Few works of art have kept company with a more notable and interesting cast of characters than has Joan Miró's iconic painting "The Farm." The work (at left) is one of the centerpieces of the traveling Miró retrospective whose only US stop, after stints at Barcelona's Fundació Joan Miró and London's Tate Modern, is at the National Gallery of Art this spring and summer. That's in no small part because "The Farm" is part of the National Gallery's permanent collection.
The stunning painting exerted a strong gravitational tug on other, widely dispersed works by Miró, but the story of how "The Farm" came to reside in Washington--and its journey from 1920s Paris to Key West, Cuba, and New York--is as interesting as the painting itself.
Miró, one of the most vital and long-lived painters of the 20th century, is identified with his native Catalonia, that linguistically and historically distinct bastion of good food, innovative architecture, and passionate belief--whether in paganism, Catholicism, Judaism, Islam, or anarchism--that has Barcelona as its capital. There the young Joan (pronounced something like Sho-an) attended art school but didn't distinguish himself, whereas the slightly older Pablo Picasso had wowed his teachers in Barcelona. Even Miró's father wanted him to be a businessman, not a painter.
Finally, to overcome illness and depression, Joan retreated to the family farm near the village of Mont-roig and found some relief by observing the daily lives of the farmers who worked the land. He took his memories of Mont-roig to Paris in 1920, joining the diverse collection of artists and writers there determined to transform a war-broken world through art and literature.
One of them, Ernest Hemingway, was teaching himself to write fiction by crafting short stories from his early exploits in Michigan--a subject, as he later put it, that he knew enough to write well about. Not far away, in a mean studio on Rue Blomet, the obscure Catalonian was engaged in a similar pursuit, using oils and canvas instead of pencil and notebook.
"The Farm" took a long time to finish and is seeded with images that reappear throughout Miró's later work, known for explosive color and unfettered line, in which his imagination leaps off the canvases. But there would be no other Miró painting quite like "The Farm," a somewhat surrealistic reflection of affection and longing that he considered one of his best works.
Despite his own opinion, as Miró later told an interviewer for La Publicitat, no art dealer "even wanted to look at" the painting, much less exhibit it. One, the owner of the Galerie de l'Effort Moderne, agreed to hang the painting in the basement on consignment. (Miró later speculated that this was probably done as a favor to Miró's friend Picasso.) When it didn't sell, the dealer suggested cutting it up into eight pieces. Miró refused and took it back to the "utter misery" of his studio.
Miró and Hemingway--both connected to Gertrude Stein, the American writer and arts patron whose Paris salon included many painters and writers--met in the early 1920s when the poet Ezra Pound saw Miró's work and introduced Hemingway to it. Hemingway fell in love with "The Farm." According to Miró, he "became so crazy about it that he wanted to buy it . . . even though he didn't have a cent in his pocket."
Hemingway would embellish what happened next in an article in Cahiers d'Art a decade later. Miró's painting, Hemingway said, "has in it all that you feel about Spain when you are there and all that you feel when you are away and cannot go there."
Hemingway wrote: "No one could look at it and not know it had been painted by a great painter."
Miró managed to get a show at the Galerie Pierre in 1925, assisted by Evan Shipman, an exchange student and Hemingway's chum. Shipman had taken the gallery's assistant to Miró's studio to view his work, and the assistant had offered Shipman the chance to buy any painting of Miró's at a good price before the show was hung. Shipman chose "The Farm," a move that couldn't have gone down well with Papa Hemingway. Shipman decided to offer the writer the chance to buy it instead.
"Hem, you should have 'The Farm,' " Hemingway said Shipman told him. "I do not love anything as much as you care for that picture." They either flipped a coin (Shipman's recollection) or rolled dice (Hem's), and Hemingway lost. But Shipman still let him buy it. Hem made the down payment on what he remembered as 5,000 francs, Miró recalled as "2,000 or 3,000 francs," and the gallery's records say was 3,500 francs--about $175.
Hemingway paid for it in part with money he earned delivering produce, and when the final bill came due, he scrounged around for funds in "various bars and restaurants" with the help of Shipman and the novelist John Dos Passos.
"The dealer felt very bad because he had already been offered four times what we were paying," recalled Hemingway, who took the painting home in a taxi, first telling the cabby to drive slowly so as not to damage it.
Hemingway gave "The Farm" to his wife, the ever-supportive Hadley, mother of his first son, for her 34th birthday. It hung on their wall in Paris's poor and noisy Rue Notre-Dame-des-Champs, above a sawmill, and would have witnessed the romantic poverty Hemingway evocatively described in A Moveable Feast.
Hadley, replaced in Hemingway's life by Pauline Pfeiffer, remarried in 1933 and took "The Farm" back to America. In 1936, Hemingway--by then living in Key West--asked if he could "borrow" the painting, and Hadley, ever generous, consented. It was never returned.
The writer's eye was already on Cuba, and he moved there in 1939, acquiring a third wife--the peripatetic and talented war correspondent Martha Gellhorn--and taking "The Farm"with him.
Hanging in Hemingway's finca outside Havana, the painting was as close as it would ever be to the sort of rural life it so vividly depicted. Its neighbors on the walls were stuffed heads shot in Africa, and they, too, witnessed a constant stream of visitors from Havana's demimonde, visiting celebrities, literary lights, friends, and hangers-on.
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.
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 cjonwine.blogspot.com.
Art Preview: "Joan Miró: The Ladder of Escape" at the National Gallery