It is the largest acquisition by Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in decades, and it is ‘a key piece’ in the museum’s extensive and qualitatively solid collection of surrealists: the painting Peinture-poème (Musique, Seine, Michel, Bataille et moi) (1927) by the Spanish painter Joan Miró will officially belong to the collection of the Rotterdam museum from Thursday, which has been closed for renovation and expansion for a few years.
Earlier this month, State Secretary Gunay Uslu of culture herself signed the financial contribution from the state that ultimately made the purchase possible from the Museale Aankopen fund – the maximum state contribution from the Mondriaan fund was not sufficient. However, a significant part of the purchase price of 8.1 million euros (8 million Swiss francs) was not raised with public money, but from private funds. The Rembrandt Association, in particular, has supported the acquisition of this work from the start with an initial pledge of 3 million euros and a later addition.
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The museum has a collection of surrealist visual art, books and magazines that have been among the best in Europe since the then chief curator of modern art, Renilde Hammacher, began collecting in the late 1970s. The museum had been looking for a so-called dream painting by Miró for a long time, because it steered surrealism in the direction of more abstract work, says Sandra Kisters, head of collection and research. “People often think of the figurative surrealism of dream symbolism, such as the works of Dalí and Magritte that evoke an alienating world. Miró represents the other branch, an abstract tendency.” This makes his work a bridge to painters such as Picabia, who went much further in abstract surrealism. “So it’s not alone; why a Miró, but why such a Miró. We would find his later work much less interesting.”
Circles in the water
The Surrealists, initially mainly a literary movement of ‘automatic writing’, wanted to circumvent rationality and thus allow the subconscious to speak directly. Which didn’t come naturally. Miró, for example, starved himself to temper his conscious mind. This work, peinture-poème, he made after a walk along the Seine with, among others, the philosopher Bataille, where they looked at the circles in the water of the river. Miró later wrote about it in his diary. It produces a dark work, brown with red. “You see that in the surrealist movement there is still discussion about what you see in the subconscious,” says departing museum director Sjarel Ex. “When you close your eyes, dream, do you see pictures, or are you dealing with spheres or streams of thought, or do you see something atmospheric? This painting offers the opening to see everything. You end up in a not very attractive muddy state at first, which is fantastic of course. It is a painting that challenges you, and that does not immediately lie at your feet like a purring cat. That is often the case with Dalí, you find it beautiful and after that it starts to wear out. Dalí is a bit of an early artist, to whom the taste develops, but Miró is someone you think of when you meet him: Ho. This also exists.”
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For a long time there was little hope that they would be able to acquire such a work, says Ex, who will be stepping down as director on Friday. “They are rare, and many of the dream paintings have already found their final destination in collections or museums. After his retirement in 1978, former director Coert Ebbinge Wubben said that the museum should have had a Miró, but that it was too late, that it would never come again.” So, says Ex, “We were hereditary as a museum.” According to him, the surrealist collection is of great importance for the entire collection of the museum. “We are also always looking for the surreal tendencies in art. We often end up with choices dictated by this squadron – surrealism is a concertmaster for us.”
A few years ago, the museum already tried to buy a painting from Miró’s dream period, one of his blue works. But the museum eventually abandoned it, even though it was almost financially closed. “He had later painted a layer over it, which made it of lesser quality than this work. This is painted extremely transparent, it was set up in one go. This makes it his direct translation of that subconscious period.”
The work was not sold at an auction late last year, Ex says. Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen then contacted the owner through Christie’s auction house. The painting was now on loan from the Swiss Kunst Museum Winterthur, and then came to Rotterdam to view its condition and see how it fitted into the collection.
A large part of the visual works by the surrealists from the European important collection of Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen is part of a traveling exhibition, which was previously shown in New Zealand and now hangs in Mexico City. The exhibition will return home in mid-October, Kisters says, and will be on display in one of the rooms of the Depot for a few months before it leaves again, this time to Denmark. Is the collection home in honor of the Miró’s purchase? “No, that’s a coincidence.”
A version of this article also appeared in the newspaper of September 30, 2022