Miró’s World War II Painting That Brings Light and Hope in Dark Night

Joan Miró once famously declared that he wanted to assassinate paintings. Through his “assassination of painting”, he challenged traditional aesthetics by experimenting with radically new artistic forms. To better understand the style and philosophy of this avant-garde Spanish artist, we invited Hugues Joffre, Phillips’ Senior Advisor to the CEO, to tell us more about Joan Miró with his work Femme dans la nuit, one of the 14 white-ground paintings that the artist painted against the backdrop of World War II.

Hugues Joffre, Phillips’ Senior Advisor to the CEO

Q: Under what background did Miró create this painting? 
Hugues: This work belongs to a series of 14 large paintings created between 26 January and 7 May 1945, during World War II. Miró created all 14 paintings in five months. These paintings all have a background of white texture, which led to the nickname of this series ‘The white-ground paintings’.

Joan Miró

Hugues: He used the same imagery in different positions on these paintings. The woman, the night, the ideogram of stars, or constellations of stars. And here, what you think maybe the mountain or landscape, are actually swallows. The female figure here has long hair, two eyes, a heart and the Catalan peasant shoes. The painting is like a surrealist poem that uses imagery to replace words. You can interpret the poem whichever way you want.

Miró put imagery of woman, star and swallows on the painting

Miró put imagery of woman, star and swallows on the painting

Miró put imagery of woman, star and swallows on the painting

Q: Why did Miró use these interesting symbols? They are very differnt from what we see in traditional paintings. 

Hugues: Miró once said, “I want to kill painting”. What he meant is that he wanted to do away with the traditional representation. He took away the landscape that we see in traditional paintings and replaced it with another setting. You can see the white background is textured, not just pure white background.

Can you spot Miró in the painting? 

Hugues: In this painting, he presented images in stylised shapes that we call ideogram, which is a bit like emoji. The images are not representational at all. They are simplified versions of people or anonymous objects. Miró put himself in this painting as well. Here, ‘M.I.R.O’ on the sky. He put himself in paradise, looking at the world. The word 'Miró' in Spanish means ‘I look’. He is there looking at us. So that’s quite a moving picture.

Miró put himself on the sky of the painting, echoing his name Miró in Spanish, which means 'I look'

Q: It was created during World War II. Why did the artist choose the colour white as the background, rather than dark colours?

Hugues: It’s been a puzzle why these paintings in this series, titled Woman in the Night, Woman and Bird in the Night etc., are set in the white background. Traditionally, our understanding of night should be something dark. There are several interpretations but no explanation. One possible interpretation is that, after all these dark years during the wartime, suddenly there was hope following the liberation of Paris. Maybe the artist felt like it was coming to the end of the war so he was pretty positive. He chose to replace the darkness of the night by the light. That’s why the night is white.

Parisians gathered in Champs Élysées for the victory parades following Paris's liberation on 25 August 1944 

Hugues: Intellectually, some people think he was referring to Italian poet Dante, whose work was loved by Miró as a teenager. In Dante work ‎Divine Comedy that describes Dante’s travels through Hell, Purgatory, then all the way to Paradise, Paradise is white. It is possible that Miró felt like he was soon getting there.

Joan Miró Personnage et oiseau dans la nuit. 5 February 1945. Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid

Hugues: There is a little story about this series. These 14 paintings are all dated with specific dates and the last one of the series, which is not the present one, is dated the day when the German surrender unconditionally. And then Miró moved on to something else.

Q:  Any reason why we often see women and birds in Miró paintings, including this one?

Hugues: In my interpretation, women represent lives in European, Western philosophy because they give lives. So Miró chose to paint a woman in this work, meaning life is lived again. The birds, the swallows mean freedom. But again, Miró didn’t talk much about his works so it’s up for us to interpret.

Birds and women are often seen in Miró' s paintings. The above one is Joan Miró Femme et oiseau dans la nuit (Woman and Bird in the Night), 26 January 1945.

Birds and women are often seen in Miró' s paintings. The above one is Joan Miró Femmes et oiseaux dans la nuit (Women and Birds in the Night), 12th February 1945. Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düseldorf

Q: Of all the 14 paintings that Miró created for the series, how many are in the private hands?
Hugues: Of this series of 14 paintings, about eight or nine of them are in museums. There are very few in private collections so it’s rare to see them come up onto the market. Throughout my career of more than 35 years, only three from the series appeared at auctions. In fact, the 14 paintings were never shown together.

Joan Miró's Femme Rêvant De L'évasion (1 Februrary 1945) was sold for £8.44m at Sotheby's in 2013

Joan Miró’s Femme dans la nuit will be offered at Phillips 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale in New York on 15 November. Estimated at US$12m-18m, the painting comes up on the market for the first time since it was acquired by the consignor’s family in 1973.

Joan Miró (1893-1983). Femme dans la nuit

Auction house: Phillips New York
Sale: 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale
Sale date: 15 November|5pm
Painted on: 22 March 1945
Signed, titled and dated "Miró 22-3-45 "femme dans la nuit" "
Size: 129.9 x 162.6 cm
Estimate: US$12,000,000 - 18,000,000