THE AERIAL AND TERRESTRIAL IMAGINATION IN THE WORK OF JOAN MIRO
MIRO’S WORK VERSUS THE PREHISTORIC ROCK ENGRAVINGS OF MONT BEGO
By Anne-Laurence CHOMICKI
“More than Painting itself, what really does count is what it throws into the air, what it spreads. It is not important if the painting is destroyed. Art can die, what does count, it ‘s that it had spread its germ on earth.”
(Joan Miro, 1893-1983)
2. MIRO’S RELASHIONSHIPS TO THE SURREALIST MOVEMENT AND TO THE PRIMITIVE
3. MIRO’S SIGNS LIST / MONT BEGO’S ENGRAVED SIGNS LIST
4. MONT BEGO
A. Geographical and geological surroundings and history of the rock engravings
B. Geology and engraving techniques
C. The mountain and its symbolism
5. THE EARTH / SKY RELATIONSHIPS
A. In the work of Joan Miro and the rupestrian engravings of Mont Bego
B. Steles comparated to Miro’s few paintings
6. MIRO AND THE EARTH
A. In the painting
B. In the sculpture
C. The bull
7. MIRO AND THE SKY
8. BETWEEN SKY AND EARTH : THE SCALE OF EVASION
“Valley of the wonders”
The famous European sites of Lascaux in France and Altamira in Spain abound in upper Palaeolithic Parietal art. The arrangement of thousands of painted and engraved figures, beyond a mere aesthetic purpose, seems profoundly motivated by the wish to ostentatiously express a certain metaphysical representation of Prehistoric man. But I could not limit myself to the realism of animal paintings on frescos; in addition I was profoundly attracted by the concise and schematic representation which appears at the Neolithic age at this site which is two hours away from the fantastic site of the ‘Vallée des Merveilles’ (Valley of Wonders) where the engravers of Mont Bégo left a mine of treasures some 3,500 years ago. Beyond authentic art I saw in the rock engravings a kind of cultural language; a rough graphic order composed of geometric tracing which symbolises perfectly a reality which demonstrates the constituents of the daily routine at the time.
The variety is amazing; yokes, agricultural tools, weapons, funny little figures armed with long pikes, wheels, mysterious lines, enclosures studded with what seem to be numerous stars and masses of horned animals, all of which are reminiscent of Joan Miró’s pantomime art.
Could this message engraved in the rock by these mountain populations be compared to the last works of the artist? The tracing of a horizon line as a frontier between heaven and earth, next to which Miró wrote, as a tribute to his first master ‘ If in three thousand years one comes across my paintings, I’d hope one would understand that I helped to liberate not only painting, but also man’s consciousness.’
Is Miró consciously interpreting these symbols in his work? Mircea Eliade compared Miró’s art with primitive images, such as the above rock engravings and says of the 1927 painting entitled ‘Paysage et lièvre’, (Landscape and Hare) :
Miró’s hare, symbol of life, looks at how the spiral unwinds in concentric circles between earth and sky in order to dive finally in celestial light, an energy moving about between matter and spirit. (L’univers fantastique des mythes – The fantastic Universe of Myths)
In the transmission of a universal message, Miró demonstrates his relationship with the pre-artistic origin of are beyond every ideology, every theory and even every pictorial aesthetic.
My research, comparing archaeology to Miró’s Marvellous has been as exciting an adventure as that of my return to the site so appropriately names ‘des Merveilles’.
1. MIRÓ’S RELATIONSHIP WITH THE SURREALIST MOVEMENT AND TO THE PRIMITIVE
‘I did like Surrealism because Surrealists did not consider painting as an end. A picture must be fruitful. It has to create a world.’ (Joan Miró, in XXᵉ siècle, 1959)
The time and place that heralded the germ of Surrealism which was planted by Max Ernst and André Breton could be assigned to Europe in 1919. Both of them were privy to the same historic context, and they both refused to accept that which was around them. They preferred instead to think of the coming of another culture, bearing another history and dedicated their work to forming a common creation.
Breton studied the process of dreams and cited the threshold of sleep as the threshold of inspiration. The fundamental experience of Surrealism is an isolated one, separate from any external conditions, almost as if some God, visiting the ‘dreamers’ during their sleep, would bring to them ‘the power that they did not know’ (Aragon), and thus their liberation from the outer world and common circumstances of time.
