Pablo Picasso created in Baigneuses, sirènes, femme nue et minotaure the image of a bizarre species of man, welling up from a primal, subconscious, but nonetheless urgent state of male fantasy and desire, his visage imprinted upon the head of a bull, while his body and limbs appear human in all other visible aspects. He is Picasso’s projection of an inner self, the Freudian id, summoned forth in a hybrid being lifted from ancient mythology—the Minotaur, a man-beast. Pilot of his vessel under sail, master of the waves—from which the Minotaur may magically step as if on dry land—he surveys, with some uncertainty and confusion, a sea of women, who gather about him, eager to employ the sum of their seductive charms to gently tame his hard, brute strength.
Until he had taken on the fabled Minotaur as his own pictorial alter-ego, Picasso had not previously probed, as an end in itself, his complex inner life, nor so forthrightly made the latent mind grist for the mill of his art. Once Picasso had stepped, however, during the late 1920s, into the churning, unfathomable waters of Surrealism, his art became a continuous, internalized process of self-reckoning. The Minotaur was irrepressible, taking on a Frankenstein-like existence of his own, while encouraging and enabling the artist—at mid-life during the 1930s—to delve deeply into the intricate web of urges, emotions, and rational thought that guided his behavior among fellow men and women, to discover and lay bare the mysterious, core instincts, embedded far beneath—and often well outside—any customary, socially acceptable notions of good and evil.
In classical mythology, as told in Ovid’s Metamorphoses and other sources, Poseidon, god of the seas, in his anger at King Minos of Crete for having failed to sacrifice, in his honor, a prized, beautiful, white bull, instilled in Queen Pasiphaë a carnal passion for the beast, which resulted in the birth of the Minotaur. Minos confined his wife’s terrifying offspring, untutored in speech or other civilized ways, within an inescapable labyrinth which the captive Athenian inventor and architect Daedalus designed and built beneath the royal palace in Knossos. Every nine years, as atonement for the death of his son at hands of the Athenians, Minos received from King Aegeus seven each of noble youths and maidens who were then delivered into the labyrinth to be devoured alive by the insatiable Minotaur.
Theseus, son of Aegeus, was determined to slay the Minotaur, and took the place of one of the sacrificial young men. Ariadne, one of Minos’s two daughters, immediately fell in love with the aspiring hero, and secretly gave him a sword and a ball of thread to lay down and later rewind to find his way out of the maze. After killing the Minotaur, Theseus sailed from Crete with Ariadne, but faithlessly abandoned her as she slept on the island of Naxos. Taking pity on the girl, and admiring her beauty, the god Dionysus made her his wife, flinging the wedding crown he had fashioned for her into the heavens to become the constellation Corona Borealis.
Picasso’s interest in Surrealism, especially through his close friendships with Paul Éluard and other poets in the vanguard of the movement, inspired him to take broad license with classical fables, to practice his own method of creative reconfiguration. The artist, moreover, had been writing poetry since April 1935, and, indeed, was at work during 6-19 March 1937 producing a stream of verbal imagery—on 17 March, he wrote “desire so cramped in its prison explodes the eggshell of the sea and lights up the bars that confine it” (J. Rothenberg and P. Joris, ed., Pablo Picasso: The Burial of the Count of Orgaz & other poems, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2004, p. 139). The present Baigneuses, sirènes, femme nue et minotaure represents an ingeniously inventive pictorial narrative of this “exploding desire” in a free play of iconography that Lydia Gasman described as the artist’s “mythological syncretism, generally based on inversions, the conjunction of opposites, and the conflation of heterogenous elements” (op. cit., 1983, pp. 1527-1528).
The Minotaur in the present picture is Picasso’s melding of the original, monstrous, namesake creature with the hero Theseus—slayer and slain have become one and the same. From The Odyssey the artist borrowed Homer’s sirens, fierce birds of prey with heads of beautiful women, whose sweet, ethereal singing would irresistibly lure passing mariners within their grasp; the sirens would then pounce and devour their victims. Transposed into Picasso’s narrative, the sirens’ wings have become fish fins; the female creatures, their heads bobbing on the water’s surface, trailing their silken tresses behind them, swim toward the Minotaur’s small boat, its phallic mast like a tower beacon. Having sung their beguiling melodies, but without the intended effect—the Minotaur, unlike Odysseus, has no sense of music—each of the sirens attempts to catch the mariner-bull’s attention, not to consume him as a delectable repast, but to initiate and consummate an erotic encounter with this choice specimen of extraordinary virility.
