Le piège (The Trap) is a brilliantly lyrical and magically inventive painting that depicts the hot, sun-baked landscape of Joan Miró’s Catalan homeland. It was created at the artist’s farmland home in Mont-roig in the summer of 1924 and is one of a now legendary series of radical and ground-breaking paintings made by Miró during that summer in which his flowing line and fertile imagination suddenly gave birth to an entirely new realm of pictorial space and ‘Surrealist’ vocabulary of near-magical imagery. This series of works includes many of Miró’s finest early creations, including such pictures as La Terre labourée (Dupin, no. 88; The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York), Paysage catalan (Le Chasseur) (Dupin, no. 90; The Museum of Modern Art, New York), Maternité (Dupin, no. 99; The Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh) and his Tête de paysan Catalan paintings (see Dupin, nos. 111 and 112).
André Breton, the leader of the Surrealist movement – also founded in 1924 – was among the first to recognize the true significance of Miró’s extraordinary achievement with this series of works. Breton was also the first owner of Le piège, acquiring it directly from the artist soon after it was painted and keeping it as a part of his prodigious collection for the rest of his life. Breton described Miró’s 1924 paintings as works that had marked ‘an important date in the development of Surrealist art.’ With ‘one leap,’ he wrote, Miró had ‘jumped over the last obstacles still barring the way to total spontaneity of expression (and) from that moment on his production testifies to an innocence and a freedom which have not been surpassed. It may be argued that his influence on Picasso, who joined Surrealism two years later, was largely determining’ (Surrealism and Painting, 1945, p. 85).
Picasso too, in a rare moment of largesse, was to congratulate Miró about the new direction that these works had announced, telling his fellow countryman proudly that, ‘after me, you are the one who is opening a new door!’ (quoted in J. Miró, ‘Memories of the Rue Blomet,’ M. Rowell, ed., Joan Miró: Selected Writings and Interviews, London, 1987, p. 100). Miró, for his part, was always keen to acknowledge the great debt that he felt his 1924 paintings had owed to the unique methods of the group of ‘Surrealist’ poets and writers, such as Breton, Phillippe Soupault, Louis Aragon and Tristan Tzara, with whom, in Paris, he had so recently come into contact. Writing to Michel Leiris at the time he was at work on Le piège, Miró proclaimed that he had begun to follow a painterly path that was distinctly anti-painterly and against all conventional sense of ‘peinture.’ His forms and figures had become reduced to lyrical lines, ciphers, and grid-like progressions or dots, now set against a usually bleak or empty pale ground. ‘I am working furiously,’ he reported eagerly. ‘You and all my other writer friends have given me much help and improved my understanding of many things. I think about our conversation when you told me how you started with a word and watched to see where it would take you... [and I have adopted a similar method]… Using an artificial thing as a point of departure like this, I feel parallel to what writers can obtain by starting with an arbitrary sound..., or the isolated sound of a consonant or vowel, any sound be it nasal or labial. This can create a surprising metaphysical state in you poets, even when you use the sound of vowels or consonants that have no meaning at all’ (Letter to Michel Leiris, 10 August 1924, reproduced in M. Rowell, op. cit., p. 86).
What Miró was attempting to do with his new paintings, he claimed, was to now ‘free’ himself of the ‘poison’ of ‘all pictorial conventions’ and to express another, more intense reality ‘with precision’ and using all the ‘golden sparks the soul gives off.’ The series of pictures that this approach produced, he wrote, were so new, and so radical that he had, he said, even grown reluctant to call them ‘paintings’ (ibid., p. 86). ‘There is no doubt,’ he wrote to Leiris, that these ‘canvases that are simply drawn, with a few dots of colour... are more profoundly moving in the elevated sense of the word, like the tears of a child in its cradle’ than ‘other,’ more conventional works which, he claimed, were more ‘like the screams of a whore in love.’ It was, he found also, that it was the more simplistic, graphic, or ‘merely drawn’ of his new canvases (or, at any rate), the lightly coloured ones that seemed most ‘directly’ and most powerfully to ‘affect the mind’ (ibid., p. 86).
