Personnages Oiseaux (Bird People), 1977–78
Venetian glass and marble, 316 x 625 in.
Museum Commission with funds from Dr. and Mrs. Clark D. Ahlberg, Mr. and Mrs. Floyd T. Amsden, Mr. and Mrs. A. Dwight Button, Mr. and Mrs. Robert E. Buck, Dr. Martin H. Bush, Vincent D’Angelo, Fourth National Bank and Trust Company, Mr. and Mrs Francis Jabara, William T. Kemper, Mr. and Mrs. Robert M. Kiskadden, Victor Murdock Foundation, Price R. and Flora Reid Foundation, Dr. and Mrs. James J. Rhatigan, Mr. and Mrs. Earl O. Robinson, Edwin A. Ulrich, Mrs. K. T. Wiedemann, and the Student Government Association
Personnages Oiseaux, Joan Miró’s mosaic mural on the southern-exterior wall of the McKnight Art Center’s eastern section, is a vital symbol for the Ulrich Museum of Art, Wichita State University (WSU), and the city of Wichita. A native of Barcelona who was mainly based in Paris, Miró was a key surrealist in the period between the world wars. His work enjoyed international success.
In 1923 Miró embraced the surrealist principle of automatism--that is, allowing the unconscious, rather than logic and reason, to guide the creation of a work. As he wrote a year later, "My latest canvases I conceived as if thunderstruck, totally disengaged from the external world."(1) Like other surrealists, Miró frequently let dreams suggest his subject and how to represent it.
Personnages Oiseaux contains core ingredients of Miró’s art. Colorful elements float freely across an expansive field. Perspective and modeling are absent, and the linear patterning suggests a sprightly calligraphy. According to the title, the abstracted figures are fantastical bird people. Miró regularly depicted birds, stars, and people to reflect his profound faith in humanity. The brilliant colors and fanciful creatures in the Ulrich mural embody the joyous celebration of life that is typical of his mature work.
Although best known as a painter, Miró was also an enthusiastic experimenter. "I have always been interested in media other than paint," he wrote in 1960.(2) The Ulrich commission gave him his first opportunity to design a major work that would be executed chiefly in glass. Seventeen years before creating Personnages Oiseaux, he painted a large-scale canvas for Harvard University's Harkness Commons that was reproduced as a ceramic mural (1960–61). His other significant ceramic murals include those at UNESCO headquarters in Paris (1956), the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York (1963–67), the Barcelona airport (1970), and the world’s fair in Osaka, Japan (1970). For the Wichita project, he asked that Ateliers Loire in Chartres, France, a specialized decorative-stained-glass manufacturer, fabricate his design. An estimated one million pieces of glass and marble comprise the twenty-eight-by-fifty-two-foot expanse. Personnages Oiseaux is the only mural Miró made in this medium, although he later designed stained-glass windows for the Maeght and Cziffra art foundations in France.
The museum’s founding director, Martin H. Bush, conceived and directed the commission. Miró generously donated his design. WSU students and private donors funded production. The mural is among the largest of numerous public-art commissions Miró undertook late in his career. “Doing work for public places is one of my passions,” he said in 1960. "The first mural I did was commissioned by an American university [Harvard]. I was fascinated by the idea because it would put me in touch with those students who would pass the mural every day."(3) Some six hundred thousand people annually traverse the WSU campus, where, fulfilling the artist’s hope, they are able to encounter and marvel at this masterpiece.
---written by Dr. Patricia McDonnell, director of the Ulrich Museum of Art
(1) Miró to Michel Leiris, August 10, 1924, quoted in Agnes de la Beaumelle, ed., Joan Miró, 1917–1934 (Paris: Centre Pompidou, 2004), 148.
(2) Margit Rowell, ed., Joan Miró: Selected Writings and Interviews (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1986), 294.