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Spanish artist Miro’s farm needs tender, loving care

The subject of paintings now in neglect

- - Thursday, February 16, 2012

BARCELONA — Catalonian artist Joan Miro had a farm. And on this farm he had an easel on which he created large, wonderful paintings of it that are among his most famous works.

Now, with Spain in the grip of economic crisis, Miro's farm is a neglected relic with an uncertain future.

The long, three-floor Spanish-colonial-style main building is accompanied by a barn, a small family chapel and an artist's studio (of later construction). They stand in dry soil outside the town of Mont-Roig in the Catalan foothills, about 50 miles from Barcelona, with the Mediterranean in the distance.

It was bought for Miro by his parents in 1910 to help him recover from depression, and it was the artist's summer home, on and off, for the rest of his life. The depression would return if he were alive to see it today.

Given its importance in the life of one of Spain's leading modern painters, recent visitors are surprised by its state of neglect, with peeling, grime-covered walls, furniture in disrepair and caked in dust, the antiquated kitchen stove rusty and unusable.

A state highway cuts through the land, 100 yards from the overgrown backyard, where farmers have dumped hundreds of saucer-shaped plastic covers used to protect plants during spraying. A small gazebo where Miro sometimes painted is smothered in undergrowth.

It was while living here that Miro learned to look at the natural world. The town of narrow, steep winding streets and surrounding fields became an important reference point for the various phases of his work — an anchor to his Catalonian origins when he lived and worked in Paris.

Miro painted the farm's facade in 1918 with a towering eucalyptus tree in the foreground. Three years later, in Paris, he painted a side view from memory, crowding it with nostalgic images of his adopted roots (he was actually born in Barcelona) — the carob tree, the donkey, roosters, local insects, his own footprints in the earth, a maid washing clothes and, less explicably, a naked infant squatting on the ground.

Miro later recalled, "I wanted to put everything I loved about the country in the canvas, from a huge tree to a tiny little snail."

Ernest Hemingway bought that painting directly from Miro (see sidebar), and the writer's widow, Mary, subsequently gave it to the National Gallery of Art in Washington. Titled "La Ferme" ("The Farm"), it will be one of the works in the NGA's first-ever Miro retrospective, opening May 6 and spanning his prolific output as a surrealist painter and sculptor.

Today, the deteriorating farm is owned by the artist's three grandsons, who have little contact with Mont-Roig. According to Mont-Roig officials involved with tourism, a proposal for bringing the Miro farm to life has been under discussion for some time, but nothing has been resolved.

Details of the proposal were not available, but it is likely to involve as principals — in addition to the artist's descendants — one, two or possibly all three interested parties: Mont-Roig itself, where the farm could become a profitable tourist landmark; the regional government of Catalonia, for which tourism is a key sector of the economy (13 million foreign visitors in 2011); and the Joan Miro Foundation in Barcelona, which houses a collection of Miro's works.

In part, the cloudy future of Miro's farm is a commentary on Spain's economic crisis. For example, Mont-Roig would be the more immediate beneficiary, but the town of 12,476 souls has a deficit of $24 million, in part as a result of the nationwide real estate slump, one of the root causes of Spain's problems.

Juan Pluma Vilanova, director of Catalonia's cultural heritage office in Barcelona, conceded last week that there was a need to "find a project that would make the [Miro] house come alive again." But he implied that with 130 museums in Catalonia to administer, adding another was not high on the region's list of priorities.

So, if not the town or the region — who?

"There is no point in renovating the house without the [involvement] of the Miro Foundation," Mr. Vilanova said.

Not possible, said Rosa Maria Mallet, director of the Miro Foundation, a hilltop museum overlooking Barcelona with a core collection donated by Miro himself. In 2011, the Foundation passed the 1-million-visitors mark — 60 percent of them foreign tourists. "We cannot assume a new responsibility of the house," Ms. Mallet said over lunch at the foundation.

The foundation is a self-supporting institution with limited income. Ms. Mallet confirmed that an arrangement was being discussed but declined to give details. "We can spend one or two million euros ($1.2 to $2.4 million) on restoration [of the farm], but when it comes to upkeep and maintenance, things become more complicated," she said.

All of which may become moot because Miro's descendants have put the house in the hands of a leading Barcelona real estate company, Fincas Exclusivas, which is offering it for sale on the Internet for an undisclosed asking price. The listing is complete with images of the house taken in better days. Today, it would be — in real estate parlance — more of a fixer upper.