The mirobolant Joan Miro

[10 May 2016]


Joan Miro is one of the world’s most in-demand and expensive artists on the auction market and his works generated some $145.5 million last year, more than signatures like Van Gogh, Alexander Calder or Jean-Michel Basquiat over the same period.

Born in Barcelona in 1893, the young Miro was considered not particularly gifted at drawing and inclined to daydreaming. However, he began studying art in 1912 at the school founded by Galí and soon discovered the works of Van Gogh, the Fauvists and the Cubists. As of 1915, he produced his first compositions showing the simultaneous influence of Cubist schematism and Fauvist passion for colour. In 1920, he moved to Paris where he met painters André Masson and Pablo Picasso and poets Pierre Reverdy, Tristan Tzara, Max Jacob, and started attending Dada meetings. Joan MIRO was in fact a Surrealist before his time, allowing himself to be guided by what André Breton described as “pure psychic automatism”. He sought his subjects inside his head rather than outside, and used a poetic visual language composed of simple, flexible and geometric shapes, splashes and exuberant hieroglyphics, with sharp and bright colours. His celebration of life’s wonders is constantly expressed in recurrent themes like constellations, women and birds. However, the apparent simplicity of his work belies a strong ascetic drive to avoid easy solutions and fight painterly conventions, preferring to completely reinvent his artistic vocabulary. It was his ability to break free from visual reality that made Miro a Surrealist and, according to André Breton, the most Surrealist of us all.

International recognition… and current prices

Miro had first Parisian solo exhibition at the Galerie La Licorne in 1921 and in 1925 he participated in the Surrealist Painting exhibition at the Galerie Pierre where he was noticed by critics and subsequently began to enjoy commercial success. After Paris, his works crossed the Atlantic to New York where he had his first solo exhibition in early 1930 at the Valentine Gallery and then exhibited at New York’s Pierre Matisse Gallery. By the time of his first American exhibitions, Miro had already created a number of superb masterpieces which today fetch multi-million auction results. One of these was a painting-poem with the surreal title Painting Poem (Le corps de ma brune puisque je l’aime comme ma chatte habillée en vert salade comme de la grêle c’est pareil) created in 1925, the year of his first exhibition at Pierre Loeb’s gallery in Paris. On 7 February 2012, the work attracted strong bidding at Christie’s in London and finally sold for $26.5 million setting a new auction record for Miro until 19 June of the same year when his Peinture (Etoile Bleue) sold for $37 million at Sotheby’s in London. In 2007, Peinture (Etoile Bleue) had fetched $13.4 million in Paris (Aguttes), implying a price increase of around 145% in five years, due primarily to the location of the sale (London almost automatically fetches higher prices than Paris) and a reconsideration of the work, now seen as a seminal work for the Surrealist movement. According to art critic Rosalind Krauss, L’Etoile bleue represents an absolute synthesis of Miro’s work because “exceptionally for Miro, it shows a representation of a human figure and of cosmic signs in the same image”. Peinture (Etoile Bleue) is to Miro what The Scream is to Edvard Munch… a trophy work that will appeal to buyers not averse to paying a few million over the odds.

During the 1940s, Miro’s career moved onto an even higher plane, firstly with a major retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York (1941) and then with his contribution to a major Surrealist exhibition at the Maeght Galerie in 1947. Thereafter, the Maeght Gallery exhibited his work every year, becoming his exclusive gallery, his publisher and his printer. That same year, the artist made ​​his first trip to the United States and created his first monumental works in the form of several frescoes, the main one being located at the Plaza Hotel in Cincinnati (3 x 10 metres). Major exhibitions and honorary awards followed: in 1954 he won the Grand Prize for Graphic Work at the Venice Biennale and the following year contributed to the first Documenta in Kassel. He also received the Grand Prize from the Guggenheim Foundation for his murals at UNESCO (1958) and was made ​​a Knight of the Legion of Honour of the French Republic in 1962 – year of a major retrospective at the Musée d’art Moderne de la ville de Paris. In 1966 he received the Carnegie Prize for Painting and in 1980 he was awarded Spain’s Gold Medal of Fine Arts. It is interesting to note that Miro’s work elicited strong recognition from major American institutions before being consecrated in France, Spain or elsewhere. His ties with the United States are strong, not just in terms of recognition, but also in terms of his creative influence. For example, Miro influenced Jackson Pollock who, like Miro, worked his paintings on the floor and often used drips and splashes to capture the energy of his gestures.

Buying a Miro work today…

Usually, Miro’s largest paintings end up being sold in New York or London. But there are surprises every year because many of Miro’s large works are still in France and Spain. In any case, New York is unquestionably still the core of Miro’s market. Last year, the United States accounted for 37% of his annual auction turnover ($50.7 million) from 30% his lots sold. The French market also turned over quite a few Miro works (more than 10% of lots sold) generating $5 million in 2015. But London is where his best recent results have been hammered, including $20.4 million for Painting (Women, Moon, Birds) which more than doubled its pre-sale estimates, becoming his third best-ever auction result. Miro’s price index has risen 34% over the last 10 years and 79% since 2000.
Although Miro is one of the most sought-after artists in the world, his works are not always exorbitantly expensive. Last year, nearly a thousand of his works sold for less than $5,000 at auctions, most of them prints. These prints represent no less than 91% of Miro lots sold, generating 7% of his annual auction turnover. They can be found and acquired all over the world, in London, Paris, New York, but also in Bucharest, Dallas, Tokyo and Jerusalem; they include unsigned offset prints available for a few dollars and rare plates worth tens of thousands of dollars. His most sought-after (and most expensive) print is called Equinoxe, a large aquatint (more than a metre high) from 1967 that fetches between $80,000 and $90,000 on average. Equinoxe is an iconic work considered one of the best examples of 20th century printing. The prolific Catalan artist with his unbridled imagination created approximately 3,500 prints.
The “mirobolant Miro”, as the poet Robert Desnos used to call him (mirobolant meaning fabulous), also created at least 2,000 paintings, 5,000 drawings and collages, 500 sculptures and 400 ceramic works. As the museums have not yet acquired all his works, more than a thousand are expected to change hands at auctions in 2016…