The Running Muse

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Picasso's running minotaur

By The Running Muse, Jul 3 2015 07:52PM

There is a legendary athletics BBC commentary on an Olympic 800 metres race featuring eventual gold medallist Alberto Juantorena: '......and the big Cuban opens his legs and shows his class'.

I'm afraid to say that this inadvertent double entendre was the first thing that flashed through my ignoble mind when I saw this 1928 charcoal and paper collage by the one of the great 20th century artists, perhaps the greatest, Pablo Picasso.

Because that's not a sock.

This image of an alarmingy priapic runner is one of a great many in Picasso's work that draw on the ancient Greek story of the minotaur, the half man, half bull creature waiting in his labyrinth to devour human sacrifices. Being Spanish, Picasso might have been expected to have references to bulls and bullfighting in his work, but what did the minotaur represent for him?

Picasso himself gives us a clue: 'If all the ways I have been along were marked on a map and joined with a line, it might represent a minotaur', he said. As a free-thinking artist, he felt trapped in his own private labyrinth by the social mores of his time, and he expressed his irrational urgings through the hybrid beast's inbuilt alter ego.

Now a minotaur is an example of a chimera, a mythical creature with the body parts and behavioural characteristics of different animals (familiar examples range from Pegasus and the Sphinx to the nameless figures of pathos in the films 'Alien: Resurrection' and 'Beauty and the Beast'). In the late medieval art of Hieronymous Bosch, chimeras were mostly visual puns that referred to biblical verses or metaphors, often representing the satanic deceptions that can lead us to Hell.

Picasso, however, seems to have created a personal aesthetic in which he acknowledges his more lascivious or monstrous impulses as manifestations of his subconscious, which for many artists and intellectuals had been validated as a source of authentic outbursts from the psyche by the recent theories of Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis. Picasso's minotaurs were an expression of these uncompromising, bestial, chthonic rumblings.

Freud had suggested that the mind was a zone of conflict in which the morality of the 'super-ego' attempts to suppress or manage the basic instincts and desires of the 'id', and that this struggle is mediated by the Self, the 'ego' (and ego is something which Picasso appears to have had in abundance). A lack of appropriate management skills on the part of the Self can lead to psychoemotional disturbances.

Picasso's Surrealist artist friends in particular placed great emphasis on these unconscious eruptions, however forbidden, sexual or violent they were, however full of rage and subsequent guilt.

His own identification with the minotaur was a fantasy in which he seemed to 'devour' women who submitted to him as human sacrifices on the altar of his art (he was prolifically unfaithful to his wives and lovers). The narrative resonance he found in the minotaur's confinement in a labyrinth, especially once he had become famous, led him to view his art as a kind of Ariadne's thread* that could navigate him out of his existential predicament.

The blue design of the running minotaur's genitalia is a witty riposte to this confinement. Besides being an overt flaunting of his libidinous nature, it is a pun on the original 'cordon bleu' (see below), the blue sash ribbon of Saint-Esprit which was the French ancien regime's highest order of chivalry, a symbol of stifling social stagnation (Picasso lived in France for most of his life). Picasso's use of it in this bawdy context is a kind of sophisticated 'Up yours!' graffito, delivered with relish and panache.

But why running? Is this minotaur, half bull and half Picasso, defined only by his head, legs and cordon bleu dick, finally escaping? Is he on a sexual rampage? Or is he desperately fleeing his bestial 'bull-mind', as one critic called it, thus mitigating the chaos it had caused in his life? All three is my guess, given that his style often incorporated multiple viewpoints within a single work.

The rather comical swinging penis of the male runner has of course been represented in art before, particularly on early Greek vases. Long before Lycra shorts restrained unruly members, male athletes ran naked around both the stadium and the vases depicting their feats, where certain dimensions were exaggerated, while others were rather downplayed, to put it coyly.

Picasso's version exhibits a running style of a very inefficient kind, by the look of it, and we are unlikely to see naked 10k's any time soon, but if we ever do, I predict a chorus of 'Swing Low' in the post-race showers.

My own running life exhibits some chimeric qualities - half mud-skipper, half elephant - and so I've been inspired by Pablo to work on a collage expressing my primitive proclivities. My inner beast is called a mudpach, and it has a very small trunk.

'Le Minotaure (The Minotaur)', 1928, Pablo Picasso, black chalk and pasted paper on canvas, 142 cm x 232 cm, The National Museum of Modern Art Pompidou Centre, Paris.

It was a collage made as a blueprint for a wool and silk tapestry that was eventually woven to the same dimensions in the Gobelin workshop in 1935. Now known as the Cuttoli Tapestry after its commissioner and owner, it is in currently at the Musée Picasso in Antibes.

The Gobelin workshop made tapestries for the French royal families for centuries and continues as a business and visitor attraction in Paris.

'Louis, Dauphin of France' by Hubert Drouais, c.1745, oil on canvas, 68cm x 57cm, Museo del Prado, Madrid. Louis was the son of Louis XV, but never became king.

'Drinking Minotaur and Reclining Woman' by Pablo Picasso, 1933 lithograph.

'Dora and the Minotaur' by Pablo Picasso, 1936, charcoal and black ink, 74cm x 40cm, Musée Picasso, Paris. Dora Maar was the painter's mistress and muse at the time.

* In the Greek myth, when Theseus goes to Crete and enters the labyrinth, he leaves a trail of thread given to him by King Minos' daughter, Ariadne, who had become enamoured of him. Having slain the minotaur, he retraces his steps to find his way out of the maze.

The ship in which he returned from this venture was preserved for centuries by the Athenians he ruled, each part being replaced as it rotted. Since the whole ship was eventually replaced, could it still be considered Theseus' ship? This is the 'Ship of Theseus Paradox' that is often invoked by philosophers discussing identity (perhaps not least because we ourselves are continually replacing most of the cells in our body).

The minotaur's stepbrother, by the way, was an athlete from Crete who had won all the prizes at the Panathenaic Games. It was his consequent murder by humiliated Athenians that led King Minos to demand that the cream of Athens' youth be fed to his stepson (the minotaur).

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