Great Works: Blind Minotaur Led by a Little Girl in the Night, 1934, by Pablo Picasso

British Museum, London

Dealing with Picasso is a little like wrestling the phantom presence of some unkillable Minotaur to the ground. Even now, almost 40 years after his death, we are still discovering him, judging him, assessing his legacy. Matters are complicated by the fact that almost everything Picasso ever made or perhaps even breathed on, no matter how ridiculously slight, turns to gold in the auction room.

Much was not gold, of course. It was dross – as it would be with any workaholic artist who produced in excess of 10,000 paintings during his lifetime. (By comparison, 34 are attributed to Vermeer and fewer than 20 to Leonardo). The Picasso industry works judiciously, tirelessly, to sustain the value of the brand in order to maximise the reputation – and therefore the income. So how do we choose something incontrovertibly magnificent? Frankly, we could go anywhere, to any period. A great Picasso happens on the wing. His fertility waxed and waxed, constantly. It was also ceaseless.

Take this etching, for example, numbered 97th from a hundred produced for the dealer Ambroise Vollard during the 1930s over a period of about seven years, and known collectively as the Vollard Suite. You can see it on display in the Prints and Drawings Room of the British Museum until 2 September. To survey this suite, one by one, is to recognise the astonishing versatility and the imaginative reach of this man, his ability to play a bewildering number of variations upon a number of time-honoured themes: the artist in his studio; the artist and his muse; the magical, Pygmalion-like character of the made thing. Unfortunately, you cannot do with an etching what you might do with an oil painting – paint and scrape off, paint and scrape off. Sureness of line is of the essence.

The suite is grounded in classical mythology, as was so much work by Picasso and others after the Great War. This tendency is often regarded as safe and revanchist, as if the war had put the derring-do of modernity to flight forever; as if myth represented some comfortable retreat into the past. Nonsense. A great artist can make anything anew. The great figures of classical mythology were alive for Picasso from first to last. Here we see the raging Minotaur, half man, half bull, of Cretan extraction. It is raging no more. In fact, you could say that it is howling at the moon. It has lost its mighty potency. Now blind and helpless, it is being led along by a little girl, who also clutches a dove. This child is usually taken to be a likeness of Marie-Thérèse, the 17-year-old girl Picasso had met in the late 1920s, and who supplanted his wife in his affections. She in her turn was to be supplanted by Dora Maar.

Now what exactly does this Minotaur mean – in addition, that is, to what we can read about it in, say, Robert Graves's guide to Greek myths? The Minotaur is, for one, a symbol of Spain – we can see confirmation of that as we look through other etchings in the series. The Minotaur is the bull in the ring. Picasso, like Goya before him, is celebrating the power, the muscularity, the virility of the bull, which is a mighty symbol of nationhood. But in the 1930s, and increasingly so, Spain's identity as a nation was under threat. So you can say that this image seems to augur the onset of new political unrest in Europe, and even to anticipate the plight and the suffering of his homeland, soon to be torn apart by civil war within and invasion from without – which will culminate of course, in Guernica. But the Minotaur is Picasso too, that raging sexual beast who is being led along – o, the foolishness of passion! – by a sweet girl. The beast, that mighty seducer, rages near uncontrollably in other etchings of the series, looming over the helpless female form.

So nationalism and autobiography feed their meanings into the mix. A third element takes in Surrealism. To Surrealists, the Minotaur represented the unbridled, unstoppable force of the Unconscious. Why blind though? The Minotaur was never blind in classical mythology. This is a detail of Picasso's invention. He – like many other artists – feared blindness. It had haunted paintings of his Blue Period. The blinded Minotaur is the fear that the power to respond to the near unstoppable force of the creative impulse will suddenly leave him.

It was not to be. Hence our headache.

About the artist: Pablo Picasso (1881-1973)

Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) was born in Malaga, and displayed prodigious talents as a painter from his earliest years. Ceaselessly capable of re-invention, he tore up the rule book of representational figurative painting with Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907), which introduced a kind of jarringly savage primitivism into female portraiture, and he continued to experiment, in painting, sculpture, etching and ceramic, throughout his long working life. He was a man who spoke little about his work. His achievement lay in what he did.

Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer is to leave The Apprentice after 10 years

TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice

Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
The Baker (James Corden) struggles with Lilla Crawford’s Little Red Riding Hood

film...all the better to bamboozle us
Arts and Entertainment
English: Romantic Landscape

art
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

music
Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Strictly
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

    Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

    As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
    The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

    The Interview movie review

    You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
    Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

    How podcasts became mainstream

    People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

    Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
    Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

    A memorable year for science – if not for mice

    The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
    Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

    Christmas cocktails to make you merry

    Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
    5 best activity trackers

    Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

    Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
    Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

    Paul Scholes column

    It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
    Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

    Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

    2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas