‘A loving dialogue’: Joan Miró’s adventures in printmaking
A guide to the Catalan artist’s prolific and endlessly creative printmaking oeuvre, illustrated with works offered at Christie’s
‘A kaleidoscopic game of infinite possibilities’ — this was how French writer Michel Leiris described the art created by his friend, Joan Miró. If the Spanish artist is remembered principally as a painter, it’s worth pointing out that his artistic curiosity wasn’t satisfied by oil on canvas alone. Over a seven-decade career, he also worked in sculpture, ceramics, tapestry and, most prolifically, prints.
Like Pablo Picasso, his compatriot and peer, Miró had an unwavering commitment to printmaking. Also like Picasso, he created more than 2,000 works in the medium. It’s often said that Miró’s fondness for calligraphic lines — such a distinctive feature of his paintings — lent itself naturally to graphic work.
‘In terms of both the quality and quantity of his output, Joan Miró was one of the most important printmakers of the 20th century,’ says Murray Macaulay, Head of Prints at Christie’s in London.
‘Miro’s approach to making prints was playfully improvisational,’ explains the specialist. ‘He would cut up proofs and rearrange the elements, collating the pieces together in new patterns, adding daubs of colour in crayon, or glyph-like marks in India ink, and writing extensive instructions to his printer. It was a process of finding the image through experiment, embracing accident, but also controlled and methodical.’
Miró’s prints for literature — ‘fine works of art in their own right’
The son of a watchmaker, Miró was born in Barcelona in 1893. He moved to Paris in the early 1920s and soon joined the Surrealist movement. He also befriended a host of avant-garde writers, such as Max Jacob, Tristan Tzara, Antonin Artaud, André Breton and Paul Eluard.
The first prints Miró ever made were illustrations for Tzara’s 1930 book of poems, L’arbre des Voyageurs. Literary sources would prove to be a constant inspiration for him, with notable examples including Alfred Jarry’s play, Ubu Roi; Stephen Spender’s poem, Fraternity; and the mystic, medieval text, Canticle of the Sun, by St Francis of Assisi.
Comprising a portfolio of 33 prints, the last of these — Càntic del Sol (as per its title in Catalan) — was produced in 1975 with the leading Barcelona publisher, Editorial Gustavo Gili, and marked a peak of Miró’s printmaking.
St Francis had written his text during a period of blindness in the mid 13th century. It expressed his ecstatic vision of man and nature as one — something Miró strove to emulate through his idiosyncratic, visual vocabulary of ciphers, symbols and squiggles.
‘In no way should any of the artist’s prints be considered “mere illustrations” for a given text or book,’ Macaulay says. ‘They were parallel creations: fine works of art in their own right.’
Miró’s main printing techniques and collaborations
‘Miró’s prints can broadly be broken down into three categories,’ Macaulay says, ‘which, essentially, are the three main techniques he used: intaglio [ie, drypoint and etching], lithograph and carborundum’.
In each case, he developed a close working relationship with masters of respected printing ateliers. The first of these was Roger Lacourière, a master in intaglio (who also produced Picasso’s prints series, The Vollard Suite).
One of Miró’s successes with Lacourière was the 1933 drypoint, Daphnis & Chloé, in which a goatherd playing a reed-pipe charms two female bathers from the sea. Miró’s lines are as soft and lyrical as the tune being played.
Another major printer he worked with was Stanley William Hayter: initially in Paris and then in New York (where the latter moved at the start of the Second World War).
Hayter was renowned for his experiments with intaglio and pioneered a method of simultaneous colour printmaking known as ‘viscosity printing’. This involved the then-unusual practice of several colours being applied on a single plate — and resulted in etchings such as Serie I (above).
There’s a clear contrast to be made between Miró’s approach to the medium and Picasso’s. Where the former was largely happy to work within the long, established tradition of European printmaking, the latter was at his happiest breaking rules and following his own path. (Picasso was known to add suet and nail varnish to his prints, for example, in a bid for novel effects.)
‘Miró had too much respect for his materials and tools to subject them to his own designs — rather, he beckoned them… and engaged them in loving dialogue,’ wrote the critic, Jacques Dupin, in his monograph on the artist.
‘Similarly, he had a knack for listening to [the likes of Lacourière and Hayter], giving them the opportunity to create alongside him, in the true spirit of collective solidarity… He thrived on the congeniality of group work’.
Miró made many of his finest lithographs with a printer called Fernand Mourlot — in a working relationship that lasted from 1947 until the 1970s and included works such as the aforementioned Suites pour Ubu Roi.
The prints made in Mourlot’s atelier were, for the most part, vibrantly colourful. However, the series considered to be Miró’s masterpiece in lithography — his ‘Barcelona Series’ — was executed in black and white.
Comprising 50 images, made between 1939 and 1944, it marked the artist’s response to the Spanish Civil War. It features an array of grotesque characters with sharp-pointed tongues, arms like hooks and noses like elephant trunks — all making plain the contempt he had for the conflict that had ravaged his homeland.
Miró began his carborundum prints in the late 1960s, and these represent what Macaulay calls ‘the culmination and final development of his graphic work’.
They involved a type of engraving, in which an abrasive ground known as carborundum (or silicon carbide, to give it its proper name) was mixed with a binding agent and applied to a printing plate. The final prints — such as Equinoxe — tend to have a rich, velvety, granulated surface that creates what Macauley describes as ‘a remarkable visual equivalence to the rich surface texture of his paintings’.
As Dupin put it, ‘carborundum gave Miró… engravings-cum-paintings that might be hung on the wall, not stashed away in a folder... These are monumental, not merely dimension-wise, but also by their brilliance and depth, and the volcanic splashes animating them.’
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The move towards abstraction
From 1940 until his death in 1983, Miró lived between Barcelona and Mallorca (the Spanish island where his wife, Pilar, was from). He still travelled extensively, though, and made frequent visits to printing studios as far away as Hayter’s in New York.
By this time, he’d left Surrealism behind. As he grew older, his art — broadly speaking — became more abstract, and Miró was cited as an influence by most of the Abstract Expressionists.
The market for Miró prints
When it comes to his paintings, the highest prices tend to be fetched for Surrealist works from the 1920s. Macaulay argues, however, that the market for Miró’s prints observes different rules.
‘His colourful, late prints are the most widely appreciated: for their impressive scale and wonderfully coruscated surface, created by the carborundum. Everyone will have their own favourite, though. I myself love the small, quirky etchings he made with Hayter in the 1940s, which are full of wit and visual delight.’
And what about the would-be collector, who’s new to Miró’s graphic work? Can Macaulay suggest the best prints for them to be looking for? ‘I’d recommend Miro’s lithographs,’ he says. ‘They’re relatively inexpensive and — in the case of those made with Mourlot and, later, Aimé Maeght — beautifully printed by two of the great workshops of the 20th century.’