Miró's Majorca

The Spanish island sheltered and inspired the artist yet met him with "an eloquent silence."

by Sarah Wildman
The New York Times
Sunday, July 17, 2011


Read the full article at nytimes.com

A bronze Miró sculpture interrupts the sidewalk below the grand Cathedral of Palma de Mallorca. It stretches up, the height of two men, a hollowed concave rectangle topped by a large egg-shaped nugget tilted toward the Mediterranean. Day after day, tourists rush past it in a hustle, descending from the steep side street that winds down to the shaded Passeig de Born, a busy thoroughfare filled with clothing stores and mopeds.

No fanfare announces the sculpture’s presence. It would be easy simply to glide past “Femme,” as the bronze is called, without pausing to appreciate this work by one of Spain’s, indeed one of the world’s, most renowned artists. But spend a little time in Majorca and the casual, almost offhand, placement of the artwork reveals itself as part of a much larger story — about an artist who was sheltered and inspired by this island, but who, surprisingly, only posthumously received the kind of recognition here that he did elsewhere.

I had arrived in Palma at the end of May with my daughter, Orli, and my partner, Ian, in anticipation of viewing the major Miró retrospective at the Tate Modern in London, which will be on display into September before moving on to Barcelona and then, next May, to the National Gallery of Art in Washington. I hoped to understand the story of Miró’s Majorca, to see and feel the island’s rugged landscape for myself — the scrubby trees, mountains and the sea that surrounds it; to watch the way the early morning light filters down into the Gothic quarter and glances off the tops of centuries-old buildings.

Joan Miró was born in Barcelona in 1893, and though his work had already earned an international audience when he settled in Palma in the mid-1950s, few here, it seemed, had heard of him. Miró embraced this anonymity, setting up his studios well outside the city where he would create some of his most important works, including the triptych “Bleu I, II, III” (1961), which was, according to the German art critic Barbara Catoir, a paean to the color of Majorca’ s sky and the sea that surrounds the island.

Like the Catalan landscape of his childhood, the white plaster walls of the fisherman’s cottages, the gourd-like urns often found in Majorcan courtyards and the brightly painted folk-art figures in the tourist shops all found their way into Miró’s paintings. So, too, did the crescent-shaped vestiges of the Moors and the rhythms of the Santa Catalina market, with its fishmongers and rough-handed fishermen drinking coffee out of tiny glass tumblers.

“I invent nothing, it’s all here! That is why I have to live here!” Miró told Walter Erben, a German writer who visited him at his studio outside Palma in 1956.

I thought of those words on my first afternoon in town, as soon as I dropped my bags in the small apartment I had rented in the Santa Catalina neighborhood. I walked through Plaça de La Feixina — a park where a Fascist obelisk that was originally erected in 1948 was recently given a (democratic) face-lift; it is now inscribed with a message honoring those who were victims of war and dictatorship. I would have lingered there, but I was on my way to Es Baluard, the modern art museum that opened in 2004.

Once a fortress built into the old city walls, the museum’s space has been gorgeously repurposed and is now all smooth concrete walls and high ceilings. Inside, the Sala Miró contains a small permanent collection of works by the artist. Lining the walls are paintings from his “Série Mallorca, 1973,” a set of primarily black-and-white etchings, illuminated with orbs of blue, orange and red, and strips of green. Outside the museum, a quiet, expansive terraza overlooks the city and the port, well away from the hustle of the old quarter, with a breathtaking view of the Bay of Palma. A clutch of locals sat there when I arrived, cheekily ignoring the art, eating olives and drinking beer in the afternoon sun that warmed the terra-cotta buildings around us, setting the city afire with the Mediterranean light that Miró admired. In the distance, hundreds of boats dotted the water.

In the museum’s bookstore a young woman named Nuria lay out a half-dozen books on Miró for me. His mother, she said, hailed from the Majorcan mountain town of Sóller. Each summer, as a boy, Miró would visit, toggling frequently between Palma and Sóller, 90 minutes away, where he spent time with his grandmother. The train to Sóller is nearly as it was then. Made of wood, and dating from 1912, it runs on a claustrophobically narrow track, swaying and clicking as it winds its way from the scrappy outer suburbs of Palma up into the fragrant, forested mountainside through skinny tunnel after tunnel. In the Sóller train station a handful of Miró’s works are on display, alongside those of his good friend Picasso.

But it was Palma, not Sóller, where Miró spent the most time, so in my limited time on the island, the city was my focus. In those early years, young Miró sketched several Palma landmarks — the cathedral, the 700-year-old Bellver Castle at the edge of the city, Sa Llotja, the 15th-century stock exchange. Over time, the landscape of Palma and its surroundings would prove to be among Miró’s most consistent muses.

