 153 of 1970. It is easy to understand why Motherwell himself would heap praise upon Miró in terms that also apply to his own work: “A sensitive balance between nature and man’s works, almost lost in contemporary art, saturates Miró’s art, so that his work, so original that hardly anyone has any conception of how original, immediately strikes us to the depths. No major artist’s atavism flies across so many thousands of years (yet no artist is more modern)” (Robert Motherwell, “The Significance of Miró”, in Dore Ashton & Joan Banach, eds., The Writings of Robert Motherwell, Berkeley, 2007, p. 188).