'I am moving away from all pictorial conventions (that poison) This is hardly painting, but I don't give a damn' (Joan Miró, letter to M. Leiris,10 August 1924, reproduced in M. Rowell, (ed.), Joan Miró: Selected Writings and Interviews, London, 1987, pp. 87-7).
Le chat et la ficelle is an intriguing and deeply mysterious work executed by Joan Miró in 1925. It forms a part of his groundbreaking series of paintings produced between 1925 and 1927, variously known as the 'dream', 'oneiric' or 'magnetic field' paintings. In these radically simplified compositions where lines, cipher-like forms and spectral shapes are suspended upon brushed monochromatic grounds, Miró succeeded in liberating his art from Western pictorial conventions of illusionistic representation and resemblance. Symbolist and Surrealist poetry and literature, Dada, the art of Paul Klee and, according to the artist himself, hallucinatory visions induced by hunger were amongst the manifold and disparate stimuli that led to the invention of the visionary spaces manifest in these revelatory paintings. Le chat et la ficelle is one of the most enigmatic works in this important group, its title--inscribed by Miró on the canvas' verso--appearing to initially bear little apparent descriptive connection to the allusive signs contained within the picture's field.
From 1921 to the beginning of 1926, Miró worked in the extraordinarily stimulating environment of 45, rue Blomet where Symbolist poets and authors, as well as those writers from the nascent Surrealist movement, gathered in the painter André Masson's neighbouring studio. 'The rue Blomet was a divine place, a decisive moment for me. It was there that I discovered everything that I am, everything I would become', Miró later recalled (Miró, quoted in bid., p. 100). There Miró 'gorged on poetry' and discovered automatic drawing where images were elicited unconsciously, a technique then being explored by Masson and foregrounded by André Breton in his Manifesto of Surrealism of 1924 (Miró, quoted in ibid, p. 208). Le chat et la ficelle and Miró's other paintings from this period were initially thought to be the direct product of this impulsive, spontaneous form of artistic creation. The artist's 'discovery' in the 1970s of his early sketchbooks confirmed that the so-called 'dream paintings' actually evolved from preliminary drawings, themselves sometimes the result of this automatist process and/or a heightened receptivity to marks and stains on his studio wall: 'In 1925, I was drawing almost entirely from hallucinations ... Hunger was a great source of these hallucinations. I would sit for long periods looking at the bare walls of my studio trying to capture these shapes on paper' (Miró, quoted in ibid., p. 208).
The playful title Miró conferred upon the present work is unusual within the sequence of his 'dream paintings' since they largely bear the simple, generic appellation 'peinture'. Many of the 'poem-paintings', also produced during these years, have more individualized titles but these are derived from the words and phrases that Miró freely inscribed on the canvas as with, for example, Le corps de ma brune (1925). Poets in Miró's circle sometimes bestowed descriptive or metaphoric titles upon his paintings as was the case with The Birth of the World (1925), but for the select number of paintings that Miró himself named, he explained that:
When the starting point of a work is to some extent the real world, I always write a title on the back of the canvas with my name and the date. For those conceived out of the void, I never put a title (Miró, quoted in J. Dupin & A. Lelong-Mainaud, Joan Miró. Catalogue raisonné. Paintings, vol. 1, 1908-1930, Paris, 1999, p. 9).
Here, the initial point of departure has been translated into a series of enigmatic symbols - a red heart or flower-like shape containing a star which was often a reference to sexuality; a ladder frequently implying escape; a form perhaps signifying a cigarette and recalling his paintings of Catalan peasants portrayed with pipes, and a nebulous smoky-blue bucranium-like shape suspended from two flowing calligraphic strings. These forms, suggestive of multiple meanings, were part of Miró's repertoire of signs that had evolved from masterpieces like The Tilled Field (1923-4) and the Harlequin's Carnival (1924-5). In fact in this latter painting, described by Jacques Dupin as a celebration of childhood, whim and capriciousness, Miró actually included the motif of a cat playing with string (J. Dupin, Miró, Barcelona, 1993, p. 111). Perhaps the most important clue to its meaning was offered much later by Miró himself when he remarked that its incorporation in Harlequin's Carnival was due to the presence of a cat that was perennially with him while he painted. In a piece of stream-of-consciousness prose by Miró, published in 1939 to accompany the Harlequin's Carnival, it was the cat unravelling the string that led to the creation of this world:
The ball of yarn unravelled by cats dressed up as smoky harlequins twisting around inside me and stabbing my gut during the period of my great hunger that gave birth to the hallucinations recorded in this painting (Miró, 'Harlequins Carnival', reproduced in Rowell, op. cit, p. 164).
In Le chat et la ficelle there are hints of many of these elements that so fascinated Miró - the cat of the title as perhaps representative of himself and his creative process, the smoky Harlequin and the unravelling of string signifying his thoughts and all revolving around the hallucinatory process of his hunger induced dream-world. This is all set against a shadowy, smoky, stained brown background with visible traces of the underlying stretcher bar--a characteristic feature of the 1925 'dream paintings'--that further enhances the mysterious nature of the entity as a whole.
It is testament to the strange power of this painting that it first belonged to Oswald de Andrade, a poet and polemicist who authored two of the principal manifestoes of Brazilian Modernism and who played a prominent role in the development of modern art in Brazil. In 1926 he married the painter Tarsila do Amaral who had studied in Paris in the early 1920s under Fernand Léger. He made several trips to Paris--one the year after Miró executed the present painting--where he cultivated links with members of Europe's avant-garde, including Blaise Cendrars and Francis Picabia. Influenced by Futurism, Dada and Surrealism, he developed a style of writing that displayed an interest in the primitive and the childlike and that like Miró in his approach to painting, eschewed established conventions.