It is an odd paradox that, until recently, the sentiment was not entirely reciprocated. In 1992, nearly a decade after his death, Spanish journalists discovered that Miró had hoped to create stained-glass windows for Palma’s cathedral, but was rebuffed. His grandson, Joan Punyet Miró, affirmed the story, adding that Miró once tried to give Palma several sculptures to welcome visitors to the city; that offer, too, was refused, which explains the forlorn sense one gets from the few pieces of Miró’s art that seem to appear out of nowhere in the city’s public spaces.

“My grandfather moved to Majorca in 1956 when he was 63 years old; he passed away here in 1983 at the age of 90,” said Mr. Punyet, 43. We were in the offices of the Successió Miró, the rooms where the artist’s three remaining grandsons control much of his estate, on Avenida Jaume III, a bustling commercial artery. The office is filled with remarkable photographs: Miró with Picasso, Miró’s portrait taken by Man Ray. Large binders are filled with original black-and-white pictures from every era of Miró’s life; there are images as well of the oldest grandson — David Fernández Miró, for whom a ceramic mural in the city’s Parc de Mar is named — who died at 35 in 1992, after years of drug and alcohol abuse.

“Majorca was a place that would shelter his soul, that would shelter his spirit in a spiritual and creative sense,” Mr. Punyet said to me about his grandfather.

It was also, for a time, a place that sheltered him from war. In 1936, as the Spanish Civil War broke out, Mr. Punyet said, Miró, who was an outspoken critic of Fascism, fled Barcelona with his wife, Pilar, and daughter, María Dolores, for Paris. The family remained in France until 1940, when the Nazi occupation of Paris pushed the family back to Spain, and into hiding from Franco’s mainland Fascist forces on Majorca, where Pilar’s family was from and where the couple had married, at the San Nicolás Church in the Gothic quarter in 1929. There they took up residence in a tiny apartment on a slip of a street called Carrer de les Minyones, in the heart of Gothic Palma, in the shadow of the cathedral.

Carrer de les Minyones is, I found, unremarkable, except for a set of gorgeously curved, multicolored Art Nouveau windows on one corner. But in the 1940s, this block was, for Miró, a way to go underground. “He remembered what happened to Federico Garcia Lorca, that he got shot,” his grandson said, referring to the playwright who was executed by firing squad in Granada in the early days of the Spanish Civil War.

On Carrer de les Minyones, Miró was known only as “Pilar’s husband.” His letters were dictated to, and then handwritten by, his wife. He worked on “Constellations,” one of his best-known series, and only occasionally ventured out. “I took refuge in the cathedral,” he wrote a friend, recalling how he would sit in the early morning, listening to the organist practice. “Who was I then? Almost no one, a poor man, a little crazy, someone who wanted to paint things in a manner that, here, no one understood. No one.”

Even in 1956, when Miró settled for good in Majorca, in Cala Mayor, on the western outskirts of Palma, he rarely went into the city, several people told me, other than to hear the organist at the cathedral, or to have an occasional traditional Majorcan ensaimada pastry at C’an Joan de S’aigo, the oldest ice-cream shop in Palma, in the labyrinthine heart of the old city center.
But the same was not true for his wife. In 1995, an obituary in the Spanish national newspaper El País called Pilar Miró’s door to the world. It was she who received his visitors and she who, after his death, sold off some 40 pieces of art to raise money for the building of a museum devoted to her husband on the site of the studios the couple had already donated to the city. Unlike her husband, Pilar interacted with Palma, coming in each day to the Santa Catalina market, shopping for provisions, chatting with her neighbors.

Santa Catalina remains the most authentic of Palma neighborhoods. It is less touristed the Gothic center; artists live here, and there are a few boutiques and some new, excellent market-to-table restaurants, which have begun to draw foot traffic to the area at night. The market itself still bustles, vigorously, each morning. Bakery stalls sell ensimadas for a euro; others hawk spices, cheese, meat, poultry and, of course, fish.

Open since the days Señora Miró shopped here, Bar Joan Frau is near the back of the market, the type of place the artist’s grandson told me that his grandfather liked: small, unassuming, with humble, well-prepared food. There is, typically, a long wait for the few tables that are set up inside the bar, and a clutch of men and women are always standing at the shiny silver counter. The bar is known for empanadas filled with meat or seafood, and for fried cuttlefish, stuffed eggplant and paella. We could picture Pilar, finished with the day’s shopping and lingering over a perfect cortado, then taking a taxi back up to Cala Mayor.

It would have been a relatively quick taxi ride. The studios in Cala Mayor where Miró spent his golden years, were only 15 to 20 minutes away, situated in a place of solitude on what was then a verdant hillside overlooking the sea.

“I dream of a grand atelier,” Miró famously explained in the French magazine XXe Siècle in 1938. With the help of his friend the Catalan architect — for many years, dean of the Harvard school of design — Josep Lluís Sert, that dream was realized in 1956.