These images from half-sleep belong to a hypnotic state, whereby consciousness is not quite dismissed and as such they have to be perceived as useable and likely to include a sequel. Surrealism, which hoped to erase the borders of dream and reality, conscious and unconscious, suggests itself as a link between the unconscious, which supplies and the consciousness which receives and exploits.
Freud believed that through dreams, you are able to get a glimpse into your unconscious, because it is in our dreams that our primal desires are manifested. The incongruities in dreams result from a struggle for dominance between the Ego and the Id. Freud believed that, despite the overwhelming urge to repress desires, the unconscious reveals itself, particularly when the conscious mind relaxes its hold, during dreams, odd patterns of behaviour, slips of the tongue, accident and art. Additionally, Freud believed that myths revealed psychological fixations and desires that were underlying in every human being.
Carl Yung suggested that myths, regardless of their origins, displayed remarkable similarities. He explained these similarities via the existence of what he called the ‘Collective Unconscious’; a later of the psyche that all of humanity somehow shares.
Just as dreams contain irrational images that reveal the psychology of the dreamer, myths reveal the psychology of the whole of humanity.
Thus, though similar in many ways to his contemporaries, Joan Miró’s work has provided meaningful imagery which has become a part of our heritage. Between 1925 and 1927 Miró, considered by Breton as ‘the most surrealist among us’, created a synthesis in his work, attempting to abolish the border with the dream world. His paintings became more and more abstract, so much so that expression was dictated by irrational stimuli and hypnotic visions. During this period Miró goes beyond the limits of painting, evoking in his calligraphy the phantasmagorias of the unconscious (Carnaval d’Arlequin, 1924/5) stating:
‘In 1925 I used to draw almost entirely from hallucinations often caused by starvation…’
This autonomous world, a fusion of reality and imagination entitled ‘Miróland’, possesses its own vocabulary, symbolically represented through a graphic language, the aim of which was to both come closer to the original source of art and to lay the foundations of an art of the origins.
Carnaval d’Arlequin, 1924 - 25
At the stage of symbol formation language is comparable to primitive thinking. This view of language had much in common with the Surrealists who also established a new mode of expression based upon a revitalisation of both form and meaning of language.
According to Jung language is more than speech, as its source is the interface between sensory and cognitive expression. Tristan Tzara recognised that ‘non-directed’ thinking dominates primitive mentality and does not separate dream and waking states. He envisioned a new unity – one which viewed primal sensibilities with the experience of time and knowledge.
Miró’s art draws extensively from contemporary conceptions of primitive mentality. He viewed painting as being (in a state of decadence since the age of caves.’ He aimed to recapture the essence of Prehistoric art; ‘to penetrate the sources, to return to origins.
The ideas of the anthropologist Lucien Levy-Bruhl were of particular influence to Miró. The poet Michel Leiris, an ethnographer by profession and one of Miró’s closest friends, had stated that he, like almost everyone associated with the Surrealist movement was profoundly affected by Levy-Bruhl’s ideas which suggested that instead of analysing experiences, the primitive mind responded intuitively and emotionally. Belief in the omnipresence of vitalising, mystic forces confirms the realist of all that is seen or unseen. Dynamic and fluid connections exist between all things and all beings without the need for time or place.
Levy-Bruhl also stressed that ‘collective representations’ were central to primitive mental functioning and this assumption is very close to Miró’s remarks in in XXᵉ siècle, 1959:
‘In order to really become a man, one has to free oneself from one’s false self. In my case, I have to stop being Miró, i.e. being a Spanish painter belonging to a society bordered by boundaries, social and bureaucratic conventions. In other words, one has to go towards anonymity….. hence the importance of popular art.’
Miró concentrates on the primordial level where the mystical unity and harmony that underlie all life is revealed. This conclusion is drawn from the very interesting work of Sidra Stich, assistant professor of Art and Archaeology, who states in the introduction of his 1980 book ‘Joan Miró; the development of a sign language.’
‘Joan Miró’s art heralds a deep grasp of the ‘Marvellous’ (a term chosen by André Breton to denote that state of being expression which the Surrealists exalted in life and in art.)
Beyond childlike innocence, romantic fantasy and poetic reverie, ‘Marvellous’ signifies for Miró a cosmic perspective and a focus on the dynamics of creation. Capturing the mystery and magic of life forces is central to Miró’s creative approach. This characterised his method, along with the forms and contents of his compositions. Although these features establish Miró as a leading figure within the Surrealist movement and the Modernist tradition, it is his distinctive adaptation of a primitive impulse, derived from an interest in prehistoric art and anthropological theories about ‘primitive mentality’, which clarifies the nature and uniqueness of his artistic contribution.