This scene, drawn and watercolored in March 1937, alludes to Picasso’s previous summer holiday at the hotel ‘Le Vaste Horizon’, in Mougins, overlooking Cannes on the Riviera. Joined by Éluard, Roland Penrose, and Man Ray, and receiving visitors Christian Zervos, the dealer Paul Rosenberg, and poet René Char, Picasso also enjoyed the presence of their attractive wives and partners: Éluard’s wife Nusch, his daughter Cécile, aged 18 (by the poet’s first wife, Gala Diakonova, who later married Salvador Dalí), Yvonne Zervos, and Valentine Penrose, whose husband much later noted in his Picasso biography the presence of the hotel owner’s “three dark-eyed daughters” (R. Penrose, Picasso: His Life and Work, Berkeley, 1981, p. 291).
Most significantly, among the bathing sirens, rising highest above the sea’s surface to attract the Minotaur’s gaze, is the clearly identifiable head of Dora Maar, with whom Picasso had been acquainted since the late fall of 1935. While vacationing during the summer of 1936 in nearby Saint-Tropez, she often met with Picasso, who openly shared with her his thoughts and discontents. They soon embarked upon an impassioned liaison, a relationship that would shape the artist’s life and art for the next decade.
We witness in the present picture a moment of decision—or indecision—that would profoundly affect three lives: Picasso-Theseus-Minotaur, Dora—the siren ascendant—and Marie-Thérèse Walter, then 27 years old, who had been Picasso’s mistress for the previous ten years. It was for her sake that Picasso kept up his protracted efforts to separate from his wife Olga, which he finally accomplished in late 1935, soon after Marie-Thérèse presented to the artist his second child, their daughter Maya.
Marie-Thérèse was not present at ‘Le Vaste Horizon’ during the summer of 1936, nor again in the subsequent, pre-war, group summers on the Côte d’Azur. She appears here, however, as the semi- or unconscious young woman in the Minotaur’s arms, whom he has lifted from the sea, but is uncertain what he can do for her. She is Ariadne, forsaken by opportunistic, glory-seeking Theseus, now, ironically, in the care of her mother Pasiphaë’s recently slain but—in Picasso’s telling—still-living offspring the Minotaur. Another hand reaches up from the depths, imploring, pleading for rescue, perhaps known to the Minotaur, maybe not, as he looks over his shoulder, beyond the scene, as peering if into the past. Loves and lives may come and go, but in a world of perpetual metamorphosis nothing is lost; everyone—in one form or another—is saved, if only as memories preserved.
Picasso’s Minotaur compositions of the 1930s are detailed, deeply pondered allegories of the artist’s life and loves, all the more enigmatic for the contending emotions that lie at their source. They may reflect on events that inspired them, or in some instances appear to anticipate things to come. Matters did in fact rise to a flash point between Marie-Thérèse and Dora during the summer of 1937, when the two women met face-to-face for the first time, in front of Guernica, newly completed and awaiting transport to the Spanish pavilion at the 1937 Paris Exposition Internationale.
According to Picasso, as he later related to Françoise Gilot, Marie-Thérèse, as the mother of Picasso’s child, demanded that Dora leave. When the latter refused, Marie-Thérèse asked Picasso to decide who must go. He wanted, however, to retain the affections of both women, each for her own, particular, desirable qualities. Still the charismatic, provocative Minotaur—but as indecisive as he had made his pictorial surrogate—Picasso had a different idea. “I told them they’d have to fight it out for themselves. So they began to wrestle. It’s one of my choicest memories” (quoted in F. Gilot, Life with Picasso, New York, 1964, p. 211). To resolve this situation, Picasso arranged and maintained both relationships in parallel, each apart from the other; Dora became his new creative, public muse, while Marie-Thérèse remained the private mistress of home and family.