‘If all the ways I have been along were marked on a map and joined up in a line, it might represent a Minotaur’
(Picasso, quoted in G.R. Utley, ‘Picasso and the Minotaur: A Self-Revealing Diary of a Most Painful Period’, in J. Richardson, Picasso: Minotaurs and Matadors, exh. cat., London, 2017, p. 61)
‘Picasso’s Minotaur, carousing, loving, and fighting, is Picasso himself. He is laying himself totally bare, in what he hopes is complete communion’
(D-H. Kahnweiler, quoted in J. Richardson, Picasso: Minotaurs and Matadors, exh. cat., London, 2017, p. 47)
A work of fascinating enigma, Femme et Minotaure was executed on 19 February 1937, during one of the most turbulent moments in Pablo Picasso’s life. The Minotaur had become during the 1930s Picasso's most prominent alter ego; the hydridic half-man, half-beast proliferating in the artist’s painting, drawing and printmaking, serving as a vessel in which to pour his anxieties and desires during these dramatic years of both public and personal upheaval. Holding a deeply personal significance for the artist, this work remained in Picasso’s collection for the rest of his life and has stayed in the Picasso family collection until today.
The myth of the Minotaur had become hugely popular in 1930s Paris. Thanks to Arthur Evans’ archaeological excavations of the palace of Knossos in Crete during the 20s and 30s, the story of this mythological beast – half man, half bull – and his labyrinthine domain had been rediscovered at this time, embraced in part due to the defiant propagation of the ideals of Mediterranean Classicism in reaction to the wave of Fascism sweeping across Europe. In addition, the Surrealists were particularly drawn to the Minotaur. As Brassaï 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’ (Brassaï, quoted in M. Müller, ed., Pablo Picasso and Marie-Thérèse Walter: Between Classicism and Surrealism, exh. cat., Münster, 2004, p. 45). In 1933, Minotaure, a new Surrealist periodical was founded, and Picasso was invited to design the cover. While the Minotaur had featured in his work in passing, this commission marked the beginning of an intense and deeply personal artistic dialogue with this mythological figure.
Picasso’s Mediterranean heritage meant that he had a predilection for mythology and Classicism, and was, like his Surrealist counterparts, fascinated by the myth of the Minotaur. Yet, for Picasso, this interest was based in a very personal affiliation with the Cretan legend. Picasso saw in himself the same untamable power of the Minotaur; regarding his supreme artistic powers as something that existed beyond his control and consciousness. The analogy continues: as with the maidens that were sacrificed to the Minotaur, so people in Picasso’s life sacrificed themselves upon the altar of his art; a fact that Picasso was almost certainly aware of.
Françoise Gilot recalled Picasso telling her about this deeply felt identification with the Minotaur: ‘They know they’re monsters and they live, like dandies and dilettantes everywhere...’, he described. ‘After the heat of the day has passed, they bring in the sculptors and their models for parties, with music and dancing, and everybody gorges himself on mussels and champagne until the melancholy fades away and euphoria takes over. From there on it’s an orgy’. ‘Picasso was speaking very quietly now’, Gilot continued. ‘“A minotaur can’t be loved for himself,” he said. “At least he doesn’t think he can. It just doesn’t seem reasonable to him, somehow…” He turned to another print, a minotaur watching over a sleeping woman. “He’s studying her, trying to read her thoughts,” he said, “trying to decide whether she loves him because he’s a monster.”’ (Picasso, quoted in F. Gilot & C. Lake, Life with Picasso, New York, 1964, pp. 49-50).
As a result of the deep kinship that he felt with the Minotaur, its appearance in Picasso’s art took on an autobiographical meaning. It is no coincidence that this figure appeared at a time when the artist’s personal life was in turmoil, and his work involving the Minotaur frequently reflects the growing angst that plagued Picasso’s mind at this time. He was estranged from his wife Olga, and separated from her officially in 1935, the same year that his radiant muse, Marie-Thérèse Walter, had given birth to their daughter, Maya. At the end of 1935 (or the beginning of 1936), Picasso met the enigmatic Surrealist photographer Dora Maar, with whom he would begin an intense affair. This only complicated Picasso’s personal life further, with both Maar and Walter vying for the artist’s attentions. Until 1936, the Minotaur was frequently pictured in often headily erotic scenes, watching over or gallivanting with nude figures, who frequently adopt the same distinctive features of the artist’s voluptuous blonde muse, Marie-Thérèse. After April 1936 however, these depictions change, ‘the Minotaur’s brute desire for the blonde woman subsides, his sexual energy is still a perceptible feature, but henceforth he is primarily motivated by moral remorse and guilt feelings’, Lydia Gasman has written (L. Gasman, Mystery, Magic and Love in Picasso, 1925-1938: Picasso and the Surrealist Poets, Ann Arbor, 1981, no. 479, p. 1397).
In addition to these personal predicaments, the storm clouds of war were ominously gathering over Europe. The artist’s native Spain had descended into Civil War in the summer of 1936, with the likelihood of all-out war seeming every more likely, and, at the beginning of February 1937, Málaga, the artist’s birthplace, had fallen to Nationalist troops. In this way, the Minotaur served as a vessel through which to express and explore the contradictory and often conflicting passions, angsts, guilt and desires in his life at this time. ‘Picasso’s Minotaur, carousing, loving, and fighting, is Picasso himself’, Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, the artist’s sometime dealer and long-term friend wrote. ‘He is laying himself totally bare, in what he hopes is complete communion’ (D-H. Kahnweiler, quoted in J. Richardson, Picasso: Minotaurs and Matadors, exh. cat., London, 2017, p. 47).
Femme et Minotaure relates closely to a series of gouaches that Picasso had painted the previous year, in April and May 1936. In these, the Minotaur appears in ever more horrifying situations, pictured on occasion in the throes of death. With Spain now mired by Civil War, Picasso once again portrayed himself as the Minotaur in the present work, and another, executed a month later (Baigneuses, sirens, femme nue et minotaure, Zervos IX, no. 97). In the latter, the Minotaur is gallantly saving a lifeless figure whose profile is immediately reminiscent of Marie-Thérèse Walter, watched on by a host of Siren-like women in the sea, one of which assumes the likeness of Dora Maar. By contrast, in the present work, the same monstrous figure seems to turn his back on the women behind him, like Theseus deserting Ariadne after he had killed the Minotaur. To the left the same unmistakable profile of Walter can be seen, her flailing body held in the arms of a woman with a winged face. Lydia Gasman has described this enigmatic figure as being ‘a wing-headed Wagnerian Brunhilde, [enacting] the role of Siegelinde grieved by the loss of her lover Siegmund’ (L. Gasman, op. cit., p. 1527). Picasso had first depicted Walter in this pose of helplessness in 1932, with a group of works entitled Le Sauvetage, inspired by Walter’s near-drowning. This same pose of utter helplessness would appear again in the artist’s work just a few months later in Guernica, this figure serving therefore in the present work as a portentous vision of the suffering that was soon to be unleashed upon the people of the small Basque town.
Another woman is aboard the Minotaur’s boat, her hands tied behind her back to the mast. Is this the figure of Olga, from whom he had recently separated? And is the figure with the winged visage that of Maar, whom the artist had at times depicted as a bird? Perhaps then, the Minotaur, the figure of the artist himself, is clutching the sail in an attempt to shield himself from the reality of the women he had left in his wake.