Specialist Keith Gill with Picasso’s Femme et Minotaure, executed in Paris on 19 February 1937. Pastel and pencil on board. 9⅛ x 8 in (23.2 x 20.5 cm). Estimate £1,500,000-2,500,000.

5 minutes with... Femme et Minotaure by Pablo Picasso

Offered on 18 June, Femme et Minotaure is an intensely autobiographical work that was made at a tumultuous period in Picasso’s life. Specialist Keith Gill reveals its backstory and explains why it has only ever been exhibited twice

When Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) executed this enigmatic picture of a Minotaur and three women in February of 1937, the artist was undergoing a crisis in his life both personally and politically. 

The Spanish Civil War was raging and Málaga, the artist’s birthplace, had just fallen to the Nationalists. At home, things were also in turmoil; estranged from his wife Olga, he found himself torn between two other women: his vulnerable mistress Marie-Thérèse Walter and the feisty Surrealist photographer Dora Maar with whom he would embark on an intense love affair. ‘It was’, says Head of Impressionist and Modern Art Keith Gill, ‘a time of critical personal reflection.’

The picture depicts a muscular half bull, half man standing with one foot on a boat in which a tortured figure, possibly Olga, crouches with her hands tied behind her back. On the left is the flailing body of Marie-Thérèse, held in the arms of an inscrutable winged figure, possibly representative of Dora Maar, whom Picasso sometimes depicted as a bird.

Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), Femme et Minotaure, 1937. Pastel and pencil on board. 9⅛ x 8 in (23.2 x 20.5  cm). Estimate £1,500,000-2,500,000. Offered in Impressionist and Modern Art Evening Sale on 18 June 2019 at Christie’s in London © Succession PicassoDACS, London 2019

Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), Femme et Minotaure, 1937. Pastel and pencil on board. 9⅛ x 8 in (23.2 x 20.5 cm). Estimate: £1,500,000-2,500,000. Offered in Impressionist and Modern Art Evening Sale on 18 June 2019 at Christie’s in London © Succession Picasso/DACS, London 2019

‘It’s an incredibly detailed drawing,’ says Gill. ‘If you look closely you see these very fine pencil lines in Marie-Thérèse’s hair and eyes, and the working of Dora Maar’s dress. The simplicity of colour is striking too, with these flat planes of white, blue and yellow pastel.’

The Minotaur had become a popular motif in art in the early 1930s, after the archaeologist Arthur Evans excavated the Palace of Knossos in Crete in the late 1920s, uncovering the image of the mythological beast in his labyrinthine domain.

The sexual potency of such a perverse, supernatural image was a natural fit for the Surrealists who embraced the monster and named a journal after him. As Brassaï (1899-1984) recalled, they saw ‘in the Minotaur the power that breaches the boundaries of the irrational, breaks its shackles so as to violate the laws and offend the gods.’

‘If all the ways I have been along were marked on a map and joined up in a line, it might represent a Minotaur’ — Pablo Picasso

For Picasso, the brutish half-man, half-bull became his alter ego, and he depicted him repeatedly in his paintings as a primitive animal. ‘If all the ways I have been along were marked on a map and joined up in a line, it might represent a Minotaur,’ said the artist in 1960.

From 1935 onwards, with the storm clouds of war darkening over Europe, Picasso used the Minotaur to represent his personal anxieties. Femme et Minotaure  illustrates these concerns. ‘It raises a question,’ says Gill. ‘Is the Minotaur here to rescue these women, to take them to a place of relative safety, or is he abandoning them?’

Picasso wearing a bull’s head mask intended for bullfighters’ training on a beach in Golfe-Juan, Vallauris, France, 1949. Photo Gjon MiliTime and Life PicturesGetty Image © Succession PicassoDACS, London 2019

Picasso wearing a bull’s head mask intended for bullfighters’ training on a beach in Golfe-Juan, Vallauris, France, 1949. Photo: Gjon Mili/Time and Life Pictures/Getty Image © Succession Picasso/DACS, London 2019

In fact, the only time the picture was ever exhibited in Picasso’s lifetime was to commemorate his 70th birthday; it was displayed under the title The Minotaur and His Family Disembark, which, Gill says, suggests there ‘is much more to his relationships with these women than the commonly accepted story’.

The picture stayed in Picasso’s personal collection until it was passed down to his granddaughter, Marina, who has only ever exhibited it once, as part of her personal collection in 1981. ‘That it has remained in the family all this time is testament to its importance,’ says Gill.  ‘Picasso is often seen as a devouring figure when it came to women, but here he has brought them together in his mind. This artwork suggests he was much more conflicted than we give him credit for.’