Joan Miró
Spanish, 1893–1983

Signes et Symboles (Signs and Symbols), 1938
Gouache and chalk on paper, 27 1/2 x 40 3/4 in.
Gift of Cornell Jaray

Joan Miró was a pioneering 20th-century surrealist whose experiments with chance and the unconscious yielded new expressive possibilities and pictorial vocabularies. Born in Barcelona, he spent most of his adulthood in France, where he was a leading figure in the School of Paris.

Miró drew Signes et Symbols in Paris, two years after the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. He had fled there to escape the hostilities and would stay until 1940. Even before the war, he had been giving artistic vent to his apprehension about the rise of political turbulence across Europe. Later, he would call this his "savage period." Tragic and horrific subject matter, vigorous paint handling, and extreme formal distortion characterized many of his works from 1934 through the late 1930s, a period of unease and creative difficulty for the artist. As the poet and art critic Jacques Dupin put it, "A poetic universe had suddenly been struck with terror."(1) Both Miró and his countryman Pablo Picasso responded to the atrocities being carried out in their native Spain, and each produced a major canvas—The Reaper and Guernica, respectively—for exhibition at the Spanish pavilion of the Paris Exposition Universelle in July 1937, to protest the intensive air attack on the defenseless Basque town of Guernica that April.

Signes et Symboles is a product of this disturbing moment in world history and in the artist’s life. Fecundity, connection with the heavens, the exhilaration of flight, life’s natural cycles--none of these previous, optimistic themes in Miró's work occupies him here. Instead, a black ground contrasts with an anxious white line. A smudged umber gouache frames hieroglyphic forms that vaguely suggest figures on a stage set. The drawing appears spontaneous and erratic: little is settled, and much is left in nervous agitation. Miró readily recognized that current events intrude on even the most apolitical artists. "The outer world," he wrote in 1939, "always has an influence on the painter. [T]hat goes without saying. If the interplay of lines and colors does not expose the inner drama of the creator, then it is nothing more than bourgeois entertainment."(2) Holed up in a cramped Paris studio, watching his homeland fall prey to fascist aggression, he poured his anxieties into his art. Miró had been among the first artists to tap the psyche directly as a creative resource. Now, that practice yielded art that reflected immense inner turmoil.

--Patricia McDonnell
Ulrich Museum of Art

1. Jacques Dupin, “Miró’s Woman in Revolt, 1938,” in Joan Miró: A Retrospective, exh. cat. (New York: Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in association with Yale University Press, 1987), 41.
2. Joan Miró, Cahiers d’art 14 (April–May 1939), quoted in Margit Rowell, ed., Joan Miró: Selected Writings and Interviews (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1986), 166.

Joan Miró (Spanish, 1893–1983), 'Signes et Symboles (Signs and Symbols),' 1938. Gouache and chalk on paper, 27 1/2 by 40 3/4 inches. Gift of Cornell JarayArtofOurTimecatalogue,publishedin2010