Is It a Bird? Is It a Penis? Or a Mushroom Woman in a Moon Hat?

Dubbed a host of filthy names because of its phallic shape, this well-known sculpture’s original title, Dona-bolet amb barret de lluna (Mushroom Woman in a Moon Hat) is perhaps the least known of all. Such a de-sexualised name may merely have been a bid to appease conservative government officials in that turbulent time following Franco’s death, but nowadays it is politely known as Woman and Bird.

Miró's Woman and Bird on a summer's evening, showing the Arenas complex in the background
Woman and Bird is a monumental work and best enjoyed up close on a summer’s evening when the late Mediterranean light sets the trencadís aglow

Joan Miró i Ferrà is a tough artist to pin down. Known for being intensely shy, he was ‘like a snail. While you left him alone he would go along fine, but if you tried to touch him, he would hide,’ according to Francesc Català-Roca, the artist’s trusted photographer. Another close friend, art dealer Joan Prats, said ‘I know everything about him and know nothing of him’. His art is equally elusive. The French writer Michel Leiris claimed ‘Miró’s painting is the shortest route from one mystery to another.’

He was a voracious reader. Words – poetry in particular – were central to his artistic practice, and they often figure directly in his visual work. As a young artist he collaborated on artist books with many of Catalonia’s relevant poets, including J.V. Foix, Salvador Espriu, Joan Salvat-Papasseït, Josep Carner, Joan Brossa, Pere Gimferrer and much later, Miquel Martí i Pol. He also collaborated with international poets like Paul Éluard, René Char and Robert Desnos. In his book, Miró i els poetes catalans (‘Miró and the Catalan Poets’), Vicenç Altaió claims ‘Miró made no distinction between a literary poem and a plastic poem’.

In his youth, Miró reacted against the neo-classical strictures of Noucentisme to begin variously exploring Cubism, Surrealism, Fauvism and abstract expressionism. Though as a young artist he signed the Surrealist manifesto, and was considered a surrealist artist when he arrived in New York, he increasingly eschewed being tied to any particular movement. But his work collected something from all of these, including placing growing importance on symbolism.

Essential to his particular art was how he drew inspiration from the land, as a Catalan artist in both his native Barcelona and his adopted city of Palma de Mallorca. His early work La màsia (The Farm, 1920–1922), which predated his surrealist period, summed this up but also contained the seeds of the direction his art would develop:

The Farm was the summary of one part of my work while gestating that part of my work that would come later.’

'La màsia' (The Farm, 1920–1922) contained the seeds of the direction Miró's art would develop
‘La màsia’ (The Farm, 1920–1922) contained the seeds of the direction Miró’s art would develop

In the 1920s and 1930s throughout Europe, ideologies on both left and right were seeking the Romantic ideal of an earlier, purer human archetype, and co-opting the founding myths of various European peoples. In this context, Miró may too have been seeking universal archetypes in his work, some Rousseauian concept of a Catalan primitivism. But he was focussed on creating a more personal universe, iconographic in a naïve sense. Therefore, he would paint himself as a representation of a hunter, in a pictorial language as stark as cave painting, as in his 1924 work Catalan Landscape (The Hunter). Or else sexual organs would be overwhelmingly present, representing the motor force of this life essence. He describes this work:

The peasant has become a Catalan triangle with his ear, eye, pipe, the hairs in his beard, his hand (…) The man’s heart, guts and sex still exist. On the left, the Toulouse–Rabat plane flies overhead once a week, represented in the painting by the wheel of its propeller, its steps, and the two Catalan and French flags.

Catalan Landscape (The Hunter). 'The peasant has become a Catalan triangle with his ear, eye, pipe, the hairs in his beard, his hand (…) The man’s heart, guts and sex still exist.'
Catalan Landscape (The Hunter). ‘The peasant has become a Catalan triangle with his ear, eye, pipe, the hairs in his beard, his hand (…) The man’s heart, guts and sex still exist.’

Over fifty years later, Woman and Bird is equally iconic. Her sex extends down her body as a large black orifice, like a scar. So he is creating in sculpture what he first explored in paint in The Hunter. And the phallus contains a vagina. Such a concept – artistic or ritual objects that combine both sexual organs in one – might seem radical, but it stems from the most primitive times.

Image of Miró's 'Woman and Bird' showing the orifice down the length of the body
The Mushroom Woman’s sexual organ extends down her body as a large black orifice, like a scar

The trencadís – broken-tile mosaic pioneered by Gaudí – is in Miró’s classic, limited palette of bright primary colours, and they truly represent the Catalan landscape: the reds and yellows of the sand and rocks, the turquoise and blue of Mallorca’s waters, the black of dead trees in winter. The trencadís was applied by the artist Joan Gardy Artigas, a ceramicist and sculptor in his own right, whose best-known work Terra i foc (Land and Fire) can be seen at Plaça de la Reina Maria Cristina, outside Caixabank.

A detail of 'Woman and Bird' showing Miró’s classic, limited palette
Miró’s classic, limited palette of bright primary colours represent the Catalan landscape: reds and yellows of the sand and rocks, turquoise and blue of Mallorca’s waters

This sculpture is often said to form part of a trilogy to welcome travellers to Barcelona by land, sea or air. In fact, it is a later single work commissioned by the Barcelona City Council. That supposed trilogy was intended as a four-fold donation from Miró to Barcelona, comprising:

  • An Airport Mural, the same one you see if you arrive at Barcelona’s Terminal 2;
  • A Mosaic for the Pla de l’Os, on the Rambla. If you disembark at the port, you’ll come across it as you stroll up the street;
  • A monument 30 m high for the Cervantes Gardens, so as to welcome people entering the city by road. Its title was Dona, ocell i una estrella (‘Sun, Moon and one Star’). It was never built, but you can see a model of it in the Miró Foundation sculpture garden;
  • And lastly, the Miró Foundation. This is definitely worth a visit. Miró saw it as: ‘an open door towards the future and international cultural exchange, with my absolute faith that Catalonia has a huge role to play in tomorrow’s world’.

Woman and Bird was Miró’s last public work. It is a monumental work and best enjoyed up close on a summer’s evening when the late Mediterranean light sets the trencadís aglow. If you find yourself thinking of phalluses and vaginas, be comforted that those images were also perhaps in the artist’s mind. It is an iconic work that celebrates our human, primitive, sexual joy.

References and further reading:

Miró and the Catalan Poets, Vicenç Altaió, Enciclopèdia Catalana.

Free art in Barcelona mentioned in the article:

Joan Miró, Woman and Bird (1976), Parc de Joan Miró. Map

Joan Miró, Mosaic del Pla de l’Os (1976), Les Rambles. Map

Joan Miró, Airport Mural (1970), Josep Taradellas Airport, Prat de Llobregat. Map

Joan Gardy Artigas, Land and Fire, Plaça de la Reina Maria Cristina, 107. Map

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