Making the Minotaur

November 4, 2020
Minotaure and model
Le Repos du Minotaure : Champagne et Amante (S.V. 83), 1933, etching, 15 1/4 x 19 3/4 inches

We have spent the past few weeks progressing through the Suite Vollard, moving from the Sculptor's Studio, to the Battle of Love, to works referencing Rembrandt and showcasing new techniques. Today we move back in time to the frenetic peak of creation captured by the Suite – to 1933. One afternoon in the spring of that year, the photographer Brassai visited Picasso at work in his studio. No stranger to stumbling upon scenes poignant for their impromptu character, Brassai “found [Picasso] at work on a large composition...of rare light-heartedness. On a wooden plank he had numbered a section of crushed and pleated pasteboard… On top of this he placed one of his engravings… representing the monster…”*

The collage Brassai walked in on Picasso creating would soon grace the cover of the Surrealist-spirited journal Minotaure, which was published in Paris between 1933-39 (and funded by Albert Skira, who we know from a weeks-ago conversation about Picasso’s work on the publisher’s reinvigoration of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and who in addition directed the publication of several masterfully illustrated literature and poetry volumes through the 1930s). It was Picasso’s first meeting with the subject which would haunt the Suite Vollard, the beast who would come to symbolize not only its own rich cultural mythology, but Picasso himself. “If all the ways I have been along were marked upon a map and joined up in a line,” Picasso once said, “it might represent a minotaur.”**

Picasso’s self-depiction as the Minotaur was formative to 1933’s printmaking. In Le repos de minotaure: champagne et amante (B190), a creature with a goat’s (or, bull’s) head, horns, and tale, and a man’s body, lounges in bed with a laurel-crowned, goddess-like Marie-Thérèse. He is a figure roused from Greco-Roman mythology, but transplanted to 20th Century Europe, he appears untroubled, and likewise, Marie-Thérèse seems unafraid to find him in her bed – rather the contrary, she seems captivated by him. This figure appears in fifteen sheets in the Suite Vollard, often in a bedroom scene like the one shown above, though other times in a setting already familiar to us: the Sculptor’s studio. Chronologically, this makes sense – eleven Minotaur sheets were created between May 17th (B190, the work shown above) and June 18th (B201, the work shown below), following the forty Sculptor's Studio sheets created in the spring of 1933.*** It is as though Picasso found a new way to continue the Sculptor's narrative; instead of changing the plot line, he transfigured the central character.

But this character – the Minotaur – existed long before Picasso’s invention. The tale originates in ancient Crete, and involves King Minos and the King of the Sea, Poseidon. King Minos wanted to make a sacrifice to Poseidon. In response, Poseidon sent the earthly King a white bull as an intended victim. The white bull enchanted Minos as it stepped, dazzling and dripping, out of the sea; he could not part with the gifted bull and instead sacrificed another. This greed, this lust for the captivity of a beautiful animal, would not do for Poseidon. In his outrage, he bewitchedMinos’s Queen, Pasipaphe, to develop a corporeal passion for the white bull. Pasipaphe schemed with the royal staff to satisfy her desires without the knowledge of the King, though the secret shed its invisibility when she became pregnant – a story that begins to converge with Picasso’s own tale of behind-the-scenes liaison with Marie-Thérèse, the secrecy of which affair ended in the publicity of her pregnancy. But unlike the real life couple, Pasipaphe’s union with the bull begot a monster: half-man, half-bull, born of treachery, enchantment, and in taboo. To hide the monster and his mother from the world, a complex labyrinth was constructed in the darkness beneath the palace. There, the Minotaur lived on, a frightful and destructive figure for the Greeks and especially for the Athenians, who paid tribute to the monster every year in the form of seven youths and seven maidens. The story ends with a hero: Theseus, the son of the King of Athens. Theseus came to Crete to slay the underground monster, and after he did, he was led out of the labyrinth by following the trail of an unspooled ball of yarn – yarn given to him by King Minos’s daughter, Ariadne, who had fallen deeply in love with him.****

It is telling that in his fascination with this classic story of defiance, bravery, and true love, Picasso casts himself as the villainous figure, the Minotaur. Perhaps this is because, as critic Elinor W. Gadon writes, “the physical duality of the Minotaur... incarnates the opposition between masculine and feminine, the light and the dark, the wild and the civilized.” In short, Picasso related to this duality, he sympathized with the creature thrown into the darkness not for anything it had done, but simply for who it could not help being. In the Minotaur, Picasso saw an apt symbol for the artist, for himself. And it is also telling that as in the Sculptor's series, life in the Minotaur sequence of prints is not depicted as all youth, vitality, and champagne. In the drypoint Minotaure caressant du mufle la main d’une dormeuse (B201), the ambiguity of the Minotaur is evident. Is he attacking the unknowing woman, or softly nuzzling her in her sleep? The title of the print suggests the latter; human instinct, our innate sense of alarm when confronted with potential danger, suggests the former. In the Minotaur series, Picasso calls just this into question, placing it in the context of his own relationship with Marie-Thérèse – where (or, what) is the line between sex, love, passion, and desire, corruption, possession?

And what about the other four Minotaur sheets, created after the main sequence? Next week, we’ll revisit this topic to examine its variation, the “Blind” Minotaur, in which Picasso plays on a nuance of the mythology. The elements of these prints would inform what is, perhaps, the most celebrated print of Picasso’s creation.



* Brassai. Picasso and the Minotaur (1965).
** de la Souchiere, Dor. Picasso in Antibes, New York: Pantheon (1960). (pp.54)
*** Bolliger, Hans. “Introduction: Picasso’s Vollard Suite,” Thames and Hudson, (1956). (pp. x.)
**** Gadon, Elinor W. “Picasso and the Minotaur,” India International Centre Quarterly, Vol 30 No 1 (Summer 2003). (pp.21)

Add a comment