Sert created for Miró a light-filled space with a remarkable system of cooling and light, propelled entirely by the building’s shutters, which function like the gills of a fish, allowing the room to breathe through the walls and ceiling. Now Miró could turn to his most ambitious works — large-scale paintings, triptychs, sculpture, lithographs and etchings.

Three years after moving his work into the Sert studio on a property, called Son Abrines, that included his home, Miró purchased Son Boter, a traditional Majorcan country home on the hillside above. That, too, he used as a working space.

Open to the public since 1992, these two studios are now part of the Fundació Pilar i Joan Miró a Mallorca, which also includes a Modernist cube museum designed by Rafael Moneo, known most recently for the Prado extension in Madrid. In an open breezeway between the museum and the studios, Mr. Moneo installed an infinity pool, set dramatically against the sky, as a way of bringing in the element of water, since much of the view of the sea has been obscured since the 1950s, as buildings rose near the compound. Indeed, Miró and his wife had decided to create the foundation here as a fight against such construction. “I do not want them someday to build one of those horrendous skyscrapers which I see all around me," Miró said when donating his studios to the Palma city council.

In the museum are dozens of important works: enormous, captivating canvases splashed with color, or darkened with bold black paint, all hung in a cool cavern of sandstone. The Sert studio, on the other hand, has been left almost as it was in the artist’s day, with dozens of paintings propped against walls, set up on easels or lying on the floor.

“I was 10 years old the very first time he invited me to his studio,” Mr. Punyet, the grandson, had told me during my visit to his office. “Those memories really stick to your subconscious. Because they are very strong: the smell of turpentine, of gasoline, oil, acrylic, alcohol,” he said, going on to describe “canvases everywhere, huge mural paintings on the back wall with chalk and needles and nails and pins and objets trouvés, everywhere like a big disaster, a big chaos, of things.”

I stood, like young Mr. Punyet, surrounded by the scraps collected by Miró: beach flotsam, magazine cutouts, wood, crafts, photographs pinned to walls.

Today, there is only one completed painting in the space, an oil on sandpaper, studded with nails. “None of this is abstract,” said Jaume Reus, communications director for the Fundació, who walked me through the studio, trying to explain when I looked dubious. “This,” he said, pointing to a quick sketch of black on another canvas, “is the flight of a bird; and this” — a circle, a dot — “an animal’s eye.”

Outside Son Abrines, the hill slopes upward, and a landscaped stone walkway leads to Son Boter, a 17th-century manor that was once a boarding house run by the Baroness von Münchhausen. When Miró acquired the building in 1959, he began drawing on the walls, like a genius cave man, sketching out his enormous sculptures. The morning I visited, a freak storm began, rolling in from the mountains. I looked out the front door. A wall of water had formed between me and the rest of the grounds, preventing anyone from entering, and me from leaving. I understood then the isolation Miró had found here.

The storm cleared up, and hungry for lunch, I remembered that Mr. Punyet told me that his grandfather often walked to the nearby village of Génova for “lunch in a humble place for farmers.” I decided to do the same.

Génova is a quiet mountain town, not terribly different from how it was in Miró’s time. A statue of “Our Lady of Peace” dominates one hill, a sandstone church anchors the center of the town, and the sea shimmers in the distance. The town is known for its restaurants that serve pa amb oli, the Majorcan peasant plate of toasted bread brushed with olive oil and crushed tomato, topped with cheese or thinly sliced jamón. The dish is eaten, mostly, as a light supper. That meant Sa Ximbomba, the restaurant recommended by Miró’s grandson, was closed when I arrived for lunch. We moved on to Casa Gonzalo, where the menu of the day began with a hearty country-style lentil stew filled with potatoes. The waiter prodded the table to try caracoles, or snails, eaten by pushing a toothpick into the shell and dragging out the body. There was also fresh tortilla española, piping hot, with thinly sliced potatoes, and a table red wine labeled Gonzalo.

Orli and I walked up to the roof of the restaurant, taking in the view of the mountains beyond us before catching the bus to Ses Illetes, the beach Joan Punyet had told me Miró would walk on, collecting his thoughts, as well as driftwood, stones and shells.

Ses Illetes is still lovely. The water is crystal clear, and there are rocks to climb on, a jetty that stretches out into the sea. It is no longer, by any stretch of the imagination, isolated. There are two glossy glass-front beach restaurants and a couple of hotels, a massage stand and a sarong shop; dozens of stacked lounge chairs stand ready for the wall-to-wall bodies to glisten in the summer sun.

But looking out at the sea, beyond all the modernity, I saw the endless Majorcan sky meeting the Mediterranean, blue upon blue. I thought of the expression that Miró had for the intensity of that horizon, which so inspired him and which could only be found here, on Majorca. He called it “eloquent silence.”