oan Miró was one of the most imaginative and influential artists of the twentieth century. He paved the way for abstract expressionism and influenced a diverse assortment of artists ranging from Arshile Gorky and Alexander Calder to Mark Rothko and Helen Frankenthaler.  Born in Barcelona on April 20, 1893, in a historic district that had recently undergone a period of urbanization, Joan was a disciplined and obedient child, except in one respect—he loved to draw. His father, a watchmaker with whom Joan was not always on the best of terms, desired that Joan go to business school and settle into a respectable, secure profession. Joan Miró, however, was not a typical child. The obedient, dutiful, rule-following son grew up to become a path-breaking, liberated, unfettered man—the artist who “assassinated painting,” shattered all conventions, broke all the rules.

The tension in Miró’s life between obedience and rebelliousness—between order and anarchy, precision and looseness, control and disinhibition—is pervasive in his art, and this creative tension is on display in “Joan Miró: Birth of the World,” a superb exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York centered upon the connections between Miró’s art and poetry.

Picasso—thirteen years older than Miró—took Miró under his wing, and Miró’s early work is marked by distinct Cubist imprints. But other artistic styles influenced the eclectic Miró as well: the inventiveness and extravagance of his fellow Catalan artist Antoni Gaudí; the Romanesque, pre-Gothic art he saw in Catalan frescoes; folk art; ethnic art; non-Western art; animism (the idea that everything is alive and has a soul); poetry (he was fascinated by his friend Apollinaire’s poem “La Cravate,” a poem shaped like a tie, which instilled within him the idea that letters can have a pictorial aspect); and even cave art. Miró was inspired by the idea of returning to the earliest days of art, to the primitive, pristine style of the Paleolithic paintings which were discovered on the Altamira cave walls in 1879—paintings Miró saw and knew well.

Miró’s art was also nourished by one of the central polarities which defined his life: the conflict between the pull of his native Catalonia and the push of the outside world. Miró was a staunch Catalan, nonpolitical, and yet very much aware of his heritage and profoundly sympathetic to the growing Catalan independence movement. He felt that if he remained in Catalonia he would become too provincial, and thus in 1920 set out for France. “You have to be an International Catalan,” Miró declared after his first visit to Paris. “A homespun Catalan is not, and never will be, worth anything in the world.” Nonetheless, Miró always felt drawn back to his native land. The outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936 made homecomings difficult, but still Miró tried to return each summer to his Catalonian farm, which he lovingly and comprehensively depicted in a 1921 painting. Though enamored of the sophisticated, big-city life he found in Paris, he always sought to keep in contact with his roots and native soil.

Early in his career—as can be seen in “Portrait of Enric Cristòfol Ricart” (1917), with which the exhibition commences—Miró painted more or less in accord with the conventions of his time, synthesizing classically Romanesque elements with Cubism and Fauvism and utilizing bright touches of color, as well as elements of Mondrian-esque geometricism (as seen in the stripped-down, two-dimensional yellow plane on the canvas’s left side). He also utilized collage, as his friend (and occasional rival) Picasso had begun to do, and Japanese prints—an inheritance of impressionism. His 1920 painting “The Table” similarly illustrates the ways in which he was still painting within the conventions of the time and in accordance with the historical standards of art. This large painting, which can be seen directly across from “Portrait of Enric Cristòfol Ricart,” is for the most part a typical still life, showing in careful detail every object lying upon a rather ornate, decorative nineteenth-century table: a rabbit, a fish, a rooster, wine, peppers, tomatoes. The table-top is depicted in a upwards-sloping geometric pattern that almost makes it look like a mountaintop. This is not so much the Cubism of Picasso but of Juan Gris.

In the early 1920s, as seen in “The Hunter: Catalan Landscape” (1923), Miró began to break free from artistic conventions and move toward a more idealistic, liberated style of painting. The Catalan landscape depicted in “The Hunter”—the sky, the sea, and the earth—is carefully delineated but not depicted with realistic colors. Objects such as a sardine, a rabbit ear, a leaf, a pipe, and a barretina (the red Catalan peasant hat), are also carefully delineated but float about in the surreal Catalan landscape, untethered to reality, in a manner reminiscent of the paintings of Hieronymous Bosch. The hunter’s body is grounded in the earth but his detached head hovers in the sky. A single eye—a common motif in Miró paintings—looks out at us, hinting that the painting itself has a soul. Miró was moving from the domain of the actual to the realm of the conceptual: to simplified forms, to linking objects conceptually rather than perceptually—a technique Picasso termed “poetry in painting.”

By the mid-1920s, Miró was ready to decisively break from all the rules and artistic conventions of painting. “I want to assassinate painting,” he famously declared; to “do something absolutely different.” He wanted to explore “the deep and poetic reality of all things”—an exploration which culminated in “The Birth of the World” (1925), the large, mysterious, poetic painting after which the exhibition is named.

The outsized oil painting was once thought to have been painted in a mostly unconscious, automatic style—the style espoused by Miró’s surrealist poet friends (like André Breton, who named the painting)—but a preliminary sketch of the painting was later discovered in Miró’s notebooks, demonstrating that this is a carefully planned and meticulously executed work.  

The painting is emblematic of Miró’s mature, liberated style: few elements are depicted comparable to anything in perceived, three-dimensional reality, and the two-dimensional, geometric elements are highly stylized and appear to float freely in a kind of gravity-free space. Although the starting point of “The Birth of the World” is linked to the real—circles, triangles, rectangles, and vertical and horizontal lines, after all, are forms that exist in reality—the imaginative nature of the work, like so many of Miró’s signature works, places it in an inventive, yet highly controlled, poetic, surreal, almost dreamlike atmosphere. A yellow string undulates under a tomato-red circle, making the circle appear as if it’s a birthday balloon adrift in the smoke-filled air. Faint sky-blue lines drip like streams of water from the heavens. Pale spots of orange, barely perceptible, splotch the periphery. Horizontal black lines dart across the canvas’s sky like hungry ravens. Darkness, shadows, and oil-colored clouds pollute the atmosphere. Unsightly mud-brown stains arc over the horizon like drab, colorless rainbows. A large black triangle occupies the scene’s center—a black flag flying over a black, bleak world. And yet, beneath the dark clouds, clutching the yellow-stringed balloon, crouches a human-like figure, pointing to a small black circle out of which emerge five black rays like fingers from a hand—creating order amidst the chaos of the universe, creating light within the darkness, grasping for hope amidst the gloom.

This is Miró’s poetry in painting; this is the birth of the world. This is the world which we do not perceive with our senses, but which we immediately recognize in the dark corners of our unexamined minds. This is not our reality, and yet it is; it is the very real dream-world in which we all live.

Miró: Birth of the World” runs from February 24—July 6 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York