"Head of a Catalan Peasant," an important Surrealist canvas by the Spaniard Joan Miro, has been given to the National Gallery of Art. The witty, open picture was done in 1924 at a time when Miro, who will be 88 on Monday, was beginning to develop a wholly abstract art.
Its purchase price was not announced, but large Miros of that period might sell for more than $500,000 on the open market. (A small Miro on paper, dated 1940, last year fetched $410,000 at auction in New York.) The "Head of a Cataln Peasant" is a gift from the Collector's Committee. They bought it from a dealer in Manhattan who, in turn, acquired it from a private Swiss collector. Its acquisition greatly strengthens the museum's rather weak Surrealist collection.
The 57-by-44-inch oil is notable for its dream-inspired whimsy and for the broadly brushed mustard-colored field on which the peasant's features float. Those two black circles are his eyes; they shoot off "lines of vision." Above them is his peasant's cap, a small red barettina . The waving lines below manage to suggest both the furrows of the earth he tills and his flowing beard. Miro explored this image -- with its central cross, its rainbow and its stars -- in four paintings done in 1924 and 1925, of which this one is the first.
By 1924, Miro had worked his way through a variety of styles. He had learned much from Van Gogh, from the colors of the Fauves and from the charming primitivism of Henri Rousseau. Miro, for a while, was even something of a Cubist. In 1921 he had begun to paint "The Farm," a quasi-Cubist picture full of naturalistic detail, fantasy and freshness. Once owned by Ernest Hemingway, that delightful picture is now on loan to the National Gallery. Both paintings are on view now on the upper level of the East Building. Their styles differ radically, for once "The Farm" was finished, Miro turned against the Cubists, promising Andre Breton, "I will break their guitar."
Instead of splintering space, he began to aerate it. E.A. Carmean, the gallery's curator of 20th-century art, describes the new oil as "the first true field painting." Instead of painting common things -- bottles, say, or farmhouses -- Miro, who was by then a good friend of the Dadaists (and had seen the art of Klee), began painting charming images -- the peasant's head is one of them -- with patriotic implications. He also had begun exploring Surrealist automatism -- which probably explains the many dots at the painting's upper left and the dozen puncture holes at the lower right. By summer 1923, he felt he'd escaped "into the absolute of nature. My landscapes have nothing in common anymore with ordinary reality."
Miro has spent most of his life in his beloved Spain, but this work was done in Paris. It is both free and fastidious, as was the man himself. Though sloppiness was de rigueur among most modern painters then, Miro preferred to wear "an embroidered waistcoat, gray trousers and white spats."
The Collector's Committee, formed in 1975, also bought the National Gallery and "Capricorn" by Max Ernst, a fine Surrealist bronze of 1948-49, and the huge but less-successful new tapestry by Miro that is on display in the East Building's skylit hall.