Pablo Picasso (Málaga, 1881-Mougins, 1973) completed numerous prints during his artistic trajectory, constituting a fundamental portion of his oeuvre. As in his paintings, and as a result of his intense creative process, Picasso worked in series, repeating preferred themes and processes. He is considered one of the most extraordinary printmakers of all time, with a body of work comparable in quality and scope to those of Rembrandt and Goya.
As explained in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, among other sources, the Minotaur was a being half man and half bull, born of the bestial union between Pasiphae, wife of King Minos, and a bull. Minos later imprisoned the beast in a labyrinth constructed by Daedalus. Since Classical Antiquity this mythological being and the labyrinth in which he was confined have become archetypes, explored within the visual arts and literature throughout the centuries, and have generated multiple interpretations, which continue to appear today. The theme of the labyrinth has been explored in the 20th century by authors such as André Gide (Thésée, 1946), Michael Ayrton (The Maze Maker, 1967), Umberto Eco (Il nome della rosa, 1980) and Friedrich Dürrenmatt (Minotaurus. Eine Ballade, 1985). In the Latin American context, the classic myth of the Minotaur appears in the works of two of the region’s most important writers: Jorge Luis Borges, explorer of the labyrinth par excellence, visited the theme in his short story The House of Asterion (1949), included in The Aleph; and Julio Cortázar – author of the labyrinth-like novel Hopscotch (1963), whose 50th anniversary was celebrated this year – reinterpreted the myth in The Kings (also published in 1949), a play in which Cortázar’s Minotaur says to Theseus, “I only return to the double condition when you look at me.” For his part, Picasso also reinterpreted mythology, both in the individual prints of the Suite Vollard and in La Minotauromachie, protagonist of the present exhibition.
The figure of the Minotaur, mythological and ancient, but full of life, appeared for the first time in the oeuvre of Picasso in a drawing of 1928, but it would be during the decade of the 1930s that the figure would be a recurrent one in the artist’s iconography. In the Suite Vollard 15 prints from the set of 100 feature the Minotaur. Indeed classical themes were not foreign to Picasso as he had illustrated editions of Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, both commissioned by Albert Skira, the publisher of Minotaure. But in the Suite, commissioned by Ambroise Vollard, which Picasso completed between1930 and 1937, Picasso reinterpreted mythology, moving away from the classical representation of the myth of the Minotaur and toward his own personal biography, identifying with the doomed protagonist and placing him within the circumstances of his own artistic life, as well as his romantic relationships and sexual experiences. In this way the myth becomes a symbol of the labyrinth of the artist’s life. Accordingly, in his book Picasso à Antibes (1960), Romuald Dor de la Souchère – curator of the Château de Antibes – transcribed the following quote attributed to an octogenarian Picasso: “If you marked on a map all of the routes I’ve made and connected the dots with a single line, might not a Minotaur emerge?
Pablo Picasso: Suite Vollard: Minotauro atacando a una amazona, 1933. ©Pablo Picasso, VEGAP, Madrid, 2013
Picasso chose the figure of the Minotaur as his alter ego, making an ancient myth new and contemporary in such a way that one may “read” the Suite Vollard and La Minotauromachie as artistic diaries of the complex avatars of his life during the decade of the 1930s – “the worst epoch of my life,” as Picasso himself famously declared. Brassaï also noted that, “Picasso liked the Minotaur because of his human side, all too human.”
The 15 etchings dedicated to the Minotaur in the Suite Vollard can be divided into four groups. In the first, the Minotaur celebrates and drinks in the studio of the sculptor, together with the artist and his models. After these bacchic scenes follow others with a violent quality, in which Picasso demonstrates the animal nature of the Minotaur. Finally the third and fourth groups show a defeated Minotaur: in one, the half man, half bull is moribund; in the other, blind.
During the 1930s the Surrealists also used the figure of the Minotaur as an iconographic motif. Breton and his followers were fascinated with the animal and irrational side of the ambiguous mythological figure, easily interpreted as a symbol of the transgression of logic and order. Such was their identification with the figure that George Bataille and André Masson designated Minotaure as the title of the superlative Surrealist publication. Eleven issues were published between 1933 and 1939, each with a front cover designed by the most important artists of the day. Picasso created the first cover and was followed by Man Ray, Dalí, Miró and Matisse among others.
La Minotauromachie, the central work of this exhibition and one of the most celebrated etchings of the 20th century, was printed on 23 February 1935 in the Paris studio of Roger Lacourière. The image depicts various actions unfolding simultaneously within a confined space. The principal figures are a girl, who carries a lit candle along with a bouquet of flowers and, in stark contrast with her, the enormous figure of the Minotaur. Other figures include a woman dressed as a bullfighter with her breasts exposed lying upon a mare and a bearded man who escapes up a ladder. Finally, two women contemplate the scene from a window, along with the two doves also perched there.
There have been various interpretations of this etching. As Juan Carrete comments in his essay about the work, written on the occasion of this exhibition, the print represents an intimate allegory: “La Minotauromachie presents to the viewer the final synthesis of a series of works. It is a print that condenses the entire universe that Picasso had developed until that time, which complicates the meaning of each element resulting in a cryptic composition that defies all iconographic analyses” and which can be considered an antecedent of the Guernica.
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