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Crash of Symbols

BMA Explores the All-Too-Personal Works of Pablo Picasso

Lotta Bull: Rarely seen outside art history books, "Minotauromachy" finds Picasso pushing his psychosexual tension to the nth degree.

By J. Bowers | Posted 2/11/2004

Picasso: Surrealism and the War Years

Picasso: Surrealism and the War Years

In 1930, the flamboyant Spanish surrealist Salvador Dali sketched an uncharacteristically realistic portrait of that other great Spanish painter, the mercurial, label-defying Pablo Picasso. After painstakingly daubing tiny drops of white paint to highlight the pupils and crowning his rival's forehead with laurel branches, Dali signed his character study with a tart homage: "I too have known the emperor/ The mantle of the master." As a snide homage, Dali's "Pablo Picasso" embodies the tension between the two artists, who jealously monitored each others' careers. As a portrait, the drawing lends tangible context to the all-too-autobiographical works collected in Picasso: Surrealism and the War Years, a one-gallery overview of the master's emotionally charged pre-"Guernica" period, available in the Baltimore Museum of Art's Cone Focus Gallery.

Unlike Dali, who cemented his position in the surrealistic vanguard by focusing on dream realms, Picasso used the ideas, energy, and techniques of the Surrealist movement to translate his subconscious into highly symbolic personal narratives, expanding upon his long-recognized tendency to add autobiographical elements to his work. The collection of etchings, engravings, and paintings presented here represents a particularly volatile period in Picasso's life and work. Between 1926 and 1946, he ended his marriage to dancer Olga Kolkova, romanced his beloved mistress and frequent model Marie-Thérèse Walter, and watched her transform from a sweet, childish girl into the matronly bearer of his daughter Maia.

By combining his interest in Surrealism with his tumultuous personal life, Picasso found his ideal symbolic doppelgänger--the Minotaur, half-man, half-bull, virile and noble, but ultimately monstrous. The Surrealists loved the Minotaur and his Labyrinth as a symbol of man's convoluted mind and animal nature. Long fascinated by bullfighting, Picasso adopted the Minotaur as a recurring image during this period, along with revolving interpretations of Marie-Thérèse as a woman, a child, and a female picador. The BMA's survey does both obsessions justice, with insightful labels that allow viewers to follow Picasso's evolving motifs throughout this dark, introspective period.

"Blind Minotaur Guided Through a Starry Night by Marie-Thérèse With a Pigeon," along with "Blind Minotaur Guided by a Young Girl With Flowers" and "Blind Minotaur Guided at Night by a Young Girl With a Pigeon," all from the Vollard Suite of prints, contrast the bestial Picasso/Minotaur with the soft, iconic faces of its attendant human characters. Each piece is separate and individual, but all share an epic, Biblical tone, and suggest Marie-Thérèse's role as a guiding force in Picasso's life. The composition and themes presented in these etchings can be read as a multipart warmup for one of Picasso's masterpieces, "Minotauromachy."

Rarely presented outside art-history textbooks, but readily available here, "Minotauromachy" finds Picasso pushing his psychosexual tension to the nth degree, with a Minotaur who shields his eyes against Marie-Thérèse's guiding candlelight and gazes unaffectedly at a gory, tangled conglomerate of an injured nude woman (also Marie-Thérèse) and a dead horse. Dense both visually and symbolically, and grand in size, it is easy to see why "Minotauromachy" is one of the world's most famous etchings.

Another etching, "Bacchanal Scene With Minotaur," places the mighty creature in a completely different context, surrounded by bulbous, reclining women and sharing a wine toast with a hirsute nude man. Picasso's sense of humor shines through with this version of the Minotaur--apparently, even his most potent symbols can relax and have a drink now and again. Humor also pervades "The Dream and Lie of Franco (Plates I and II)," Picasso's 1937 comic strip-style send-up of the Spanish fascist Gen. Francisco Franco. Reinterpretation of classical mythology characterizes much of Picasso's war work. Here, however, the artist mines his homeland's rich literary history, using imagery from Cervantes' Don Quixote to turn the general into a foolish figure, described by the artist as "an evil omened polyp." In the second plate, the Franco figure goes toe-to-toe with a bull--related to the Minotaur, the beast recurs in "Guernica," alongside some of the distressed humanoid forms that surround Franco.

In addition to offering some of Picasso's most fascinating autobiographical and political work, Surrealism and the War Years includes an intriguing showcase of the artist's lesser-known interest in books. Picasso accepted illustration assignments from publisher friends, including a striking edition of wartime poetry by Pierre Reverdy, embellished with bright red, abstract brush strokes, reminiscent of Japanese kanji.

The exhibit comes full circle with the inclusion of "Cover for Minotaure," Picasso's contribution to the premiere edition of the Surrealist movement's most influential journal. His illustration surrounds the titular Minotaur with a collage of doily lace, corrugated cardboard, rose leaves, and aluminum foil. In this interpretation, the beast is naked but well-groomed, leaning casually on his left hand while clutching an upright, overtly phallic dagger in his right. Noble, undeniable, and radiating quiet strength, the mascot of Minotaure is ultimately a character of mythic proportions, eternally daring his audience to challenge his supremacy--much like Picasso himself.

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