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Raphael alludes in a footnote to the influence the Minotaur has had on artists such as Picasso. The myth, he reminded me, was formative.  “If all the ways I have been along were marked on a map and joined up with a line,” said Picasso in 1960, “it might represent a minotaur.” A few decades earlier he had produced a suite of prints inspired by the mythical beast for the art dealer and publisher Ambroise Vollard. He placed his Minotaur in the arena and in the artist’s studio, in the drawing room and on the bed. Wide-eyed and curly-tailed, his Minotaur engages in all the activities of human life, sipping debonairly from a glass of champagne and tenderly pillowing his mortal lover’s head. Only when he becomes very amorous does he express himself as a bull, rough, hirsute, and terrifyingly carnal. He is at his most human when he is defeated by a matador, cowering in the sand while the arena spectators turn animal in their exuberance.

For Picasso, the Minotaur represented the full range of human experience. It was the bacchanalian beast within him, but also the shape of his life, the uncontrollable narrative of events by which he came to define himself. The people of ancient Athens hailed Theseus as a hero for killing the bull-man who had feasted on its youth, but Picasso seems to have found him comparatively remote. He made the wild but vulnerable Minotaur more deserving of our sympathies, its flaws basic and forgivable by comparison with those of Theseus who, though victorious, lacked the intelligence and forethought of Daedalus. Theseus is said to have promised to raise white sails on his ship if he defeated the Minotaur, but forgot. At the sight of his black sails coming into port, his father hurled himself from a cliff.

An accidental classicist in his own right, Picasso knew the ancient world predominantly through its art, visiting the sites in Rome, Pompeii and throughout Naples, as well as collections of antiquities in museums. It was at the Louvre that he first saw the Geometric Greek vase paintings which inspired so many of his paintings. An eighth-century BC Dipylon Vase with big-bottomed, triangular-torso women was reimagined in his Demoiselles d’Avignon. Early “Black Figure” amphorae paintings of the blinding of the Cyclops Polyphemus may also have inspired his rendering of the Minotaur myth. In one of Picasso’s prints for Vollard, the Minotaur staggers as he is blinded like the one-eyed giant of Homer’s Odyssey. Picasso was unafraid to roll different myths together to capture the complex ego. His Minotaur came to embody the spirit of the ancient world and its haunting of modernity.

Not so long ago, one found inspiring university classicists with decades of teaching experience, dozens of books and scholarly papers to their name, but no DPhil. Times have changed. Holding a doctoral degree is now usually a prerequisite to embarking upon a career as a classicist in a university department. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing — producing 100,000 words on a topic you have read almost everything about is excellent training, even for those who then choose to pursue work outside academia — but inevitably faculties become less varied in their professional make-up than they once were.
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