CN/TW: Mention of rape

Picasso by now has been the subject of endless solo shows, you can’t really give him a retrospective – you have to find a theme in his work. This exhibition was a close reading of the Spanish artist’s work on bulls, bullfighting, and the myth of the Minotaur. The show purportedly examines the following Picasso quote: “If all the ways I have been along were marked on a map and joined up with a line, it might represent a Minotaur.”

Commercial galleries like Gagosian don’t tend to have interpretations on the walls explaining or discussing the works like the national institutions do, so in this case it is up to the press release and the viewer (hello) to connect Picasso’s life to the myth of the Minotaur through this selection of works. This quote isn’t sufficient to fully describe the themes of Picasso’s Minotaur work – the exhibition doesn’t reflect the sense of journeying that his words convey. I think the exhibition also needs to be read alongside Picasso’s famously complex (shit) attitude towards women: “For me,” he told his mistress in 1943, “there are only two kinds of women, goddesses and doormats.”

The bull and the Minotaur clearly represent male sexuality and virility, nicely demonstrated in Faune Priape, 1957, a little sculpture of a man/bull with a massive boner approximately the size of the figure’s torso (I wish I could pop a photo here because  it was high lols but they were very strict on the no photography rule). Unusually for any art exhibition there was a lot more male than female nudity, and by ‘male nudity’ I mean copious amounts of aggressively huge dicks and bull testicles.

fig. 1 Pablo Picasso

La femme torero, 1934

The heterosexual masculinity of Picasso’s work plays out in opposition to femininity. There are two female ‘types’ in this show that correspond with two ‘types’ of masculinity. Mostly, the man is the Minotaur, all macho violent strength, and the woman is at best object, at worst victim. There are reams of rapes, women with their heads thrown back and their eyes rolling. Even in the works that depict consensual sex, the woman is lying back, being done – the Minotaur is active and the woman is passive. Minotaure dans une barque sauvant une femme, 1937, could show a Minotaur saving a woman from drowning – he’s carrying a limp female form from the sea into the safety of a boat  – but this surely refers to the myth of Europa, ‘seduced’ (read: raped) by Zeus disguised as a bull. As much as the bull head in this work appears impassive and non-violent, Picasso has made sure to depict the figure’s balls at almost the centre of the work, so there is no avoiding the reference to sexuality.  My copy of Ovid (Raeburn’s translation if  anyone wants to check) describes Europa as a ‘frightened prize’ – this is a rape as much as Picasso’s more overtly violent Minotaur series. FYI Zeus’s bull became the constellation Taurus – the most enduring vision of a bull that we have in Europe is a by-product of a rape. La femme torero, 1934, is another example – the woman Matador is thrown backwards by the bull, penetrated by the bull’s horn (probably a penis metaphor as usual), and she is carried off on the bull’s back, just like Europa. Picasso’s violent bull exists in partnership with his view of a woman as ‘doormat’, as object.

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Deux faunes et une nymphe, 1938

There’s a rare glimpse of woman as Goddess in Deux faunes et une nymphe, 1938. There’s no macho masculinity in the dancing faun, dancing or curtsying in front of a nymph who sits on a throne, wearing a hat that is like a crown. She holds an anchor and looks unimpressed. The second faun is non-threatening, sat quietly in the background with clasped hands. There is a noticeable lack of dick in this work, and therefore a lack of male sexuality. But then, a faun is not a Minotaur – he’s half goat, not half bull. Maybe faced with a Minotaur, with Picasso’s vision of masculinity, this imperial nymph would not remain so composed.

There are a couple of instances of masculine vulnerability in this show. A winged bull in le chaval aile, 1948, stands with his guts spilling out of a hole in his belly, surrounded by three enormous black vultures. The dying bull stands strong and upright, genitals enormous and prominent as usual. In barque de naiades et faune blesse, 1937, a faun slumps on a shore, arrow piercing his torso, with a boatful of women sailing past without assisting. There’s pain, and maybe fear in his face. Again, though, he isn’t a Minotaur. Femininity can only have power in these works when masculinity is lacking – nymphs can sail past a dying faun, but women must be subjected to the will of the Minotaur.

In minotaure aveugle guide par un fillette, 1934-5, a blind Minotaur is guided through the night by a little girl holding a dove. The Minotaur howls in pain at the starry sky, and three sailors watch from the sides of the work. There’s a Paula Rego’s Nursery Rhymes quality to this piece, with its strong shading and assorted cast of characters. It’s quite a theatrical work, the stars and sea look almost like a painted backdrop to the figures. This is the only work in the show that depicts a vulnerable Minotaur, and the girl is the only non Goddess/Doormat female.

For all that I’m not a fan of these views on masculinity and femininity, I loved this show. I love anything mythical and Picasso is generally a delight. The works are absolutely beautiful, my favourite being minotaure aveugle guide par un fillette for its nighttime theatricality. There were a couple of works that seemed a bit out of place (paintings with no Minotaurs or Matadors involved), but the show as a whole was beautiful. There are some examples of Picasso’s ceramics, and I think there’s a lightheartedness in these – wouldn’t it be jokes to eat your breakfast from a plate decorated with bull genitals? – which makes the exhibition a little less serious. It’s a nice warm up for Tate’s blockbuster Picasso show coming up in 2018. I’ll probably be going back.

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