In an excerpt from a new book of reflections by the iconic Spanish surrealist, Joan Miró, the artist considers his work, his career and his influences
A voice. For days and days my inner ear was attuned to this voice, which I’ve tried to recreate using the notes I took. These words, which started slowly, but grew bit by bit in speed and in number, ending on the afternoon of November 25, 1958 — how to capture them without freezing them? Miró himself was clear and precise. But speech, by its very nature, seems so different to me from writing that I wondered whether the conversion from one to the other would even be possible, until a phenomenon, which I hoped for intensely but surprised me all the same, occurred.
To describe it, we luckily have Miró’s own words: it is, in fact, a seedling, a new growth. Something in my memory sets down roots, throws up a trunk, branches, leaves. In short, it’s as if some part of me became the garden workshop he talked about where his work grows. A tree of written words, whose image I set in motion and recorded in its spoken version, is born.
Having arrived at this point, I realise that what grows, in me and on paper, traces itself too: there is a kind of drawing, of a figure, of a face. In other words, I also fulfil the requirements of a portrait artist. “Now,” I said to myself, “portraitists don’t usually add their own portrait to that of their subject.” As a result, I’ve tried to suppress any questions that represent myself and which I put to Miró, to leave nothing more than the face, the tree, or the monologue of one of the greatest painters of our times – Yvon Taillandier. Paris, 1963.
The spectacle of the sky overwhelms me.
I’m overwhelmed when I see, in an immense sky, the crescent of the moon, or the sun. There are, in my pictures, tiny forms in huge empty spaces. Empty spaces, empty horizons, empty plains — everything bare has always greatly impressed me.
In the contemporary visual climate, I like factories, nighttime lights, the world seen from a plane. I owe one of the greatest emotions of my life to a night flight over Washington. Seen from a plane at night, a city is a marvellous thing. From a plane, you can see everything. A little person, even a very little dog, can be seen. And this takes on enormous importance, like one or two lights from peasants in the absolute darkness, during a night flight over the countryside.
The simplest things give me ideas. A bowl from which a peasant eats his soup; I prefer this to the ridiculously sumptuous plates of the rich.
Folk art always moves me. In this art there is neither cheating nor faking. It goes straight to the point. It surprises, and is rich in possibilities.
When I began, the painters who made a strong impression on me were Van Gogh, Cézanne, and Le Douanier Rousseau. In loving Rousseau, I already loved folk art. The older I grow, the greater importance this art has for me. A hayfork well carved by a peasant is very important to me.
For me an object is alive; this cigarette, this matchbox, contain a secret life much more intense than that of most humans. I see a tree, I get a shock, as if it were something breathing, talking. A tree, too, is something human.
I work in a state of passion and frenzy. When I begin a canvas, I obey a physical impulse, a need to act; it’s like a physical discharge.
Of course, a painting can’t satisfy me right away. At the beginning, I feel the distress I described. But as I’m a great fighter in these sorts of things, I throw myself into the struggle.
It’s a battle between me and what I’m doing, between me and the canvas, between me and my distress. This struggle is passionately exciting to me. I work until the distress leaves me.
I work for a long time, sometimes years, on the same canvas. But all this time, there are periods, sometimes quite long, when I’m not doing anything with it.
The important thing for me is that its point of departure — the shock that determined it — must be felt.
It doesn’t worry me if a canvas remains in progress for years in my studio. On the contrary, when I’m rich in canvases that have a point of departure vital enough to set off a series of rhythms, a new life, new living things, I’m happy.
I think of my studio as a kitchen garden. Here, there are artichokes. There, potatoes. Leaves must be cut so the fruit can grow. At the right moment, I must prune.
I work like a gardener or a winemaker. Things come slowly. My vocabulary of forms, for example — I didn’t discover it all at once. It formed itself almost in spite of me.
Things follow their natural course. They grow, they ripen. I must graft. I must water, as with lettuce. Ripening goes on in my mind. So I’m always working at a great many things at the same time. And even in different fields: painting, engraving, lithography, sculpture, ceramics.
In an artwork, you should be able to discover new things every time you see it. But you can look at a picture for a week and never think of it again. You can also look at a picture for a second and think of it for the rest of your life. For me, a picture should be like sparks. It must dazzle like the beauty of a woman or a poem. It must have radiance; it must be like those stones that Pyrenean shepherds use to light their pipes.
An artwork must be fertile. It must give birth to a world. Whether you see it in the flowers, people, or horses matters little as long as it reveals a world, something alive.
Two and two don’t make four. They only make four to an accountant. But we mustn’t stop there; the picture must make everything clear; it must fertilise the imagination.
I don’t rule out the possibility that a businessman, looking at one of my pictures, might discover the means of doing a deal, or a scholar, the means of solving a problem.
The solution offered by a picture is a solution of a general order applicable to all sorts of other fields.
More than the picture itself, what counts is what it throws into the air, what it exhales. It doesn’t matter if the image is destroyed. Art can die; what matters is that it scatters seeds on the ground. I liked surrealism because the surrealists didn’t consider painting as an end. With a painting, in fact, we shouldn’t care whether it remains as it is, but rather whether it sets the germs of growth, whether it sows seeds from which other things will spring.
Joan Miró: I Work Like a Gardener by Joan Miró, preface by Robert Lubar (Princeton Architectural Press, £14.99) is available now
Translated by Joyce Reeves, with additional translation by Kevin Lippert