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La Minotauromaquia (1935)
Juan Carrete Parrondo

I. Picasso between the Apollonian and the Dionysian


Pablo Picasso (Málaga, 1881-Mougins, 1973) dedicated Saturday February 23, 1935, to engraving a copper plate (495 x 697 mm) in the Parisian studio of Roger Lacourière. He used the etching technique to which he added the scraper and the burin. During the etching process six proofs were printed. Picasso wished to document the etching process six times before deciding that the work was finished. That day saw the creation of one of the masterpieces of print, La Minotaurmachie [Minotauromachy] (Bloch 288, Baer 573), of which the same studio would make an edition of 55 prints between April 28 and May 3 1935 on Montval laid paper. One of these prints belongs to and is exhibited at the Museu Fundación Juan March of Palma. Around June 1936 some proofs were made using colored inks.

The printed image presents various actions taking place simultaneously in a narrow and limited space. The two principal protagonists are a young girl, who carries a lighted candle and a bouquet of flowers, and an enormous Minotaur –the mythological creature with a human body and the head of a bull – threatening in character, with one arm raised in front of him, in a way that seems as if both figures are confronting one another. Also represented is a woman dressed as a bullfighter with her breasts and belly exposed, lying upon a wounded mare with her intestines hanging out of her body. A sword is positioned in such a way that its hilt appears to touch the left hand of the Minotaur. At the left side of the composition a bearded man with a cloth tied to his waist escapes by climbing up a ladder. In the window of a tower, upon whose windowsill sit two doves, appear the faces of two women who observe the unfolding events. In the distance one may distinguish a sailboat in the sea. The entire scene displays strong contrasts of light and shadow, as well as delicately laid out details.

It is not enough to know the works of an artist. One must also know when he made them, why, how, under what circumstances . . . I'll try to leave enough documentation for posterity that it might be possible. For this reason I date all I do.
Brassaï, Conversations with Picasso (1954). Paris: Gallimard, 1957, p. 150.

In 1934 Pablo Picasso and the art dealer Ambroise Vollard agreed to exchange copper plates engraved by Picasso – ready for printing – for paintings by Cézanne and Renoir, property of Vollard. Following the clauses of the agreement, Vollard would be able to choose among the engravings that Picasso had completed recently, as well as those he had finished in the early 1930s. It was through this exchange that one of the most important graphic productions of the 20th century came to be. In 1937 Vollard obtained 97 engraved copper plates etched by the artist.

This group of copper plates had been etched during six years, between September of 1930 and June of 1936. Three portraits of Vollard were added to the group in 1937 to round out the number, and the collection became known as the Suite Vollard.

One may consider the majority of the prints completed during this era, including those belonging to the Suite Vollard, as an intimate diary of Picasso. The images do not follow a sequential logic, rather they respond to the personal obsessions and experiences of the artist. In an interview with the newspaper L'Intransigeant (15 June 1932), carried out on the occasion of a retrospective, Picasso confessed to his interlocutor and friend Tériade: "my work is like a diary."

The principal protagonist of the entire Suite Vollard is Marie-Thérèse Walter (1909-1977), Picasso's great love of the 1930s, whom he saw for the first time in 1927 when she was 16 years old. In 1930, while he lived with his wife Olga Koklova (1891-1955), he set her up in an apartment in Paris. From 1932 his interest in Marie-Thérèse as a model grew; she appears with such frequency in his paintings, drawings, prints and sculptures, in various states of emotion and form, that we may consider her the great heroine of Picasso's fictitious world. Trapped between the rage of his wife Olga, from whom he finally separated in June of 1935, and his passion for Marie-Thérèse, with whom he had his daughter Maya (born on 5 September 1935), Picasso came to consider this the worst moment of his life.

For Picasso Marie-Thérèse was the antithesis of death, the plenitude of life, the ardor of young love, the femme-enfant and the incarnation of his picturesque ideal, proclaimed already in his neoclassical female figures of the 20s. But the relationship would not last as he soon (January 1936) met Dora Maar (1907-1997). Picasso did not paint Marie-Thérèse again.

The Suite Vollard constitutes a clear testament of the Picasso skill as a draftsman. The 100 prints cover a great variety of the themes of Picasso's universe. The series represents a considerable portion of his graphic production between 1930 and 1937, and many of the works not included are thematically related. For Mallen (Mallen 2005) each etching becomes comprehensible when it is analyzed within the context of the entire series: the themes and motifs that preoccupied Picasso impart unity and cohesion.

The major themes are: amorous passion personified in the model; his relationship to other artists, past and present; and questioning up to what point can creative activity be considered divine. The two preferred incarnations of the artist himself are as a classical sculptor and as a Minotaur, opposite personalities that conform to a typological dichotomy comparable to the Apollonian-Dionysian antithesis of Nietzsche. Many of the prints were completed in a linear style that one could characterize as Apollonian, while others, darker and more baroque, achieve a violence that corresponds to the Dionysian.