Thus, the following study sets a symbolic parallel between the rock engravings of the Vallée des Merveilles and Joan Miró’s art. The current state of the symbolic readings of these engravings of the Bronze Age, along with their graphic correspondence with Miró’s work allow us to establish a parallel between the numerous representations of the cosmic, primordial couple, the principle of duality for Mont Bégo’s engravers and the pairings of ‘Earth/Sky’, ‘Conscious/Unconscious’ and ‘Reality/Dream’; a major theme within Miró’s work.
1. MIRÓ’S SIGNS LIST
Ø The earth’s element as a foundation; sustaining land and a source of energy
The earth is present in many works with the horizon line marking the separation with the sky. Miró’s ground is desert, neatly configured to support the figures, the animals, the anthropoids or the objects.
Ø The cosmic, astral element as a receptacle of upward aspirations and of the inaccessible sky.
The stars and the constellations represent the highest part of his vocabulary. They remain as the expression of a spiritual, dematerialised universe.
Sun and Moon have a privileged place and constitute such important themes that they are often considered as distinctive signs of Miró’s works.
Ø The anthropomorphic language
This is the most important language system used by Miró. The ability to communicate he obtains from this system comes mainly from the phenomenon of deformation, allowing him to give an intensity to some parts of the anatomy or of an article of clothing, whilst also allowing him to reduce other parts to almost nothing.
The full face feminine figures represented by Miró are bell-shaped, so their legs are not visible. Legs represent motion and therefore are not compatible with the idols’ impassive receptivity. The powerful and enormous eyes within their round faces define these figures.
The match men: the male faces are usually profile.
Ø Vegetal and animal lexicon
Similar to an ideogram, each element of a plant became a sign of a species; an olive tree, a pine etc. They later almost disappeared from his works.
Animals would have a more lasting role in the artist’s language. The animals were used to represent earth and sky – the two fundamental types of place – with earth being represented by the animals nearest to it such as snails, snakes, worms and lizards and for the sky those animals who fly such as birds, flies and mosquitos.
Personified characters and beings such as horses, dogs, bulls, suns and moons with human faces…..presented within a formal representation.
Ø Objects lexicon
The most represented objects are the portable ones, such as those used in the countryside such as a chair and table, a plate and knife, a plough, a sickle, a scythe, a bottle, a jar, shoes and a hat.
In amongst the artificial objects you can also see any other form of visual representation than that of painting: collages of printed sheets, reproduction of printed texts, calligraphic texts, musical notes, diagrams and so forth.
Scales which reach the unknown dimensions of the unconscious.
Ø Geometric shapes; dots, curves, arabesques, zigzags
MONT BEGO’S ENGRAVED SIGNS LIST
- reticulations defining enclosures and plots of land, symbols of Earth goddesses
- crosses, stars
- circles, spirals, small eight-spoke wheels interpreted as solar symbols
Anthropomorphic ‘corniforms’ and anthropomorphic ‘reticulations’
- ‘Chief of the tribe’, ‘Sorcerer’, ‘Christ’, ‘Dancer’ – all of which were named this way by popular tradition
- small figures, priests, female sexual representations (Orant acephal corniform)
- bull’s head and horns, harnessing
- Weapons and tools; sacrificial dagger, halberds, scythes….
Non representative shapes
- staked surfaces, lines, zigzags, isolated cupules
1. MONT BEGO
A. Geographical and geological surroundings and history of the rock engravings
Mont Bégo stands at a height of 2872 metres in the heart of the archaeological patrimony of the ‘Vallée des Merveilles’ in the Southern Alps. It is 80km from Nice, my place of birth, in between the villages of Tende and Saint-Martin-Vésubie. It peaks above high mountain valleys, the walls of which are worn and polished by glaciers. These valleys enclose imposing chaos comprised of erratic blocks, moraines, many still and mysterious lakes gathered behind glacial constrictions and they shelter thousands of rock engravings, randomly scattered over an area of 14 square km dating from the Bronze Age and Roman times.
