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Art and Images in Psychiatry
March 2014

Carnival of the Harlequin: Joan Miró

Author Affiliations
  • 1Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Developmental Neuropsychiatry, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Baltimore, Maryland
JAMA Psychiatry. 2014;71(3):226-227. doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2013.2717

In an age marked by an absence of both societal myth and spiritual beliefs, Miró’s art puts the viewer in touch with the cosmic and mythological forces at work in the universe.

Joseph J. Schildkraut, MD1(p126)

The only thing that interests me is the spirit itself. …The only reason I abide by the rules of pictorial art is because they are essential to expressing what I feel. …I’m only interested in anonymous art, the kind that springs from the collective unconscious.

Joan Miró to Francisco Melgar, 19312(p116,117)

Catalan Spanish painter Joan Miró (1893-1983) thought of himself as both painter and poet. For him, painting was a means to express his inner life through visionary art (first and second epigraphs). When he stood in front of a canvas, he said: “I never know what I’m going to do—and nobody is more surprised than me at what comes out.”2(p117) Yet once the images were apparent to him, he took care in their execution, seeking to probe deeper into the nature of reality.3

Miró’s father was a goldsmith, and his mother came from a family of cabinetmakers; thus, from childhood, he learned to appreciate the quality of skilled craftsmanship. He began drawing classes at 7 years of age at a private school in a medieval mansion in Barcelona, Spain. At 14 years of age, Miró enrolled at the Barcelona fine art academy at La Llotja (where Picasso had studied), despite his father’s objections. Later, his father prevailed and insisted that Joan enter a career in business. But he was not suited to such work and, despairing, became seriously ill. He was sent to a newly acquired family farm southwest of Barcelona to recuperate. Afterwards, his father relented and allowed him to continue his art education in Barcelona and in Paris, France. Although influenced by French poets and writers and attracted to surrealism, he rejected membership in any artistic movement and developed his own unique working style. Temperamentally, he was conservative, shy, and taciturn, unlike many of his colleagues.

Throughout the mid-1920s, Miró developed his hyperrealistic approach to art, which gives equal emphasis to details large and small, near and far, and does not adhere to conventional perspective. The absence of such hierarchical distinctions and attention to detail is characteristic of primitive styles of representational art, such as traditional devotional Catalonian retables.4

Emblematic of Miró’s hyperrealistic approach are his paintings The Farm and The Tilled Field. The Farm is an inventory of the rural life that interested Miró most deeply.4 It is crammed with life: a dog, a tilled field, a tree, a ladder, a rooster, farm animals, a bird, and a peasant woman—it is an ode to the life of the Catalan peasant. The elements in it (in particular, the ladder) became prototypes for his later work. The ladder in The Farm rises from the solid earth and becomes a safe perch for birds or a place from which to fly away. The ladder became one of Miró’s most representative signs. In his later work, it evolved into the ladder of escape—his symbolic “means to communicate between the tangible and the intangible.”3(p29)

Through his exposure to the surrealists in Paris, Miró found a new approach to his art. The surrealists sought to widen the scope of perception by amplifying dreams and hallucinations. From them, Miró learned that imaginary painting might sow seeds in the viewer that could sprout and grow. He paid the same exquisite attention to detail in his imaginative work that he had earlier in his drawings of insects, fish, and birds. Still, Miró did not completely abandon subject matter but maintained a symbolic, schematic language.

In Carnival of the Harlequin (1924-1925) (Figure), Miró adapts the size and shape of each object and each creature shown to his own purpose. The images are childlike and of unusual sizes, features, and coloring producing an extravaganza that rhythmically unifies forms and color. Despite the childlike quality, there is a precision and a poetic quality to this work.

