In 1930, Picasso discovered that he could use old master paintings as he used the bodies of lovers, as both guiding inspiration and raw putty. One day, during a chat with his friend photographer Brassaï, Picasso brought up the "Crucifixion" panel of Mathias Grünewald's sixteenth-century Isenheim altarpiece, saying, "I love this painting and I have been trying to interpret it... But as soon as I start to draw it, it becomes something else." Picasso's transformation of Grünewald's painting leaves nothing untouched; his use of the famous painting is nothing like the typical art student's faithful, timid copy, for Picasso feels no need to creep on his knees. His dialogue with the older painting is like a conversation between equals; the resultant piece is as free and confident as any of his work.

Another way of drawing from the past was suggested by the Surrealist interest in furnishing modern life with symbols from ancient myth, a project which they inherited from Freud. In the antique monster known as the Minotaur, half-man, half-bull, Picasso found a new artistic identity that resonated with his personal flavor of neo-classicism and his love for the bullfight as well as with Surrealism. The Minotaur, both creative and destructive, part man and part beast, joined the civilized human to his animal self and symbolized the inseparability of man from his beastly side. Picasso designed the cover for the first issue of the Surrealist magazine Minotaure in 1933. The motif came into its own in a complex etching, "Minotauromachy," a few years later. This piece contains many narrative, associative, and symbolic threads that can be partially teased out, but only partially; the piece stresses private meanings.

Picasso's personal life at the time when he made this print was in miserable disarray. His wife Olga left him, taking their son Paulo with her, in June, 1935; legal haggles followed, and in October, Picasso's mistress Marie-Thérese gave birth to a daughter, Maïa. Weighed down with troubles, Picasso faced a creative block for the first time in his life. As Picasso's old friend Sabartés recalled, "He no longer went to his studio, the mere sight of his paintings would exasperate him, each one would remind him of something from the recent past, and each memory would sadden him."

Having painted nothing since May and frustrated by the lack of creative outlet, Picasso wrote some Surrealist automatic poetry in the autumn. As Gertrude Stein said, sharply but diplomatically, "Picasso is too intelligent not to feel that writing with words is, for him, not writing at all."

Meanwhile, although the world did not doubt, at this point, that Picasso was a very major artist, he began receiving a bit of bad press for the first time in his life, as some critics felt that his powers were declining. In the mid- thirties, Picasso's life and work had reached a point of crisis, and Picasso ceased to produce; but outside influences soon intervened. A new liaison, with a Surrealist artist named Dora Maar, and a new friendship, with the poet Paul Éluard, began to breathe some life back into him; it was international politics, however, that administered the decisive jolt, sparking the next phase of activity.

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