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Getting the Picture
Comments () | Published May 16, 2012

Miró, meanwhile, had developed a different style of painting and a passion. Profoundly affected by the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39, he didn't go to the front to fight, but he actively criticized the Spanish dictator, Francisco Franco; produced propagandistic art for the opposition; and spoke out often against the fascists.

Did "The Farm" provide inspiration for Hemingway while he wrote For Whom the Bell Tolls, his romantic gloss on the Spanish Civil War, a bestseller written mostly at the finca? Presumably it also witnessed the writing of parts of The Old Man and the Sea, Hemingway's bullfighting oeuvre, as well as many letters, often abusive, to editor Maxwell Perkins and others. By some accounts, the writer was jealous of "The Farm" and kept it from view at least some of those years.

Alcohol--and his own vituperation--was catching up to Hemingway by 1959, when, then on his fourth and final wife, Mary, he agreed to loan "The Farm" to the Museum of Modern Art. Hemingway was nervous about exposing the painting to the hostilities stirred by Fidel Castro's revolution while trying to get it out of the country. He insisted that the museum insure "The Farm" and send an emissary to squire it back to New York, but no company would issue such a policy.

Tourists visiting the Havana finca where Hemingway lived in the 1940s and '50s today see a reproduction of "The Farm" where the original was displayed. Photograph by O. Louis Mazzatenta/National Geographic Society/Corbis.

Hemingway finally agreed let the museum's emissary, David Vance, take the painting, but he ran into roadblocks: The original crate sent by MoMA wouldn't fit in the hold of the DC-7B that was to fly it out. Vance left with the promise that the crate would follow the next day--but it was delivered to the wrong airport. Meanwhile, Vance learned that he needed a permit, but the newly installed officials at the Cuban National Museum didn't know how to get one.

Eventually, another plane reservation was made for Vance and "The Farm," for 3 in the afternoon of February 7, 1959.

When Vance got to the airport, more officials wanted a look at what was inside the crate. They unloaded it, opened it, and inspected the painting but were unable to reclose it properly because they had no tools. A near-desperate Vance took "The Farm" into the cabin with him, in full view of passengers, then missed his connecting flight. He finally landed safely with his charge in New York early on a Sunday morning, and the painting eventually went on display at MoMA.

Two and a half years later, Hemingway was dead of a self-inflicted shotgun blast in his new home in Ketchum, Idaho. "The Farm" was still at MoMA and, even there, continuing to tug at old, somewhat worn heartstrings.

Hadley wanted the painting, which had been borrowed from her nearly 30 years before, returned to her. But Mary Hemingway, heir to the writer's estate, refused. The two former wives ended up in court, with Hadley finally agreeing to a titular settlement of $20,000 in 1964.

Mary Hemingway, living in New York, took possession of "The Farm" from MoMA.

It wasn't until a dozen years later that the painting finally began its journey to Washington. In early 1976, the charming director of the National Gallery of Art, J. Carter Brown, contacted Mary to tell her about the much-anticipated construction of the East Building and ask her to donate "The Farm" to the museum's collection.

Mary replied that several museums had made the same request, and though she hadn't made a decision, she was "aware that I must do so soon," in part because she was concerned about the painting's condition.

Brown asked if he and Vic Covey, head of the National Gallery's conservation department, could pay her a visit. The request proved fortuitous. Brown's memo of June 14, 1976, states that Mrs. Hemingway was "cordial and warm" and obviously impressed with the gallery's annual report.

Before Brown left, "Mrs. Hemingway indicated that that afternoon she would be signing a new will in which the picture would be left to the National Gallery."

The painting was loaned to the museum by Mary Hemingway for the 1978 exhibit "Aspects of Twentieth Century Art," in the East Building. It was returned, then came back in 1981 and was again on view. "The Farm" formally entered the National Gallery's collection in 1987 but has continued to travel to art institutions around the world.

Joan Miró continued working until his death in 1983 at his home in Palma, Majorca, outliving his enemy Francisco Franco by several years. By that time, Miró's work had come to embody an aesthetic that was at once earthy and poetic--and utterly Spanish.

The diversity of Miró's creative output is staggering, and the sheer number of works makes a traveling retrospective like this spring's a major challenge. Yet "The Farm" remains a touchstone, a youthful codicil of Miró's deepest associations, what National Gallery curator and head of modern and contemporary art Harry Cooper calls "a résumé of his entire life in the country."

Miró said more than once that he was happy that Hemingway bought his painting. No one wants to say what "The Farm" might be worth today--Miró's "Painting-Poem," from 1925, sold earlier this year for $26 million--but the dollar value is largely irrelevant. Hem was right about its primal power, and he concluded his 1934 article in Cahiers d'Art with a tribute to Miró that even elevated image over words: "[T]he thing to do is look at the picture, not write about it."

James Conaway writes often about travel and culture and is the author of "Vanishing America" and other books. His new novel is due early next year. He writes a blog at

Art Preview: "Joan Miró: The Ladder of Escape" at the National Gallery


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Posted at 12:50 PM/ET, 05/16/2012 RSS | Print | Permalink | Comments () | Articles