There’s a bull tucked away in a closet-like gallery on the third floor of the Minneapolis Institute of Art. Several incarnations of the bull, in fact, all creations of Pablo Picasso, the famed artist who had a special connection with the massive beast.
“Picasso self-identified with bulls,” said Tom Rassieur, curator of prints and drawings at Mia. “He thought of himself as half-man, half-bull.”
“Picasso Cuts the Bull” is a hidden gem of a show — just 13 works-on-paper, organized around a set of proofs he made for the bullfighting linocut “Le Banderillero” (1959), which the museum acquired last year. (Mia owns 76 works by Picasso.)
After leaving his homeland of Spain, Picasso spent much of his life in Paris, the center of the art world at the time. But from 1948 to ’55 he decamped to Vallauris, a village on France’s Côte d’Azur.
One attraction was that the village had begun to stage bullfights. But Picasso also became enamored of linocut prints after meeting a master printer, Hidalgo Arnéra. He continued to return to Vallauris to print with Arnéra even after acquiring a château 90 miles away with his second wife, Jacqueline Roque.
The other charming pieces in this show — lithographs of the hillside village, color lithograph portraits, several etchings of bulls — speak to Picasso’s experimental, versatile nature.
Working with Arnéra, Picasso revolutionized printmaking by pioneering a now-popular technique called reduction linocut. Instead of carving a separate linoleum block for each color in the print — an extremely time-consuming process — he used a single block that he would continue to whittle down, step-by-step, printing different colors on top of each other (lighter ones first, then black at the very end).
It’s jokingly referred to as a “suicide print,” because as the artist carves away at the block, there is no going back. Perhaps this all-or-nothing reality contributed to Picasso’s fascination with the technique.
The proofs for “Le Banderillero,” acquired from the printer’s own archive, illustrate how the technique works.
The initial print is a beige-colored blank slate. The second shows the image taking shape: In a sandstone-colored red ink, a bull charges a banderillero, whose job is to stab darts (“banderillas”) into the bull’s shoulders, thus wounding — and angering — the animal. Behind him, a slim matador displays his cape to the bull.
The third and fourth proofs add detail to the print. Finally, an overprint of black ink makes the figures pop in the fifth phase of the work. With its swift cuts, the linocut technique lends a sense of motion, bringing the image to life.
Rassieur believes no other museum, except perhaps the Museu Picasso in Barcelona, has such a complete set of proofs for “Le Banderillero.”
The exhibit includes two other colorful Picasso portraits: the 1949 lithograph “Figure With Striped Blouse” and the multiple-block linocut “Portrait of a Young Woman after Lucas Cranach the Younger” (1958), on loan from a private collection. The latter was so laborious, it inspired Picasso to adopt the reduction method.
There’s even more bull in this show — not just in the gory tradition of bullfighting, but also in the personification and sexualization of bulls, even making the bull adorable, as if in a kids’ book.
In the 1934 etching “Minotaure Aveugle Guidé Par Una Fillette, III” (“Blind Minotaur Led by a Little Girl”), the notorious womanizer depicts himself as the mythological bullheaded monster, drawn away by his young lover Marie-Thérèse Walter while his then-wife Olga towers over the scene, appearing statuesque (go figure).
In her 2001 memoir “Picasso: My Grandfather,” Marina Picasso — Olga’s granddaughter — publicly unpacked the artist’s narcissism, writing: “No one in my family ever managed to escape from the stranglehold of this genius ... he needed the blood of those who loved him.”
“He missed the #MeToo moment,” quipped Rassieur. If Picasso were working now, “he would need to update his practice.”
His legacy lives on, of course, but the animal with which he so closely identified is a paradox of toxic masculinity: At once boorish and strong, strutting its stuff in the ring, the bull’s strength and aggressive nature will ultimately drive it to its death. Picasso tried to overcome that paradox by representing himself as both the bull and the fighter, suggesting a constant struggle between life and death. But by the end of the match one or both will die, much like the myth of “artist as genius.”