In 1460 the traveller Pierre de Montfort referred for the first time to the ‘Vallée des Merveilles’ as a ‘diabolic’ place. Since then, numerous archaeologists and historians have examined the site; in particular it is important to mention the English botanist M F G S Moggridge, and Emile Rivière who in 1877 dated the engravings from the Bronze Age. He is credited with bringing the engravings to the attention of the scientists. In 1879 the English botanist Clarence Bicknell, as if on a sacred mission, devoted his life and resources to the discovery of ‘petroglyphs’ and classified them, studying them systematically and scientifically. He revealed the historic ‘Chief of the Tribe’, the ‘Christ’ and the ‘Sorcerer’. He also founded the Museum of Liguric Studies in 1888.
Professor Henry de Lulmey dedicated 30 years to reading this ‘huge stone codex.’ He is currently completing a monumental monograph in 24 volumes (see MontBego.com) in which he compares the Bégo engravings with the oldest writing systems of the 2nd and 3rd millenniums B.C. ‘Like pictograms and ideograms, the ‘begograms’ which reoccur from rock to rock present numerous variants and can be isolated or associated between them, in order to make up real stories connected with the myths and the cosmogony of the earliest metallurgist peoples of the Southern Alps.’
Geology and engraving techniques
Different types of rock, mainly green, orange and purple schist, could be noticed (see fig 1, 2, 3). The engravings were generally on smooth walls polished by glaciers, and rarely on isolated blocks. The engraved walls are mostly orientated towards east or south east, even in areas where the natural lean is in another direction. A large number of engravings, particularly those representing daggers, were sketched out by a continuous line traced with a fine point (a real dagger placed on the stone may have been outlined).
Sometimes the outlines of the engravings were traced by aligning little ‘cupules’ next to each other. These cupules were then traced with a hard stone on the surface, probably with a small quartz stone, using pressure and rotation which resulted in a strong abrasion of the rock. Observing the engravings reveals 4 main styles of work:
1. very small, regular cupules, smooth engraving surface (fig.4)
2. large cupules, irregular engraving surface, producing a generally irregular effect (fig.5)
3. large and spaced cupules, producing a very irregular effect (fig.6)
4. spaced out and elongated cupules (fig.7)
B. The mountain and its symbolism
In all primitive religions, the peak, the top, is perceived as a natural attribute of Divinity. The Bégo (see footnote), a sacred mountain, would be considered as a transmission ladder between sky and earth. It is the residence of the Gods and represents the end of human ascent. It is the centre of the world. This concept is omnipresent in all traditional cultures, particularly in our occidental civilisations, as proved by a large number of sanctuaries built on high ground.
Ours is quite unique, with its ferrous mount acting as lightning conductor in the valley, attracting particularly violent summer thunderstorms. This natural phenomenon has consecrated Mont Bégo, and if we refer to mythology and to the history of religion, lightning is God’s weapon and the place he strikes with lightning is sacred.
Therefore, nothing justifies the permanent presence of the populations in this site, the altitude of which varies between 2000 and 3000 metres, with such an inhospitable climate. This is also the opinion of the poet André Verdet, one of Miró’s friends who describes his experience of staying in this site thus: ‘this place had brought about a complete disorientation where anxiety and even anguish would make me enter an unreal dimension.’
Talking about these mountain populations, he comments ‘they chose the surroundings of Mont Bégo to adorn them with engravings and concentrate their cultural energy there, because they had in themselves an obscure force that led them towards these sites. This force was nurtured on an atmosphere favourable to spells that prevailed and still prevail there.’
We have to remember the importance given to the stars from the very beginning of the Bronze Age amid several cultural elements. For many years man has been looking at the movement of the sky and the sun. The phases of the moon and the movement of constellations drew his attention. This sacred place, which opens the gate to heaven by ascending the highest mountains of the earth, instantly introduces us into the heaven and earth relationships omnipresent in Miró’s works.
1. THE EARTH/SKY RELATIONSHIPS
A. In the work of Joan Miró
‘….Earth, Earth, only Earth. It’s Earth, the Earth: it’s something more powerful than me. The fantastic mountains play an important part in my life, as does the sky…. It’s the shock of shapes on my mind, more than their vision. It’s the strength that feeds me. I never felt anywhere else such a powerful shock as I did in Montroig, it’s the primitive preliminary shock to which I always go back. (Joan Miró)
Whether examining the earth or the sky with a wondering eye, Miró always calls out the infinitely great or the infinitesimal, probably attaching the same importance and meaning to either the one or to the other. Orders of size do not exist in his painting, and by giving a priority to the most humble beings and objects he carefully finds such a perfect order and gains such greatness.
