Chaim Koppelman

from: Four Essays on the Art of the Print


Power and Tenderness in Men
and in Picasso’s Minotauromachy

by Chaim Koppelman

In Pablo Picasso’s 1935 etching, Minotauromachy, power and tenderness, opposites that so often fight in men, are made one beautifully, richly, movingly. I am grateful for having learned how art answers the questions of life. It is in this Aesthetic Realism principle stated by Eli Siegel that is the basis of my talk: “The resolution of conflict in self is like the making one of opposites in art.”

I was seen by Mr. Siegel the way all men hope to be seen, as a person wanting to put together my desire to have my own way, and my hope to be kind. I learned that the power of respect is always kind and the power of contempt, the desire to make less of everything not ourselves, to build ourselves up, is always cruel.

Pablo Picasso is seen as the most powerful artist of the 20th century, and also as one of the most tender and compassionate. In his etchings of the 1930s the bull, and later beings from Greek mythology which are half animal and half man, appear with increasing frequency; the centaur-man and horse, the satyr-man and goat, and most importantly, the minotaur, a oneness of bull and man. All these beings represent the duality in Picasso: the opposing forces of brute and conscious kindness he wanted to put together.

Eli Siegel said that the opposites in Spain itself are force and tenderness. About the minotaur series, the English art historian Anthony Blunt wrote:

[Picasso] was to use [the minotaur]…with infinitely greater variety and subtlety. At times it is a symbol of violence and brutality, as in the scenes in which it is about to rape a sleeping girl; but at other moments it is gentle and domesticated, for instance, in the enchanting etching where it lies asleep behind a diaphanous curtain, watched by a girl.1

As we look at the Minotauromachy, there is this description of Picasso by the painter Francoise Gilot, who lived with him for almost 10 years. She writes: “He was very gentle, and that is the impression that remains with me until this day—his extraordinary gentleness.”

Gir Seated with sleeping Minotaur

Girl Seated with Sleeping Minotaur, 1933, Etching

But later, after being separated for a short time, she writes:

I didn’t return for three months. It wasn’t that I didn’t admire his greatness; it was, rather, that I didn’t enjoy seeing it cheapened by a kind of imperialism which I thought incompatible with true greatness.2

The same Picasso who hated Fascism and the brutal bombing of Guernica by the German fascist planes during the Spanish Civil War could himself be imperialist and tyrannical in the way he saw women in his private life. I believe this troubled him.

Minotaur Attacking Girl

Minotaur Attacking Girl, 1933, Etching

The opposites which fight in a man are described by Eli Siegel in a great Aesthetic Realism essay, “Husbands and Poems”:

When men are energetic, assertive, forceful (or worse), they lack sensibility, fine understanding, rich sympathy; when they are gentle, sentimental, soft, they no longer seem to have strength, energy, momentum.3

I learned that what I wanted to do as an artist was what I had to do as a husband: put opposites together. That is the power of art and it is the power of good will which, Aesthetic Realism explains, is the desire to make something and someone else stronger and more beautiful.

Picasso’s greatest etching backs up Mr. Siegel’s resounding statement in “The Suppression of Good Will”:

One of these days, it will be seen that the chief thing man has suppressed so far is his good will. This, perhaps, is the largest matter in human history.4

Eli Siegel himself had the power of art, the power of good will all the time and that is why he can teach all men now. His description of “good will in man…somewhere struggling to come forth,” explains the yearning expressions in so many of Picasso’s minotaurs. They yearn to be kinder, more human. The minotaur is every man.


1935, Etching

The Minotauromachy was done two years before the Guernica painting and it is one of the artist’s largest prints, 19-1/2” x 27-1/4”. On the left side of the print a young girl holds a bouquet of flowers in one hand and a lit candle in the other. She confronts the massive, lunging minotaur as he comes toward her. In the center, a woman picador lies, breasts bared, over the body of a frightened horse. To the far left, an almost naked man seems to be getting out of the way, but looks backward as he climbs up the ladder. And higher up, inside a building, two young women, accompanied by turtle doves, act unaffected by what is going on below.

The young girl stands upright and unafraid. She is the only figure whose legs have one firm direction, and she is the only one powerful enough to meet the minotaur because she wants to see him, and she wants him to find his way into the light. She, with her guiding candle, and the onrushing minotaur, in their great contrast, complete one another. The arm of the beast seems to push away and yet go towards the light. And the young girl, representing tenderness and the brave desire to see, and the bull-man with his raw power and his groping desire to see, join in the continuous form of an arch. Two aspects of the self are joined and it is thrilling. 

