miro (3).jpg

In Spain, Miró’s Majorca

A BRONZE Miró sculpture interrupts the sidewalk below the grand Cathedral of Palma de Mallorca. It stretches up, the height of two men, a hollowed concave rectangle topped by a large egg-shaped nugget tilted toward the Mediterranean. Day after day, tourists rush past it in a hustle, descending from the steep side street that winds down to the shaded Passeig de Born, a busy thoroughfare filled with clothing stores and mopeds.

No fanfare announces the sculpture’s presence. It would be easy simply to glide past “Femme,” as the bronze is called, without pausing to appreciate this work by one of Spain’s, indeed one of the world’s, most renowned artists. But spend a little time in Majorca and the casual, almost offhand, placement of the artwork reveals itself as part of a much larger story — about an artist who was sheltered and inspired by this island, but who, surprisingly, only posthumously received the kind of recognition here that he did elsewhere.

I had arrived in Palma at the end of May with my daughter, Orli, and my partner, Ian, in anticipation of viewing the major Miró retrospective at the Tate Modern in London, which will be on display into September before moving on to Barcelonaand then, next May, to the National Gallery of Art inWashington. I hoped to understand the story of Miró’s Majorca, to see and feel the island’s rugged landscape for myself — the scrubby trees, mountains and the sea that surrounds it; to watch the way the early morning light filters down into the Gothic quarter and glances off the tops of centuries-old buildings.

Joan Miró was born in Barcelona in 1893, and though his work had already earned an international audience when he settled in Palma in the mid-1950s, few here, it seemed, had heard of him. Miró embraced this anonymity, setting up his studios well outside the city where he would create some of his most important works, including the triptych “Bleu I, II, III” (1961), which was, according to the German art critic Barbara Catoir, a paean to the color of Majorca’ s sky and the sea that surrounds the island.

Like the Catalan landscape of his childhood, the white plaster walls of the fisherman’s cottages, the gourd-like urns often found in Majorcan courtyards and the brightly painted folk-art figures in the tourist shops all found their way into Miró’s paintings. So, too, did the crescent-shaped vestiges of the Moors and the rhythms of the Santa Catalina market, with its fishmongers and rough-handed fishermen drinking coffee out of tiny glass tumblers.

“I invent nothing, it’s all here! That is why I have to live here!” Miró told Walter Erben, a German writer who visited him at his studio outside Palma in 1956.

I thought of those words on my first afternoon in town, as soon as I dropped my bags in the small apartment I had rented in the Santa Catalina neighborhood. I walked through Plaça de La Feixina — a park where a Fascist obelisk that was originally erected in 1948 was recently given a (democratic) face-lift; it is now inscribed with a message honoring those who were victims of war and dictatorship. I would have lingered there, but I was on my way to Es Baluard, the modern art museum that opened in 2004.

Once a fortress built into the old city walls, the museum’s space has been gorgeously repurposed and is now all smooth concrete walls and high ceilings. Inside, the Sala Miró contains a small permanent collection of works by the artist. Lining the walls are paintings from his “Série Mallorca, 1973,” a set of primarily black-and-white etchings, illuminated with orbs of blue, orange and red, and strips of green. Outside the museum, a quiet, expansive terraza overlooks the city and the port, well away from the hustle of the old quarter, with a breathtaking view of the Bay of Palma. A clutch of locals sat there when I arrived, cheekily ignoring the art, eating olives and drinking beer in the afternoon sun that warmed the terra-cotta buildings around us, setting the city afire with the Mediterranean light that Miró admired. In the distance, hundreds of boats dotted the water.

In the museum’s bookstore a young woman named Nuria lay out a half-dozen books on Miró for me. His mother, she said, hailed from the Majorcan mountain town of Sóller. Each summer, as a boy, Miró would visit, toggling frequently between Palma and Sóller, 90 minutes away, where he spent time with his grandmother. The train to Sóller is nearly as it was then. Made of wood, and dating from 1912, it runs on a claustrophobically narrow track, swaying and clicking as it winds its way from the scrappy outer suburbs of Palma up into the fragrant, forested mountainside through skinny tunnel after tunnel. In the Sóller train station a handful of Miró’s works are on display, alongside those of his good friend Picasso.