On a Saturday in early July 1935 Picasso sat in Roger Lacourière's studio in Paris and began work on a large copper plate. The image he would conjure up in elaborate detail over the next five days would become known as La Minotauromachie and is recognized as perhaps the most important graphic work of the 20th century. The image is a paradise for interpretation: anecdote mixed with symbolism mixed with myth. Coupled with Picasso's well known aversion to providing explanations for his art, the layered complexity of La Minotauromachie makes it one of his most intriguing images.
Reading from left to right we see a bearded man climbing a ladder, turning to look over his shoulder at the theatrical scene which plays out beneath him. To his right, two women at a window also look downwards, and immediately in front of them two doves sit by a shallow drinking dish. Below the window a young flower girl holds up a candle which illuminates the head of a wounded horse on whose back lies a torera, a female bull-fighter, who appears to be unconscious. Almost the entire right-hand half of the image is taken up by the enormous figure of a Minotaur whose outstretched right arm seeks to shield him from the candle's glow. Visible beyond the Minotaur on the distant horizon is a half sunken sailboat.
Most interpretations of La Minotauromachie begin by referencing factual events in Picasso's life at the time. The period between the winter of 1934 until the summer of 1935 saw almost no artistic production for Picasso, who described it as "la pire époque de ma vie" ("the worst period of my life"). In June 1935 Picasso's wife Olga had finally left him as a result of her discovering that his young mistress Marie-Thérèse Walter was pregnant. This situation provoked in Picasso a deep sense of inner turmoil which translated into a depressing non-creative impotence. Printmaking, an exercise which requires a significant amount of physical involvement, appears to have provided Picasso with much needed cathartic activity. Working on the copper plate, strength returned to the artist through his engagement with the material and, as the stages of constructing the image progressed, Picasso grew in confidence and the image grew in potency.
La Minotauromachie is replete with references to the autobiographical forces at work. As is suggested by its title, the primary symbolic sources are those of the tauromachie (the bull fight) and of the Minotaur, both of which Picasso had placed at the heart of his personal iconography since the early 1930s. The central group uses images from the bull fight as a visual metaphor for Picasso's sexual ‘battle’ with Marie-Thérèse. We see a fatally wounded horse twisted in pain and fear, its flank gored open. The torera lying on the horse's back bears the profile of Marie-Thérèse. In their in-depth study of the image, Goeppert and Goeppert-Frank identify the torera's swollen abdomen as a reference to Marie-Thérèse's pregnancy. Picasso portrays the consequences of the male bull (himself) having fatally ‘penetrated’ the female horse; the torera has also made a similar sacrifice with her pregnancy. The flower girl, although less physically identifiable as Marie-Thérèse, is her spiritual counterpart. Her calm presence and open display of unselfish affection recall why Picasso turned to Marie-Thérèse as his lover and refuge from the repressive conservatism of Olga. Hers are the qualities Picasso now feels he has lost: the innocence and acceptance of Marie-Thérèse's adolescence.
The heavy dark presence of the Minotaur counterbalances the flower girl's attempt to shed light on the scene. Picasso began using the image of a Minotaur as his own alter ego in the early 1930s, and in the etchings of La Suite Vollard from 1933-1936 we find a complete life cycle of the beast, beginning with social scenes of him as a self-confident sexual male indulging in bacchanalian, orgiastic celebrations. These scenes then give way to more sentimental works of a pensive creature caressing his sleeping lover. Next is a series of several images of a blind Minotaur, led through a barren land by a young Marie-Thérèse. Finally several images show the beast as man's victim, slain in the bull ring as the fear-inspiring outsider. The Minotaur of La Minotauromachie is depicted as meditative, paused in mid stride. The cause of his hesitation is evident: the flower girl's candle, and he reaches out to block the light and end the painful vision before him.
By introducing the Minotaur Picasso takes us from the realm of earthly battles into a world of legend and the surreal. The mythical Minotaur is the physical embodiment of man's fundamentally split personality, divided between his conscious sense of responsibility and an unconscious animal lust. By portraying himself as an imaginary creature which lives on the boundary of human experience, Picasso hints at a quasi-magical element of his own personality, which is the source of his creativity.
La Minotauromachie is the apotheosis of the themes Picasso developed throughout the 1930s, and is considered one of the two greatest prints of modern times, the other being La femme qui pleure, I (see lot 47). Although packed with symbolic references, the image is so compelling that it is not necessary to understand every one. Picasso believed that art is not created to make sense of the world, but rather to capture the unknowable elementary forces of nature. As his spiritual self-portrait, La Minotauromachie remained a deeply personal work for the artist. Picasso's most significant prints, both personally and critically, tended not to be printed and editioned in the precise, well organized way that most of his graphic output was. The artist saw these as a more private enterprise, with impressions given to close friends. Even buying one of these masterpieces was no simple process—having sufficient funds was not the only criteria, and many aspiring purchasers went away empty-handed. Picasso carefully selected those who he believed were entitled to own a Minotauromachie and therefore a piece of his own mythology.