In the summer of 1897, a bar opened in the centre of Barcelona. Called Els Quatre Gats – The Four Cats – it was modelled on Le Chat Noir, a cabaret in Montmartre that was popular with the writers and artists of Paris’s most bohemian quarter. Els Quatre Gats occupied the ground floor of a new modernist building and was partly financed by a painter called Ramón Casas i Carbó. His idea was for something more than just a drinking den; he wanted it to be a venue for art exhibitions, an informal salon and a home for a progressive artistic-literary magazine too. Casas’s venture quickly took off and became the gathering place for Catalonia’s avant-garde coterie.
One of the early patrons was the young Pablo Picasso. The tyro artist, then still in his teens, not only drank at Els Quatre Gats but held his first solo exhibition there and also came up with various promotional designs for the establishment – an advertising poster depicting a puppet show, a “dish of the day” drawing and a picture to decorate the menu. Picasso sketched quick caricatures of some of the bar’s other artists too, and the man he drew most often was a painter eight years his senior, Joaquin Mir Trinxet.
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Picasso, then not so confirmed in his egotism as he would soon become, was clearly slightly in awe of Mir. He would do 12 sketches of him over the next couple of years, at least one of which was made after Picasso had left for Paris and no longer had Mir in front of his eyes. Mir (1873-1940) was by this point already one of the most talked about painters in Spain and Picasso had seen and admired his The Rector’s Orchard, a sun-bleached neo-impressionist picture of orange trees and church buildings, when it was first exhibited in 1896. Picasso knew too that Mir was part of a group of painters called the Colla del Safrà – the Saffron Group – because of their frequent use of the richest of yellows. Under a sketch of Mir made in 1903 Picasso wrote “The one of the Sun”, an acknowledgement of Mir’s role in infusing his landscape paintings with brilliant Spanish light.
Indeed, Mir briefly influenced Picasso directly. The drawing Picasso made for the Els Quatre Gats menu in 1899 showed “a perfect modernist man” – an Iberian Oscar Wilde in a floppy hat, long coat and voluminous trousers, with a flower in his buttonhole – sitting at a table outside the bar, and the dominant colour is saffron.
Mir was born into a well-off family who had made their money in the textile business. After training at Barcelona’s Llotja school of art, his initial forays as an independent artist were supported by his uncle Avelino Trinxet Casas. Mir would go on to paint murals and design stained-glass windows for his uncle’s new home, the Casa Trinxet, a modernist building designed by Josep Puig I Cadafalch, the architect of Els Quatre Gats and, alongside Antoní Gaudí and Lluís Domènech i Montaner, one of the three modernist architects who gave Barcelona its most striking buildings.
Although his circle was interested in social realist paintings, Mir was engrossed by the landscape. Unlike many of his peers, he never went to Paris to study but in 1899 headed to Majorca with his painter friend Santiago Rusiñol, where he met and was influenced by the Belgian artist William Degouve de Nuncques, a painter of strange, mystical, nocturnal landscapes.
Mir’s stay on Majorca was marked by increasing isolation and an unusual degree of identification with the landscape. In the paintings he made both there and subsequently, representation becomes less important than the interchangeability of colour and form. He would put colours next to each other for their chromatic effect and as expressions of his emotions – the result can be a sense of near-delirium. He was later to write that: “All I want is for my works to lighten the heart and flood the eyes and the soul with light.” Colour for him was not just a sensory medium but a spiritual one.
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In 1905, while painting out of doors and looking for a fresh viewpoint, he fell part way down a cliff. The real effect of the accident was mental rather than physical; it provoked a breakdown and Mir was committed to a psychiatric hospital at Reus near Tarragona. After a two-year stay there he moved on to live and work in a succession of Spanish regions and towns – Andorra, Montserrat, Miravet and Gualba – before marrying in 1921 and settling in the Casa Mir, a farm near Vilanova i la Geltrú, a few miles down the coast from Barcelona.
This painting, Poble Escalnot or Terraced Village, is a view of Maspujols, a village up in the hills behind Reus and was painted probably around 1906-09 either during or immediately after his hospital stay. It is a late winter scene, with the smoke from the village chimneys streaking straight up into the windless sky and the bare ground showing between the cabbages and winter vegetables. Blue, in various shades, is the predominant colour – for smoke, hills, plants and garden wall – with splashes of yellow, biscuit and umber where the low sun hits the houses and the bell tower of the church of Santa Maria. A smattering of poppies decorates the near-ground and dabs of green give variety.
Who knows Mir’s state of mind when he was painting this scene, or what was in his mind in the throes of his breakdown? Its mood, though, is less ecstatic than many of his landscapes and more contemplative. Here, “the one of the Sun” is painting in a calmer register, concentrating on subtle harmonies and a gentle rather than a riotous poetry; his marks might be rapid but they are also careful. Perhaps he found the still air above the village an invitation.
Mir was occasionally suspected of somehow wanting to merge himself with nature; if so, in this picture he is looking hard at how the scene is put together – if he is to join it he needs to understand its underlying compositional structure first. Although Mir is often co-opted as a late-impressionist or a symbolist, the painter he most resembles, and whose work he can hardly have seen, is another damaged man who stood outside the mainstream, Van Gogh. The Dutchman also found the numinous in light and balm in nature, and he too invented his own system of mark making, filling each inch of the picture surface with calligraphic movement and interest. For both men, it was neither nature itself nor the act of painting that allowed them to express the inexpressible but both together. They needed the scene in front of them in order to paint, while the paint itself was a means of emotional transmission. And although Mir had significant public success in his lifetime while Van Gogh had none, painting for them was nevertheless profoundly personal.
One of Mir’s close contemporaries, Wassily Kandinsky, was also grappling with some of the same ideas at the time. But where Kandinsky took his colours into abstraction and wrote extensively about his theories of art, not least about synaesthesia – the phenomenon of linking senses that are not normally connected, such as colour and sound – Mir may have been in sympathy but espoused no such intellectual framework and kept his art rooted in the soil.
While his young admirer Picasso went on to international triumph, Mir remained largely unregarded outside Spain, which he never left. He carried on painting landscapes and stayed true to the leftist Catalan politics of Els Quatre Gats; he died of kidney disease in Barcelona in 1940 after being prosecuted by the Franco regime for colluding with the Republic.
[See also: John Vanderlyn’s art of the New World]
This article appears in the 07 Jul 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The baby bust