The Biggest Load of Bull

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The arresting Minotaur head that opened the show.

Picasso: Matadors and Minotaurs Ran from April to August 2017 at the Gagosian Gallery W1, curated by Sir John Richardson.
The Sorcerer’s Apprentice by John Richardson, (pub. Knopf 1999).

I am catching up with myself slowly! This show – back in the summer – was a stunning assembly of some of Picasso’s finest work featuring both sides of the Bull theme.  I can’t recall seeing a finer Picasso show in London since Picasso’s Picassos at the Hayward decades ago. John Richardson, a biographer who knew Picasso well, or as well as anyone, clearly knows where all the good stuff lives. It is privileged knowledge – knowledge a hundred internets would not reveal to the curator pretenders who infest the modern gallery scene.

Often when you see a show that has just one Picasso, it can be just too powerful and dominate. It can be all you look at;  but this intense show of his work alone allowed the balance and quieter ideas in the work to come through. Vulnerability was on show here as well as strength. Added to this, the implicit conflict of identification between the matador who slays the bull, the Minotaur, the bull-headed monster to whom youth is sacrificed, and the wild primordial bull himself creates a tension that forces the question – who is Picasso?

Picasso Minotaur (00-51)

The blind Minotaur led by a young girl in this print from the Vollard Suite (1930-37)

Never in western art has any artist identified so strongly with an animal. Picasso felt it from within. It is partly atavism, a way for the exiled Spaniard to cast a glance homeward. But it is also personal – we feel that the spirit looking out from the Minotaur’s tiny eyes is the spirit of the godlike artist, trapped in his own creation. His intense feeling is unmistakable: this is a vicarious vehicle for self portraiture. If Picasso’s simultaneous identification with both Matador and Minotaur seems paradoxical to us, that reflects our inability to perceive the surface and the underlying artist as a whole.

Every work has something beautiful in terms of fluid spontaneous line or strongly modelled form, intoxicating light and suffocating shadows. We are drawn into the labyrinth.

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Minoatauromachie 1937

By chance at the same time I also happened upon ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’ – Richardson’s lucid and enlightening memoir of his life with Douglas Cooper in the South of France.

Richardson’s book is an extraordinary insight into the world of post-war European art. Richardson lived with critic and collector Douglas Cooper in a chateau in the South of France in the 1950s – meeting often with Picasso and many other notables who passed through or lived nearby. There is a lot of name-dropping in the book, but what names! And just when one expects the book to become a recital of golden evenings or a tedious hagiography, Richardson’s sharp pen punctures the bubble. The shady world of dealers passing on works of dubious quality or provenance in the moral wilderness of Postwar Europe is the backdrop.

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The roles reversed – the Minotaur this time rescuing a girl

The bizarre entourage of Picasso flits in and out, and we are not blind to its strangeness or his faults. It is hierarchical, bitchy and unstable – presaging the rock star era. The tightly knit groups of pre-war cubists and surrealists had been fragmented and dispersed. Some had prospered, some had perished and some struggled on. The rat’s nest of curators and critics fight over the favours of artists. Some are sitting on priceless hoards in derelict palazzi, quietly waiting for death and the inevitable dispersal of their treasures. Finally, the unsentimental rendering of their bitter breakup and subsequent dispersal of his and Cooper’s own collection (mainly Cooper’s , but also some of Richardson’s) gives more light and shade than the era has previously had for me.

It seems strange that Picasso would regularly attend bullfights (even if only the bloodless French variety), but could not tolerate any mention of death in his presence. Only his identification with the bull could transform this spectacle into art. There is one painting of a matodor here Picasso made at the age of eight – nearby others made just weeks before his death. The language of bull fighting was part of him – the art of the matador is like the artist pitted against the canvas and the struggle of the bull is like the valiant but doomed struggle of a man before death. It was a monumental subject for him that he approached like a mountain – like Hokusais views of Fuji in different weather or seasons, Picasso offers us many different aspects of the bull.


There are myriad versions in this print alone – one drawing hints at cuts of meat, but more seem to hark back to Lascaux (discovered only in 1940) – to the very root of art. Zoomorphic abstraction seems to derive from what animators would call the Line of Action – a dynamic line indicating weight, movement and structure. In this state of the print, Picasso puts his signature playfully but significantly in place of the last bull.

Most wonderful of all perhaps – a small bronze bull – which must have taken just seconds to make, but the simple piece of pinched clay is animated by the spirit of the animal. This transfiguration of base materials is a rare ability of great artists – simply put it is the power of creation. With it Picasso creates the Primordial afresh: brutal, noble and enigmatically mute.


Taureau 1955




3 comments on “The Biggest Load of Bull

  1. bluebrightly says:

    As always, lucid and interesting. Picasso’s not one of my favorite artists, but I have no trouble with any of these, and enjoyed seeing them, especially the drawing & the bronze. Thanks for including your thoughts about the book, providing a backdrop to it all.

  2. Thanks for reading and for the comment. Picasso is one of my favorite artists, but sometimes it’s hard to explain why…sometimes it is hard to see past the reputation!

    • bluebrightly says:

      Yes, that’s part of it, for sure! But one thing I’ve noticed about your writing is that you do look beyond the surface. Here’s to a great 2018 for you, with loads and loads of interesting art. 🙂

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