Eli Siegel saw that as much as man could be brutal and want to have his way inconsiderately, even cruelly, he also had a deep desire to have good will. Once in an Aesthetic Realism class, I told Mr. Siegel I was having some difficulty with my voice, and he said my voice showed the rift in me between sweetness and strength. “We have our fierce self and our yielding self,” he told me, “and they are not seen as one.” Mr. Siegel taught me that good will makes opposites one. He said I should imagine my wife, Dorothy, sitting in the audience of a large theater and then point to her and say in a proud, strong voice, “There is a woman I want to be kind to.” I was learning what every man is hoping for, how to have sweetness and strength together in me, as they are in art.

The technique of etching is a oneness of power and delicacy. The finest line scratched or drawn on the surface of the copper plate is etched and bitten into the plate by a powerful acid. The massive head of the bull, for instance, is in itself a collection of finely drawn and etched lines. The force of the head comes from the oneness of energy and precision in the lines.

Detail 1

Minotauromachy Detail

The acid and the needle are critical and kind in the art of etching.“Stop needling me,” and “she’s got an acid tongue,” are both complaints in marriage because people do not have good will. This is different from the criticism of art, and from the Aesthetic Realism criticism of self.

I think Picasso in the Minotauromachy has an ethical, critical purpose. The beginning, organic relation of technique and ethics is described by Eli Siegel in his poem “The Print”:

Can dark and light
Show wrong and right?
—And round and straight
Show love and hate?
—And dim and clear
Show hope and fear?5

Picasso was critical of the way men use their strength to have power, and he saw that women also used their bodies to conquer men and to have a hurtful power. Picasso asserted his own masculine strength, but that did not satisfy his whole self. Here, the bare-breasted woman picador draped brokenly over the frightened horse has failed in her desire to conquer the minotaur through body alone, because he wants what is represented by the young girl with the light: he wants to see, to know, and to like the world. The bull aspect of himself alone does not satisfy him. Even as he seems to shield his eyes from the light, he wants that light. He wants power and tenderness, body and thoughtful seeing together. In this etching Picasso affirms what Aesthetic Realism teaches: the only power that will satisfy a man is the power of good will.    

Detail 2

Minotauromachy Detail

In this print Picasso is critical of another false way people have gone after power—by dismissing things and trying to get away from the conflict in ourselves. The desire to know ourselves and the world, to see ourselves and the world honestly is the only power we can be proud of. The man climbing up the ladder on the left side of the print, unsure whether he wants to get away or to see the meaning of what is going on, is dual in his motion. He turns his back on all this, and he faces it at once. His body is somewhat flabby and he seems cowardly, but like the minotaur, there is something in him that also wants to see.

The two women in the upper window show their contemptuous power by acting uninterested, as unseeing and complacent as two turtle doves. As they are confined in their stony niche within that arch, they form a strong and ethically important contrast. They are isolated in their superiority, while the minotaur, with all his brutishness, gropingness, is free in space. We can even see in the distance, a little sailboat made with jolly strokes of the etching needle in the lively ocean.

Even as this work of Picasso’s is critical of false or bad power, it is beautifully powerful and subtle because it is a oneness of dark and light, delicacy and strength.

Picasso’s minotaur represents the hope of all men to be seen wholly as we are—as a oneness of reality’s opposites—and to have our own power to see evoked and strengthened. I am deeply moved to have spoken on the Minotauromachy because it hung on the wall of the same room where Mr. Siegel taught so magnificently for many years and where I had the lessons with him that changed my life. This is the education that can change cruelty to kindness.

1. Anthony Blunt, Picasso’s Guernica (Oxford University Press, 1969), p. 20.
2. Francoise Gilot and Carlton Lake, Life with Picasso (Signet, New American Library, 1965).
3. Eli Siegel, “Husbands and Poems,” 11 Aesthetic Realism Essays (New York: Aesthetic Realism Foundation, Inc., 1974). Reprinted from Today’s Japan 1960.
4. Eli Siegel, “The Suppression of Good Will,” The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known, #160 (1976).
5. Eli Siegel, Hail, American Development (New York: Definition Press, 1968).

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