Picasso and His Monsters

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One of the most intriguing art events of this season took place last Sunday at the LACMA auditorium. A single famous artwork was discussed in depth and interpreted in provocative ways during a day-long symposium devoted to what is arguably Picasso's greatest print. Seven art scholars argued their points of view regarding one particular etching, Minotauromachy, that the artist printed in 1935 -- the worst year of his life -- according to his own statement. Picasso's marriage to Russian ballerina Olga Koklova was falling apart, and he was involved in a clandestine love affair with Marie-Thérèse Walter, who, at the time they met, was only fifteen years old.

All that and more can be seen and 'read,' so to speak, in this image wrought with exceptional compositional and psychological complexity. The Greek myth of the Minotaur, part man and part bull, tells the story of Theseus, who goes to the Labyrinth, slays the monster, and then escapes with the help of Ariadne. Picasso worked on this etching obsessively for almost two months. There are seven 'states' (or variations) of this print which provide fascinating insight into the artist's process. All seven versions currently are on display at this small jewel of an exhibition at LACMA. Never before have they been shown together in the United States. Do yourself a favor: go back and forth from one image to another to find what Picasso adds or subtracts from the image in each consecutive state. Or, if you check out the text of this Art Talk on the KCRW website, there is a link to all seven states of this print. Try to decide which of these seven prints you like the best. The first state, with its light touch and sense of immediacy and improvisation, is my favorite.

With each new step, the artist makes the image more dramatic, emphasizing the contrast between dark and light. There is a moment when Picasso understands that the image has become too dark, too difficult to read, so in the next state, he lightens it up. This special exhibition presents one of only two existing color versions of the seventh, final state. The other color version is in the Musée Picasso in Paris.

During the symposium, the question was raised, "Who is the angelic looking girl greeting the Minotaur with flowers in one hand and a candle in the other?" Is the female matador, with features reminiscent of Marie-Thérèse, asleep or slain? Does the sword in her hand have a sexual implication? Who is the man climbing up the ladder in an attempt to escape this nightmarish scenario?

It happened that the night before the symposium, I went to see the much talked-about movie Pan's Labyrinth by Mexican director Guillermo del Toro. Like Picasso's Minotauromachy, it tells the story of a girl who confronts a monster, one in real life -- her stepfather -- and an imaginary one who inhabits the Labyrinth. I thought that the etching and the movie have surprising similarities in dealing with the confrontation of "good and evil, violence and innocence, suffering and salvation," if I may quote the exhibition brochure. Looking at del Toro's sketchbooks full of images for his movie, I thought that one possible way of looking at Picasso's seven states of the Minotauromachy would be to imagine them as a series of movie stills. And, speaking of Picasso and movies, I want to mention the upcoming screening at LACMA of the fascinating documentary, "The Mystery of Picasso," shot in 1956 and capturing the artist in creative process and in real time.

Picasso's Greatest Print: The Minotauromachy in All Its States
On view until February 25
Los Angeles County Museum of Art
Special Exhibition Film Screening: The Mystery of Picasso
February 11, 2 pm