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1933-1937 The minotaur and other monsters

Coinciding in time with the political tensions that caused the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s, Picasso appropriated Greek myth to expose the violence latent within human nature. His Minotaur celebrates shared pleasure, commits acts of sexual violence, repents, displays unexpected tenderness. Picasso’s quasi-abstract images of women’s heads evoke both aggression and desire.  

“Picasso was speaking very quietly now.

– 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. Perhaps that’s why he goes in for orgies. 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 in conversation with Françoise Gilot, 1964]


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The picture Still Life with Minotaur and Palette is the last in a series of four paintings Picasso made in November 1938 (with a fifth made in December). They chart a wide variety of relationships between objects symbolising culture (a book, candle, palette, and brushes) and destruction, which is represented by either the head of a bull or a Minotaur. Attached to a stand, these heads read as both sculptural artworks and real faces. This duality presents bestiality as both an aspect of art (along with the brushes and palette) and a force outside culture. Among the five paintings, only the first and fourth portray the Minotaur.

The Minotaur appears in this picture both vividly alive and benignly human. Although ruddy in colouring, the head is fully fleshed. Not only are its features distinctly human (except for the short horns and oval ears), its skin exhibits none of the thick hair or rough hide of a beast. Moreover, Picasso’s use of black to outline the Minotaur’s chin, lips, eyes, and eyebrows emphasises the calm expression and human proportions of the head. Finally, touches of blue on either side of the Minotaur’s lips and yellow in the eyes mix colours of the adjacent still life into the features of the Minotaur.

In this painting, the conflict between creativity and destruction is largely defused; the Minotaur is nearly humanised as a part of this display of culture.

Text: Michael FitzGerald, “Picasso’s Minotaurs’”. In Catalogue Dialogues with Picasso. Collection 2020-2023