In this long series, the themes of the etchings seem somewhat arbitrary, given how frequently the themes appear interrelated. Nevertheless, one can classify the prints into two large groups: "The Sculptor in his Studio" and "The Minotaur." These classifications present a combination of the themes he had worked on in earlier books: mythology and the artist in his studio. Coinciding with the period in which Picasso worked as a sculptor in Boisgeloup (1931-1935), he chose the theme of the sculptor in his studio surrounded by models and statues, generally of a classical nature.

The studio of the sculptor is without a doubt the predominant theme of 46 of the 100 prints in which the erotic relationship between the artist and his model and lover, Marie-Thérèse Walter, is repeatedly depicted. The sculptors portrayed can be considered abstract projections of Picasso himself, the various models are representations of Marie-Thérèse, figures with soft and undulating forms, sensual lips, pronounced chins and with noses that appear as extensions of the forehead. The small series The Battle of Love [SV 9, 47-50, 69] is related to the former. In it the painter depicts the erotic relationship, which becomes violent, even aggressive, ending in representations of rape.

In this case, however, we are particularly interested in the second main theme of the works: the Minotaur.

1933 can be considered as the beginning of the saga of the Minotaur, one of the classical characters that would come to be of transcendental importance in the work of Picasso. It is also an indirect self-portrait. The Minotaur is defined as a monster who reflects upon his nature, judging himself based on the antithetical values of reason and morality, simultaneously god and beast.

Based on the classical myth, this fantastic creature was conceived of the union between Pasiphae, the wife of King Minos, and a bull with whom she fell in love. The descendant of that pair, the Minotaur, was a hybrid, with a human body and a bull's head, combining opposing traits: intellect and instinct, gentleness and concupiscence, wickedness and goodness. As a newborn, Pasiphae had hidden him in the labyrinth of the palace of Cnossos, where each year he was offered seven young Athenian men and woman, until one of them, Theseus, was able to kill him.

In the 15 etchings of the Suite Vollard dedicated to the theme of the Minotaur [SV 57-60, 62-68, 89-92], tender and melancholic while simultaneously dramatic, the artist identifies with the beast's sexual and criminal impulses, but also with his gentleness and loneliness and with his suffering.

As for the purpose of the prints exploring the theme of the Minotaur, we know that in 1940 Vollard proposed to publish a book about the myth, which would include the 15 etchings by Picasso as well as Minos et Pasiphaé by the French poet André Suarès. The prototype, which remains today, includes the 15 etchings and three pages of text, among them the front page, which states that the book contains etchings by Pablo Picasso (Sotheby's 2002). But the death of the editor in a car accident in 1939 halted the project before it could reach completion. An aspect not sufficiently considered by the multiple historians who have studied the Suite Vollard is why La Minotauromachie did not form part of the series: could it be because Picasso did not show it to Vollard or, less probably, that Vollard was not interested. What is certain is that Picasso completed La Minotauromachie on March 23rd, 1935 and that Vollard selected among Picasso's prints after June 12th, 1936, the date of the final etching of the Suite Vollard. And what is clear is that in order to understand La Minotauromachie it is necessary to view it and interpret it within the context of all the prints Picasso completed relating to the theme of the Minotaur.

This group begins with the Minotaur in the sculptor's studio, celebrating with the models, and ends with the moment in which he encounters death at the hands of a young man. Although he resuscitates, reinitiating the cycle: to woo his lovers, to drink, to end up raping them wildly. Minotaur Caressing a Woman is one of the most delicate of the entire series, which ends with the tragedy of the blinded Minotaur, who advances in darkness, guided by a girl who carries in her hands flowers and a dove.

In my case, a painting is a sum of destructions. I make a painting, and then I destroy it. But in the end nothing is lost; the red that I removed from one place turns up in another.
Christian Zervos, "Conversation with Picasso", Cahiers d'Art, 7-10 (París, 1935), p. 173.

La Minotauromachie has been understood as a private ethical battle, an intimate allegory, full of personal symbolism – never explained by the artist – which is iconographically linked to both his earlier and later work.

Among the myths interpreted by Picasso, that of the Minotaur was the most significant. As had occurred earlier with the figure of the harlequin, the painter found in the images of the tormented beast and his avatars a way to express himself and his problems; thus, during the period from 1928 to 1937, the theme of the Minotaur dominated.

We cannot forget the cursed nature of the Minotaur if we want to understand Picasso's identification with the beast. The Minotaur is a damned being, product of an aberrant relationship, predestined for sacrifice from birth. Surely his identification with the hopeless fate of the monster led Picasso to use him as his plastic alter ego; after all, the Minotaur appeared in the artist's repertory during a time he himself defined, in declarations to Douglas Duncan, as "the worse period of my life."

