I Work Like a Gardener: Joan Miró on Art, Motionless Movement, and the Proper Pace of Creative Labor
“Art can die; what matters is that it should have sown seeds on the earth… It must give birth to a world.”
By Maria Popova
“Art has something to do with the achievement of stillness in the midst of chaos,” Saul Bellow told an interviewer in 1966, “a stillness which characterizes prayer.” Few artists have captured this stillness more movingly than the Spanish painter and sculptor Joan Miró (April 20, 1893–December 25, 1983), whose masterpieces upended the conventions of visual art by giving life to a new aesthetic of vibrant stillness.
One late November afternoon in 1958, the French artist, author, and art critic Yvon Taillandier sat down with sixty-five-year-old Miró for a long conversation about the artist’s creative process and his philosophy on art. The result was Miró: I Work Like a Gardener (public library) — a beautiful bilingual volume in French and English, published as a limited edition of 75 copies in 1964. This out-of-print treasure remains the most direct and comprehensive record of Miró’s ideas on art.
Miró begins at the beginning:
By nature I am tragic and taciturn. In my youth I passed through periods of profound sadness.
The thing I consciously seek is tension in spirit. But in my opinion it is essential not to provoke this tension by chemical means, such as drink or drugs.
The atmosphere propitious to this tension, I find in poetry, music, architecture — Gaudi, for example, is terrific —, in my daily walk, in certain [sounds]: the [sound] of horses in the country, the creaking of wooden cartwheels, footsteps, cries in the night, crickets.
Echoing Virginia Woolf’s beautiful notion of the “shock-receiving capacity” of the artist, Miró reflects:
For me an object is alive; this cigarette, this matchbox, contain a secret life much more intense than certain humans. I see a tree, I get a shock, as if it were something breathing, talking. A tree too is something human.
He considers the central role of stillness in his art. The translator’s dubious decision to translate immobilité as “immobility,” where “stillness” is much more elegant and befitting a choice, dulls the artist’s words. But if we were to substitute “stillness” for “immobility,” they come alive in a new way:
[Stillness] strikes me. This bottle, this glass, a big stone on a deserted beach — these are motionless things, but they set loose great movements in my mind… People who go bathing on a beach and who move about, touch me much less than the [stillness] of a pebble. (Motionless things become grand, much grander than moving things.) [Stillness] makes me think of great spaces in which movements take place which do not stop at a given moment, movements which have no end. It is, as Kant said, the immediate irruption of the infinite in the finite. A pebble which is a finite and motionless object suggests to me not only movements, but movements without end. This is translated, in my canvases, by forms resembling sparks flying out of the frame as out of a volcano.
What I am seeking, in fact, is a motionless movement, something equivalent to what is called the eloquence of silence, or what St. John of the Cross meant by the words, I believe, of dumb music.
Perhaps because human beings seek to create that which we lack and our coping mechanisms become our art, Miró reaches for this vital stillness from a place of enormous inner tumult:
When a picture doesn’t satisfy me, I feel physical distress, as if I were ill, as if my heart wasn’t working properly, as if I couldn’t breathe, and was suffocating.
I work in a state of passion and compulsion. When I begin a canvas, I obey a physical impulse, a need to act; it’s like a physical discharge.
Of course, a canvas can’t satisfy me [immediately]. And in the beginning I feel this distress… It’s a struggle between me and what I am doing, between me and the canvas, between me and my distress. This struggle is passionately exciting to me. I work until the distress leaves me.
He returns to the notion of “shock” as a central stimulus for his art — the trigger that sets into motion the Rube Goldberg machine of expelling his distress:
I begin my pictures under the effect of a shock… The cause of this shock may be a tiny thread sticking out of the canvas, a drop of water falling, this print made by my finger on the shining surface of this table.
And so a bit of thread can set a world in motion. I start from something considered dead and arrive at a world.
But Miró’s most potent point deals with the proper gestational period for art and the painstaking care that goes into any worthwhile creative labor. In an age when the vast majority of our cultural material is reduced to “content” and “assets,” factory-farmed by a media machine that turns creators into Pavlovian creatures hooked on constant and immediate positive reinforcement via “likes” and “shares,” here comes a sorely needed reminder that art operates on a wholly different time scale and demands a wholly different pace of cultivation. (I’m reminded of Susan Sontag: “Our task is not to find the maximum amount of content in a work of art… Our task is to cut back content so that we can see the thing at all.”)
Miró defies this factory-farming model of art with the perfect metaphor:
If a canvas remains in progress for years in my studio, that doesn’t worry me. On the contrary, when I’m rich in canvases which have a point of departure vital enough to set off a series of rhythms, a new life, new living things, I’m happy.
I consider my studio as a kitchen garden. Here, there are artichokes. There, potatoes. Leaves must be cut so that the fruit can grow. At the right moment, I must prune.
I work like a gardener… Things come slowly… Things follow their natural course. They grow, they ripen. I must graft. I must water… Ripening goes on in my mind. So I’m always working at a great many things at the same time.
In considering what makes a great painting, Miró captures the heart of any substantive work of art, whatever its medium:
In a picture, it should be possible to discover new things every time you see it. But you can look at a picture for a week [straight] and never think of it again. You can also look at a picture for a second and think of it all your life. For me, a picture should be like sparks. It must dazzle like the beauty of a woman or a poem. It must have radiance, it must be like those stones which Pyrenean shepherds use to light their pipes.
More than the picture itself, what counts is what it throws off, what it exhales. It doesn’t matter if the picture is destroyed. Art can die; what matters is that it should have sown seeds on the earth… A picture must be fertile. It must give birth to a world.
In a sentiment that Cheryl Strayed would come to echo decades later in asserting that “when you’re speaking in the truest, most intimate voice about your life, you are speaking with the universal voice,” Miró reflects on the relationship between the deeply personal impulse animating the artist and the universal resonance of his or her art:
A profoundly individual gesture is anonymous. Being anonymous, it allows the universal to be attained… The more local anything is, the more universal.
Anonymity allows me to renounce myself, but in renouncing myself I come to affirm myself more strongly. In the same way silence is a denial of [sound], but as a result, the slightest [sound] in silence becomes enormous.
The same practice makes me seek the [sound] hidden in silence, the movement in [stillness], life in the inanimate, the infinite in the finite, forms in space and myself in anonymity… By denying negation one affirms.
Complement Miró: I Work Like a Gardener with Kandinsky on the spiritual element in art, O’Keeffe on art, love, and setting priorities, and Rothko on the transcendent power of art, then revisit some of today’s most celebrated artists on what it takes to be a great artist.
Published September 17, 2015