As Jacques Dupin has observed, what Miró had begun to create in the lyricism of such new, pared-down, strongly linear and graphic works as Le piège was an entirely ‘new space and a new reality’ (Miró, Barcelona, 1993, p. 96). Very much rooted in the rustic nature of his homeland and the fertile soil that, two years earlier, had given birth to his first masterpiece, La Ferme (Dupin, no. 81; The National Gallery of Art, Washington D. C.), Miró now applied the same free-flowing automatic, unconscious and dream-like approach that his new poet friends had shown him as a way to further energize and enrich the poetic sense of reality already hinted at in works such as La Ferme. Miró was ‘not so much trying to escape from reality’ in these 1924 paintings, Dupin has written, as attempting ‘to escape into nature, that is, into all of nature, including the imaginary as well as the real which is revealed in the omnipotence of desire’ (ibid., p. 96).
Le piège is one of the most powerful and complete examples of this radical fusion of desire, raw nature, eroticism and lyrical, free-form invention in all of this great series of works. Rooted in an almost primordial and distinctly rustic sense of his native landscape and conjuring a poetic sense of the symbiotic relationship between its people, animals and the landscape, many of these works are also pervaded by an overt and often bawdy eroticism that appeared to both unite and define the universe outlined by Miró’s pictures. A central ingredient in much of Miró’s work at this time, this eroticism was, as Dupin has pointed out, essentially ‘an untroubled, rustic kind of eroticism, an outpouring of nature, a flowering of life’ (ibid., p. 110).
This is perhaps nowhere better illustrated than in Le piège, a work which, like both La Terre labourée and Paysage catalan (Le Chasseur) before it, is centred upon a lone, solar, male, figure seen uniting the earth and the sky and fertilizing the Catalan soil by literally sowing his seed into it. With his one-eyed head appearing to flame like the burning sun, the torso of this mysterious, almost archetypal figure is that of a tree trunk that here sprouts with leaves (not ears as in La Terre labourée). By contrast the bottom half of this solar-tree-figure’s body is decidedly human and, in a deliberately frank and diagrammatic manner, shown to be both farting and ejaculating in front of the twin figures of a somewhat startled rabbit and a coquettish bird. Above them a halved lemon, with leaves reminiscent of a propeller, introduces a rare element of colour and perhaps also mechanisation into the picture.
In spite of Miró’s emphasis upon immediacy and intuitive invention, Le piège, like all the great paintings made in Mont-roig in the summer of 1924, is a work whose central imagery had actually been planned out in advance. Each of this series of paintings derives from at least one highly inventive and precisely detailed drawing made by the artist before beginning to work on the canvas. Miró’s original sketch for Le piège includes, alongside the solar, male, tree figure, a moon-faced persona seen smoking a pipe. As in many other images of this ever-evolving solar-male-tree figure, he is, in the sketch, also shown holding a newspaper while his ejaculation is also shown to become a flowing river through which, in the bottom right-hand part of the picture, fish swim and boats can be seen sailing.
Miró leaves all these elements out of the completed oil painting, preferring to concentrate on the powerful graphic force of the main imagery and the poetic lyricism that his fluid, meandering line unleashes when set against a plain, primed canvas background. Here, in a powerful evocation of the coastal Catalan plain in high summer, simple graphic form and eloquent line all interplay in a new dynamic relationship which, in places, Miró has augmented with subtle dabs and spots of colour. Far removed from conventional painting Miró’s style here is more evocative of the art-making of primordial times. It is in this way that in a work like Le piége Miró has established a wholly original and seemingly timeless form of pictogram-like writing – a new graphic language that merges line, image, sign, symbol and shape all into one, dream-like imaginative and surprisingly intense reality: a ‘sur-reality.’
‘I have already managed to break absolutely free from nature and the landscapes have nothing whatever to do with outer reality,’ the artist wrote. ‘Nevertheless, they are more Mont-roig than if they had been done from nature. I always work in the house and use real life only as a reference... I know that I am following very dangerous paths, and I confess that at times I am seized with a panic like that of a hiker who finds himself on paths never before explored, but this doesn’t last thanks to the discipline and seriousness with which I am working and, a moment later, confidence and optimism push me onward once again’ (quoted in J. Dupin, op. cit., p. 96).