The Mystery of Pablo Picasso
(Ben Heine © Cartoons)

Picasso and the Myth of the Minotaur
By Martin Ries (*)
It may be this love is a debt I am paying, due to the destiny of my line, and that Aphrodite is exacting a tribute of me for all my race. Europa - this is the first beginning of our line - was loved of Zeus; a bull's form disguised the god, Pasiphaë, my mother, a victim of the deluded bull, brought forth in travail her reproach and burden.
-Ovid, Heroides

Art is a human development before it is an aesthetic phenomenon, and Pablo Picasso, the twentieth century metaphysician, autobiographically represents his world translated into a personal aesthetic expression. As a Spaniard it was inevitable that the bull, the bullfight, and eventually the Minotaur, would concern Picasso ("His bulls are real bulls; bulls, not oxen, but wild creatures, vibrant with life and with incalculable strength; proud, courageous animals with ferocious impulses 1/4" - Jamie Sabartés). His early work of the bullfight, however stamped with his personal aesthetic, is straightforward and simple, and indicates no great regard for the bull as a carrier of Europa and Western civilization, nor even as a mythic totem of Spain. These early bullfight scenes are depicted in the same athletic spirit that George Bellows portrayed American boxing matches or George Stubbs presented his magnificent English horses.

André Masson was the first twentieth century artist to turn to the myth of the Minotaur and initiate its resurgence (which may or may not have influenced Jackson Pollock's Pasiphaë much later); at any rate it was Masson and Georges Bataille who suggested Le Minotaure as well as Labyrinthe as titles for Albert Skira's publications. According to Masson he was to illustrate the first cover for Le Minotaure "but Teriade and Skira asked me to let Picasso do it. I did so. I did one myself a couple of years later." [1]

Le Minotaure lasted from 1933 to 1939; Labyrinthe from 1944 to 1946; the catastrophes of Europe, the Great War, the Depression, the Spanish Civil War, and the tremors in Western civilization weighed on men's minds. That Teutonic anti-metaphysician, Oswald Spengler, born a year before Picasso, wrote in The Decline of the West:

Again and again between these catastrophes of blood and terror the cry rises for reconciliation of the peoples and for peace on earth 1/4 Esteem as we may the wish towards all this, we must have the courage to face facts as they are - that is the hall-mark of men of race-quality and it is by the being of these men that alone history is. Life if it would be great, is hard; it lets choose only between victory and ruin, not between war and peace, and to the victor belongs the sacrifices of victory. For that which shuffles querously and jealously by the side of the events is only literature - written or thought or lived literature - mere truths that lose themselves in the moving crush of facts. History has never deigned to take notice of these propositions.[2]

The Minotaur myth emerged in the arts: Matisse illustrated Henry de Montherland's Pasiphaë: Chant de Minos; Max Ernst's Labyrinth and his Wheel of the Sun both allude to this myth, while his Spanish Physician shows a woman flirtatiously dropping her hankerchief before a minotaur-like figure; Giorgio de Chirico made many versions of sleeping The Soothsayer's Recompense surrounded by labyrinthine colonnades, arches, and facades; and Victor Brauner depicted a

wide-awake Ariadne on conveyance that Ernst Trova could have built for his Falling Man; while Masson continued his variations on the Pasiphaë-Labyrinth-Minotaur idea often greatly influenced by Picasso. Writers, too, treated the West's imprisonment in the maze of the monstrous aftermaths of "The War To End All Wars." Surrealist Michel Leiris' character Aurora (a reference to the Russian cruiser that fired on the Winter Palace ?): " . . . advanced into the labyrinth of phases in which she was her own Ariadne, equipped with the thread of her breathing, so full of intelligence, the median point indeed began to rise, perhaps beneath the secret pressure of the prison's spiral "[3]

André Gide's exquisite Thésée depicted a barbarian adventurer from a new emerging nation vanquishing an over-sophisticated and effete Minoan civilization via seduction and cunning; Jorge Luis Borges wrote a similar account of Theseus, while James Joyce invoked Daedalus in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, his Stephen Dedalus in Ulysses is autobiographical, an explorer of unknown arts and deviser of labyrinthine prose. T. S. Eliot referred to the myth in Sweeney Erect, as did Ezra Pound in his Cantos.

Picasso's etchings for Skira's Metamorphosis of Ovid and Lysistrata, a series characterized by classic calm, were followed by the lusty, vibrant and vigorous Minotaurs. None of the depictions of this man-bull chimera tell a known story; they are more a series of Capricios, with the Minotaur reveling with a sculptor (who looks like Zeus), and his model; approaching a sleeping nude, Picasso's sleeping women are often in the pose of the Vatican's Sleeping Ariadne, reclining in a delirious orgy "the first conclusion of the principle of death" - Alfred de Musset, or watched by a beautiful

woman as he sleeps behind a flower-patterned curtain. This is not the terrible monster from Crete but a sympathetic and pampered pet.

On June 12, 1934 , Picasso etched a Tauromachiai with a Europa-like Torera (bare-breasted like the female acrobats of ancient Crete ) draped over a bull. This was followed by a series of Oedipal Minotaurs bereft of creative powers and guided by a "Flower Child".

To the left is an Onlooker, and in the back-ground is a boat with sailors, recalling Theseus' return to Athens after escaping the labyrinth and abandoning Ariadne. Picasso's Minotaur series takes on more serious meaning with the appearance of his Minotauromachia in 1935.