It is in this context that Picasso's fascination with the Minotaur as a projection of his interior experience matches up with the large quantity of automatic poetry written during this period – immediately following the creation of La Minotauromachie – in which the artist suffered an emotional block which left him unable to paint for months. This is how he explained the situation to his friend Jaime Sabartés, whom he asked to travel to meet with him and who subsequently became his personal secretary.

The Minotaur mostly appears in Picasso's work on paper, drawings and prints, as if in an intimately sketched diary, which the artist wanted to transmit to those who would read and contemplate the series.

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.

According to the legend, the Minotaur had the power to see where others could not, because his eyes were accustomed to the darkness of the labyrinth. This monstrous opposition between light and dark divides the composition, both conceptually and formally, into two planes. Desire, guilt and revenge, all impulses belonging to Picasso/Minotaur, are sublimated before the innocence of the girl/Marie-Thérèse. Although the body of the monster is human, he has a bull's tail, drawing attention to his evolution towards total animalism, a process of transformation by means of which the monster transforms itself into the bull of Guernica, where he is no longer a symbol of mortal sin and brutality, but of the malign power of war.

From a strictly formal point of view it is important to mention some of the peculiarities of the imposing central figure of La Minotauromachie, who is different from the man-bull character that had appeared in Picasso's oeuvre up until that moment (Goeppert y Goeppert-Frank 1987). It should be pointed out that in La Minotauromachie the Minotaur is monumental and archaic in nature, with a massive, athletic body and a head so large that it is out of proportion with the rest of his anatomy. Furthermore, from a zoological point of view, the head is not an exact reproduction of the head of a bull, but that of an American buffalo.

The second iconographic group of this print occupies the geometrical center and consists of two characters: a mare and a woman resting on its back. The pair may be considered a variation on the theme of the bullfight. The mare looks as though she wants to escape from the Minotaur, who she eyes as though trying to flee danger. Nevertheless, she is already mortally wounded, her intestine hang to the ground from her belly. Unlike the woman mounted upon her, everything related to this animal denotes terror and death. The woman – a female bullfighter – rests placidly upon the mare with her breasts exposed. Her features, just as those of all of the female figures of the print, are those of Marie-Thérèse, and her stomach appears swollen. (Marie-Thérèse was pregnant during the creation of La Minotauromachie).

The girl who stops the Minotaur represents a model of femininity opposing that of the woman on the horse. The first – carrier of light and flowers – represents the paradigm of innocence, truth and virtue; the second, the culmination of sensuality. These two models combine to form the model of woman to which Picasso identified Marie-Thérèse.

At the left of the composition a bearded man attempts to escape up a ladder, but at the same time turns his head in order to take a look at the scene. His only clothing, a loin cloth, has led some to identify him with Jesus Christ; and the ladder as symbol of that with which Christ was lowered from the cross. Others interpret this figure as the bearded sculptor who appeared in the initial cycle of the Suite Vollard, which featured the Minotaur.

The two young women who observe the scene from the window of a building with a cubic form are, once more, representations of Marie-Thérèse. The doves on the windowsill provide the scene with a large measure of tranquility while also alluding to the triumph of peace and innocence over the dark forces of obscurity. Finally, the sailboat on the horizon could be an allusion to the tranquility experienced by humanity knowing that it had been freed from evil (Esteban 2000).

The fascination that La Minotauromachie provokes comes from the artist's capacity to utilize and unite an entire series of formal and iconographic resources, condense them and demonstrate to the viewer the existential anguish that he experienced in this moment, the agony of a confrontation, the sorrow for a sacrifice and its victims, as well as fear and indifference. Of course we may guess about his conflict, but the true artist makes us forget his pain to remind us of our own. In this marvelous etching – writes Ana Morillo – Picasso uses all sorts of formal sources guided by his need to express. What matters is not the manipulation of form, which does not appear as an end in itself, but the expressive impulse. He combines techniques learned from cubism with those of the graphic arts close to classicism, very primitive lines, like those that mark the man climbing the ladder, or the expressive ones that make up the gigantic arm of the Minotaur, or his wooly head, so real and so similar to that of a bull.

Perhaps this is Picasso's great achievement: the capacity to evolve, to subjugate form to the intensity of his life experience, to reject every kind of pigeonholing or formal or ideological constriction in favor of the capacity for free artistic expression.

We may conclude that La Minotauromachie is the condensation, in a single print, of all of the motifs and symbols of a particular cycle, one which occupies a central role in Picasso's artistic production and whose motifs would combine to inspire his magnum opus of 1937: Guernica.