Joan Miró painted many murals in his lifetime, but he designed only one made of glass and marble, for Wichita State University’s Edwin A. Ulrich Museum of Art. “Personnages Oiseaux,” or “Bird People,” was commissioned by the museum’s founding director Martin H. Bush. It adorned the building’s southern-facing wall from 1978 until 2011, when the museum removed it for an extensive, $2.2 million restoration project to repair the deteriorating mosaic. Last month — nearly exactly 38 years from its unveiling — the mural of colorful characters finally returned to its wall, with its hundreds and thousands of tesserae at last enforced, each cleaned or replaced by Russell-Marti Conservation Services, Inc.
According to estimations by the museum’s former collections manager Mark Janzen, the mural was losing between 300 to 400 of these little tiles every year. They originated from the renowned stained glass workshop Ateliers Loire in Chartres, France, at Miró’s request. The artist had painted the design on canvas before passing it to the artisans, who translated his two-dimensional strokes into the monumental work of tiny glass and marble pieces.
“I believe it will be one of the best mosaics ever made,” Miró apparently said in 1977 after seeing the partially finished work in the studio. “Because of the position of the pieces, they produce a beautiful sparkle, and the colors have a powerful light which let the graphic [the impact of the original painting] keep all its vitality.”
The result, at 28 feet tall and 52 feet wide — making it among the largest of Miró’s two-dimensional works in North America — had to then travel to Kansas. The artisans had divided it into 80 separate sections, which the museum assembled and installed in a unique way — and 30 years later, presented conservators with an extraordinary challenge.
“Basically, this is a very unusual mosaic in its construction: glass and marble tesserae adhered with an epoxy to marine-grade particle board backing panels, which are bolted to a steel framework, which is in turn attached to a concrete wall,” Marianne Marti, president of the conservation team, told Hyperallergic. “All materials are going to move — expand and contract — in different ways, depending on temperature and humidity.”
Marti’s team dismantled the panels and transported them to a studio in Missouri, where they were carefully cleaned and repositioned; conservators cut new glass that duplicated lost pieces. They then covered the mosaic with a protective layer of gel to rest on as they treated the back, which they affixed with new panels that are more compatible with the building and are essentially weatherproof. The restored mural now has greater flexibility, held together with a material that allows for all the material to move together while holding them in place.
To celebrate the mural’s return, the museum is presenting Miro: Shape and Color, an exhibition of the artist’s works on paper. While it does not showcase the original painting that inspired the mural, the illustrations exemplify Miró’s affinity for visual rhythms and surreal patterns, now available for appreciation once more on an overcoming scale, rendered in unique form.