Picasso – half man, half bull

In Minotaurs and Matadors, an in-depth exhibition at Gagosian in London, the potent mixture of the myth of the bull-man and the corrida (bullfight) are embodied in 182 works by one artist – Pablo Picasso.

Born in 1881 in the Spanish port of Malaga, Picasso was immersed in a Mediterranean culture that both venerated and fought and killed the bull. The corrida was an integral part of his life and it had a lasting effect on him. Matadors, picadors, horses and bulls are recurring subjects in his work but there is more to it than that, for Picasso identified with the Minotaur. As he said: ‘If all the ways I have been along were marked on a map and joined up with a line, it might represent a Minotaur.’

Picasso wearing a bull’s head used for the training of bullfighters, La Californie, Cannes, 1959. IMAGE: © 2017 Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy Gagosian Photograph by Gjon Mili/Time and Life. Pictures/Getty Image

Like the mythical bull-man, he was a big beast who could not be tamed and whose animal magnetism attracted women in droves. He carried them back into his labyrinth where he enjoyed them – but could he ever find his way out again?

‘The Minotaur keeps his women lavishly but he reigns by terror and they’re glad to see him killed,’ said Picasso (quoted in Life with Picasso, 1964, by Francoise Gilot and Carlton Lake).

As the art historian and Picasso’s biographer Sir John Richardson, who curated Picasso: Minotaurs and Matadors, writes in the exhibition catalogue:

‘Who was the Minotaur, and why are we celebrating him? The Minotaur was a mythological monster, the offspring of a bull and the wife of King Minos of Crete.

The Minotaur legend, which had existed for centuries, all of a sudden became reality with the sensational archaeological discoveries by Sir Arthur Evans, documented in his multivolume treatise published between 1921 and 1936. Evans had excavated King Minos’s palace at Knossos (circa 1900–1300 BC), transforming ancient legend into historical fact.

Barque de naïades et faune blessé, December 31, 1937, oil and charcoal on canvas. 46cm × 55cm. Private Collection. IMAGE@ © 2017 Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy Gagosian. Photograph: Maurice Aeschimann

The fragmentary Cretan frescoes that Evans restored – helped by British ladies from good families – reveal the important role played by bulls in Minoan games. From bits and pieces of plaster, Evans conjured a way of life: boys dance around bulls rather than fight against them. That confrontation would be better left to Picasso.

But what most interested Picasso about Evans’ discoveries was the legendary Labyrinth that imprisoned the Minotaur, a creature that would obsess the artist to the point of self-identification.

Picasso never visited Greece, let alone Crete. He didn’t need to do so. He re-created it on paper. The drawings and prints in our show reveal how Picasso evoked the ancient world and peopled it with gorgeous girls who resembled his mistresses. Did they, one wonders, enjoy seeing themselves as the innocent victims of a ruthless monster?’

But the Minotaur, himself, is not always shown as a brutish, menacing monster, he is also portrayed as a comic or sad figure, more of a victim to be pitied.

Now aged 93, Richardson, who became a close friend of Picasso, related an amusing anecdote (at the press view) about the time he was at a bullfight in Nîmes with the artist and his friends. When the Marseillaise was played, before the action in the ring started, Ernest Hemingway was spotted standing very upright – and saluting. ‘He looked utterly ridiculous,’ said Richardson, ‘everyone else was chatting. After that I was never able to read another word by him again!’

As for Picasso’s alter-ego the Minotaur, Richardson said, there is always ‘a slight hint of menace, hints of darkness’. But he concludes, ‘I wouldn’t want to tame the Minotaur for anything.’ And that goes for Picasso, too.

Picasso: Minotaurs and Matadors is on show at Gagosian in London W1 (www.gagosian.com) until 25 August 2017. Lindsay Fulcher