In 1933 Albert Skira, who had made his debut as a publisher two years prior with Picasso’s livre d’artiste Les Métamorphoses, asked the artist to create the inaugural cover for his new journal Minotaure. The new publication would be a luxurious review of modern literature, fine art, and cinema under the direction of André Breton, the leader of the Surrealists. This movement, which was born out of the revelations of the newly minted science of psychoanalysis, explored the hidden psychology behind dreams and myths. The bizarre origins and composite nature of the Minotaur made it an appealing symbol for the Surrealists, who dominated the Parisian art scene at the time—for them, the creature represented forbidden sexual desires and taboos, lasciviousness, wrath, slaughter, guilt, and despair. One of the many fantastical beasts of Greek mythology, the Minotaur was born to the wife of King Minos of Crete after her union with a bull. He quickly grew into a flesh-eating monster and the King kept him in an inescapable labyrinth, periodically providing sacrificial youths and maidens to keep him under control. He was eventually slain by Theseus, the founder-King of Athens.
Picasso generally distanced himself from Surrealism but he was friends with many of its proponents and he had also become deeply involved in an exploration of Greek myth in his work. He therefore agreed to provide the requested inaugural cover, creating a collage featuring a drawing of the creature seated in contrapposto, head looking over his shoulder, wielding a sword. The cover was published in June of 1933. Though the beast had first appeared in Picasso’s work in the late 1920s, it became a prominent theme from this point on, appearing primarily in prints and drawings. The Minotaur figures in fifteen plates of the Suite Vollard, a few from the Caisse à Remords, and others. The first eleven Minotaur prints in the Suite Vollard were created in May and June of 1933 and the last four, in which he is blinded, in late 1934 and early 1935. Picasso’s final, and most famous, depiction of the monster is the 1935 etching and engraving Minotauromachy (Bloch 288). Recent scholarship has also suggested that Ambroise Vollard, who originally commissioned the plates for the Suite Vollard, may have originally intended to pair Picasso’s etchings with two poems by André Suarès on the theme of the Minotaur, namely Minos et Pasiphaé and Minotaure. * However, Vollard’s untimely death in a car accident prior to the publication of the Suite left his intentions unclear and it may never be possible to determine with certainty. Whether self-generated or meant to accompany a specific text, Picasso clearly found much to explore in the idea of the Minotaur.
The Minotaur is one of a number of half-human creatures that represent the dark side of human behavior in Greek myth and this was likely the source of Picasso’s absorption in the subject. At this point in life, Picasso had been consumed for nearly five years with an attraction to his young mistress Marie-Thérèse Walter, a dangerous affair that would produce a child and eventually destroy his marriage and his bourgeois respectability. Following on an exploration of classical myth that had begun in the mid-1920s, Picasso seized the Minotaur as a symbol for this terrible impulse he could not control. As pointed out by Deborah Wye in A Picasso Portfolio: Prints from The Museum of Modern Art, “the mythic Minotaur became Picasso’s alter ego…[and] gave him a vehicle for depicting sexuality and violence, and for expressing rage and guilt” (The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2010, 46). Picasso’s interest in the Minotaur also likely grew out of his life-long fascination with the bullfight, a theme that he explored deeply in his art, from straightforward gestural expressions of action to highly metaphorical images that explore his private inner life, as in the Suite Vollard.
Though Picasso borrowed the idea of the Minotaur from Classical myth, he made it his own, conflating certain aspects of the story and recreating the monster to suit his own purposes. At times the Minotaur morphs into another creature of Picasso’s own creation—blinded, or with the body of the Sphinx. In her complex analysis of this theme in Picasso the Printmaker: Graphics from the Marina Picasso Collection (Dallas Museum of Art, 1983, 80-100), Brigitte Baer argues that Picasso represents himself as both the Minotaur and his slayer, Theseus; while Marie-Thérèse is either a child, his sensual lover, or Ariadne (the half-sister of the Minotaur who is impregnated by Theseus). Other scholars have noted additional potential references and influences in Picasso’s Minotaur images, including Carl Jung’s theory of Archetypes and allusions to various art historical periods, from the Greco-Roman to the Baroque. Interestingly, the Minotaur is the only aspect of Picasso’s work that he would openly connect to Surrealist influences.
As noted, the complexity of the Minotaur in Picasso’s work has resulted in volumes of scholarly interpretation. Picasso’s vision of this startling creature, who engages in a range of behavior from sensitive and vulnerable to violent and enraged, has captured the imaginations of millions since the artist first introduced the figure into his work. He is, by turns, intensely sexual, asleep, meditative, violent, Bacchic, mortally wounded, and hopelessly blind. Each of these elicits an entirely different response from the viewer, from revulsion to pathos. This unfolding drama confounds universal taboos and forces the viewer to confront the dark side of human passion. Perhaps it is Picasso’s ability to use this image to present the most raw and personal aspects of his inner conflict—and openly explore the contradictory nature of human nature—that makes the Minotaur among the most fascinating aspects of the artist’s oeuvre. His open-ended inquiry into this unspoken and private side of human existence, played out through this mythical beast, is one of the most astoundingly revelatory groups of images in the history of art.
*For further discussion, see Wye, A Picasso Portfolio: Prints from the Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2010, 174 (note 17); Tinterow, “Vollard and Picasso” in Cézanne to Picasso: Ambroise Vollard, Patron of the Avant-Garde, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2006, 113-4; and Rabinow, “Vollard’s Livres d’Artiste” in Cézanne to Picasso: Ambroise Vollard, Patron of the Avant-Garde, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2006, 206-9.