Unlike the Cuban painters in his first works, he closely analyses, details, but never diverts. He doesn’t distort in any way what appears to him; he paints the earth – his earth – the sky, the animals and the figures. He settles himself in the reality but is already painting in wonder. He talks about the Catalan soil on which he was born and for which he has deep-rooted feeling, this very soil which feeds man according to the rhythms of nature. But soon, shapes will fall over; objects and figures will move away from each other and azure overwhelms the canvas. Miró adds to all this his own colours of earth and sky; his universe is lit with new shapes. He draws a line and meets a star, as one would shout out in space. He defines another distance.
The beauty of his works, originating new myths, comes from those two aspects of his nature’ perfectly superimposed and plotting the same graphic; that of a power capable of reaching high states (Sky/dreams), and that of an imperious necessity to thoroughly examine and check the pretexts wherein he satisfies this power (Earth/nature/reality).
During his passing through in the Surrealist movement, Joan Miró freed himself from any constraint and any school. His terrestrial, solar and lunar universe is that of a free man, and it is not surprising if this world turned outward has fascinated his contemporary poet friends – Prévert, Leiris, Eluard, Queneau, Desnos and Breton, who sought Miró’s contribution in order to bring imaginary digressions to their writings.
Naissance de Miró
Quand l’oiseau du jour, tout battant neuf, vint se nicher dance l’arbre des couleurs, Miró goûtait l’air pur, la campagne, le lait, les troupeaux, les yeux simples et la tendresse du sein glorieux cueillant la cerise de la bouche.
Nulle aubaine ne lui fut jamais meilleure qu’un chemin orangé et mauve, des maisons jaunes, des arbres roses, la terre, en deçà d’un ciel de raisins et d’olives qui trouvera longtemps les quatre murs de l’ennui……
Premier matin, dernier matin, le monde commence. M’isolerai-je pour reroduire plus fidèlement la vie frémissante, le changement ? Des mots s’attachent à moi, que je voudrais dehors, au cœur de ce monde innocent qui me parle, qui me voit, qui m’écoute, et dont Miró reflète, depuis toujours, les plus transparentes métamorphoses.
Paul Eluard, in ‘Cahiers d’Art’ no 1-3, Paris 1937
In the rupestrian rock engravings
The primordial divine couple living on Bégo’s sacred mountain were venerated by the farming populations of the Bronze Age in the Southern Alps; the Bull God, master of storm, thunderbolt and dispenser of rain, and the Earth Goddess - male sky and female land - which are present in many religions. The cult of the primordial people is clearly represented through a multitude of signs which were beaten or scratched into the rock. Archaeologists classified them into different types (refer to the signs list, section 3).
Steles compared to Miró
Stele, A: ‘The Thunderbolt–armed God and the Earth Goddess
The Thunderbolt God
Situated at great height, at the foot of the sheer rock faces of the ‘Rocher des Merveilles’, the engraving entitled ‘Anthropomorph with zigzag arms’ seems to be the most enigmatic figure at the site. Amongst all the anthropomorphic motifs it seems the most schematic and only the presence of hands allows a comparison to the human form. Considering the high situation of the engraving, this strange figure can be compared to a divine being.
If we refer to iconographic symbolism, the broken lines constituting the two arms could evoke water and a thunderbolt as symbolic representations. (See footnotes)
This motif, represented on the side of the head, is seen as a big ear towards which an arrow is directed. This arrow is supposed to represent a sonorous phenomenon; word or song causing vibration which materialises as small segments of a broken line that can be seen at its base. (See footnotes)
The engraving is composed of three parts:
- head with a halo (solar symbol)
- linear trunk (symbolising the Pillar or the Cosmic Tree) with two zigzag arms (thunderbolt symbols)
- the squared motif (symbolising the ploughed field, the fertilised land) (See footnotes)
This three-part structure, combined in the ‘Anthropomorph with zigzag arms’ reveals the cosmic man’s power, master of his universe and initiated, thus able to perceive the world in its subtle state. (See paragraph D)
The Earth Goddess
The primitive farmers always associate the earth’s fertility with the creative power of the woman. Semites, Greeks and Romans used to associate earth and womb.
The comparison between woman and the ploughed land is found in all European folklore.