This important etching incorporates elements of the earlier work but, in contrast to most of Picasso's graphics at this time, it is heavily textured, indicating much pentimenti, viz:

the rain cloud, upper right, with the line extending down through the Minotaur's left arm (the etching plate evidently was burnished to erase the line and finally scratched over);

Picasso is always explicit about sex organs, yet obfuscates the Minotaur's genitals here;

there is a difference in scale of the Minotaur's arms and legs, his left leg is similar in distortion to the knee of the Rushing Woman in Guernica ;

there is an unexplained drape (muleta?) to the right of the Minotaur; the lump on the back of the Minotaur's neck could have been a smaller head scratched over to become a large hirsute neck;

the decoration on the Torera's traje de luces changes; her legs and right arm seemed unattached to her body;

the building either extends out into the water beyond the shore, or Picasso did not continue the side down to the earth.

These and many other indications suggest that the Minotauromachia began as another variation of the frolicking brute. Evidently as Picasso was caught up in the more profound implications of the myth he used it as a comment on his times, and that comment reached its culmination with Guernica, that gray icon of life and anti-life.

Monsters are expressions of time out of joint, they are the anithesis of the hero whose weapons are positive powers.[4] Thus the Torera (Europa? Pasiphaë? Ariadne?) in Minotauromachia surrenders her sword to the Minotaur in suicidal gesture. Does this sword become the lance that pierces the horse in Guernica ? Was the Warrior, finally ossified into a fallen and broken statue, originally the vital rider of the horse, a traditional symbol of the unconquerable force of the ego? Like the composed, unmoved Onlookers with their doves of Venus in Minotauromachia, the bull in Guernica presides over the catastrophe aloof from human suffering, not as a symbol of "darkness and depravity" but of the natural forces of the universe, of creativity, fertility and regeneration, existentially unconcerned with moral issues. The bull ("a bull's form disguised the god") is the principle fecundity; the Minotaur ('deluded bull") devouring youths in his pentagon-labyrinth is the perversion of god and man.

Like a comment on the beginning of life and the power of regenerative force, the Rushing Woman of Guernica with the large knee, genuflects before amoebic vegetation while she looks in adoration at the bull (the handkerchief on her head has religious connotations). The horse too seems to kneel before this sprig, yet throws its head back, looking at the bull as though acknowledging a superior power. The horse, always a white mare in Picasso's oeuvre, is the opposite of the aggressive, ferocious and powerful bull; the erotic spasms of death in the afternoon have their sadistic counterpart in the perverted sexuality of the mad orgasms of war. Life may "choose between victory and ruin" but Picasso says Make Love Not War as he elevates symbolism above the level of the personal and places the individual expression of his private emotions within the context of his culture. Carl Jung stated: "Picasso did not deposit in Guernica what he had thought about the world; rather he endeavors to understand the world through the making of Guernica ."[5]

We usually reproach those who talk only of themselves, but this is a burden that Picasso, with his extraordinary depth in poetic intuition, carries to us with fertile and generous metamorphoses and countless illuminations. Picasso reproaches our world for its just pleasures lost, its mis-use of life, its worship of darkness and depravity, death and destruction. Does he sense through the making of Guernica, that Western civilization is declining and coming to an end "due to the destiny of my line" because "Aphrodite is exacting a tribute of me for all my race"?

Man's brief existence in a transitory world contradicts his participation in a world of infinite ideas and meanings. Throughout history, and because of history, man is estranged and displaced from what he essentially is; his apotheosis requires encounters in which new meanings and values ("reproaches and burdens"?) are created. These are expressed in mythic terms, externalizations of our psychic forces and social dilemmas, "because existence resists conceptualization."[6] To open oneself to death is to accept that aspect of "becoming" which is the very stuff of life, and to realize that the human condition can transcend itself and that life, even with "the sacrifices of victory," is the final victor against death's ultimate absurdity. Guernica is an existential resurrection-icon in which Picasso is the officiating but unseen priest.

Friedrich Nietzsche exclaimed of the ancient Greeks: "How much did these people have to suffer to become so beautiful!" In all history no culture has so passionately adored another culture as the West has idolized ancient Greece , not because Greek culture is filled with "mere truths" but because the Greeks, like Picasso, confronted by the chaos of history and the unconscious, moved toward a deepened awareness of life and a cultivation of that awareness.



[1] Letter, 26 June 1967, in answer to questions by the author.

[2] Spengler, Oswald. The Decline of the West, tr. Charles Francis Atkinson, 2 vols., Alfred A. Knopf, N.Y., 1947; vol. 2, p.429.

[3] Leiris, Michel. Aurora, Paris: Gallimard, 1946, p.68.

[4] Arnheim, Rudolf. Toward a Psychology of Art, University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1966, p.256.

[5] Yung, Carl G. Civilization in Transition, tr. R. F. C. Hull, Bollingen Series XX, Pantheon Books, N.Y., 1964, p.78.

[6] Tillich, Paul. The Courage to Be, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1952, p. 127.

This paper was written with the help of a Release-Time Research Grant from Long Island University, the Brooklyn Campus.


(*) Martin Ries is painter, printmaker, art historian, art critic and Professor Emeritus at Long Island University.

--> This essay appeared on

--> Watch also this great video with Picasso (this was sent to me by Ann El Khoury)