The ball of yarn unraveled by cats dressed up as smoky harlequins twisting inside me and stabbing my gut during the period of my great hunger that gave birth to the hallucinations recorded in this painting. …I had pulled out a nail from the pedestrian crossing and put it in my eye like a monocle a gentleman whose fasting ears are fascinated by the grace of a flight of butterflies musical rainbow eyes falling like a rain of lyres a ladder to escape the disgust of life…the revolting drama of reality guitar music shooting stars crossing blue space to pin themselves on the body of my fog that goes around in a luminous circle. …2(p164)
Joan Miró (1893-1983), Spanish. Carnival of the Harlequin, 1924-1925. Oil on canvas, 93.3 × 119.38 × 8.25 cm (363/4 × 47 × 31/4 in). Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY. Photo Credit: Albright-Knox Art Gallery/Art Resource, New York, NY. © Successió Miró/Artist Rights Society (ARS) New York/ADAGP, Paris 2014.

The carnival may be Mardi Gras, the celebration that occurs before Lent. Harlequin is a comic theater character known for his checkered costume. He is a trickster figure, a light-hearted, nimble servant who often thwarted the plans of his master and sometimes was a victim of unrequited love. Frequently, Harlequin plays the guitar; in Miró’s painting, he is a guitar. He wears a diamond-patterned shirt and exhibits all the traditional features, a mustache, an admiral’s hat, and a pipe. He looks sad despite the joyous scene with many hybrid creatures celebrating around him, playing, singing, and dancing. The ladder is anthropomorphic and has an ear and an eye. When asked about his state of mind when creating this painting, Miró said that he had few financial resources at that time and was often hungry, nearly starving. The hallucinations caused by hunger sent him into a kind of trance that resulted in him seeing surreal hallucinatory images that he sketched and incorporated into his art.2

Despite how he presented himself to the world, his persona, Miró had a tragic sense about himself. He spoke of the isolation of his youth and depicts in Carnival of the Harlequin a sad Harlequin surrounded by frenzy.1 The Harlequin has a hole in his abdomen, and a sharp rod or nail pierces the side of his head, perhaps reflective of Miró’s mental state at the time. Years later, in 1939, Miró described, in surrealistic stream-of-consciousness prose, his feelings at the time he painted the Carnival of the Harlequin (see artist description next to Figure).

As Miró grew older, he spoke more objectively, explaining in 1978 that, in this canvas, “certain elements appear that will be repeated later in other works: the ladder, an element of flight and evasion, but also of elevation; animals, and above all, insects, which I have always found very interesting; the dark sphere that appears to the right is a representation of the earth, …I was obsessed with one idea: ‘I must conquer the world;’ the cat, who was always by my side as I painted. The black triangle that appears in the window represents the Eiffel Tower. I tried to deepen the magical side of things.”2(p291)

Miró had a decisive influence on the New York School of Abstract Expressionists both before and after the Second World War.4 These artists often used psychic automatism based on free association to produce psychologically and spiritually significant art. There was a high prevalence of mood disorders and alcohol abuse among them, which raises the question of whether there is a relationship between spirituality, art, and depression.5 Gorky6 and Rothko7 committed suicide; Pollock died in a single-vehicle accident while driving under the influence of alcohol.

Carl Jung noted the stresses experienced by artists who seek to put the viewer in touch with repressed spiritual forces to meet the human yearning for transcendence. He referred to this as the transcendent function that he deemed essential to individuation.8 Aristotle, in the most famous of his “Problems,” asked: “Why is it that all those who have become eminent in philosophy or politics or the arts are clearly melancholic and some to such an extent as to be affected by diseases caused by black bile?”9(p18) Thus, the relationship between mood disorders and creativity is one of very long-standing interest. Moreover, a recent brain imaging study proposes that religion or spiritual belief appears to be protective for people with a familial risk from developing clinical depression.10

Others propose positive effects of creativity on mood regulation. Thus, despite his tragic temperament, his struggles, and his mood fluctuations, Joan Miró, through his art, coped with the paradoxes in his nature, remained grounded, and died at the ripe old age of 90 years. His secret, as he said, was to always remember the peasant saying “it is essential to have your feet firmly planted on the soil in order to leap into the air,”3(p199) and so he did.

Section Editor: James C. Harris, MD.
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Article Information

Corresponding Author: James C. Harris, MD, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Developmental Neuropsychiatry, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, 1800 Orleans St, Baltimore, MD 21287 (jharri10@jhmi.edu).

Conflict of Interest Disclosures: None reported.

Additional Information: This article is dedicated to the memory of Joseph J. Schildkraut, MD.

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