Of the menagerie of hybrid monstrosities from the tales of Classical mythology, it is perhaps the Minotaur that most continues to exert a fascination on western culture. While other mythic mutations such as the Chimera, Proteus and Echidna are now better known in the field of science as genetic terms or for the comparatively harmless species that now take their names, the bullheaded man of the Labyrinth has avoided this linguistic co-option and still rampages, in literature, poetry, computer games and fantasy film and television through the contemporary narratives of both popular and high culture.
The dominant image of the monster is of a hulking, bestial brute, his physiology an overly exaggerated model of masculinity, the classical athletic ideal warped to a grotesque, sweating mass of straining sinew and steroidal hypertrophic muscle surmounted by a frothing muzzle and savage horns ready to gore. It is an image that adds up to a terrifying admixture of dumb animal instinct and raw physical strength that speaks of the savagery of nature red in tooth and claw at its most unreasoning.
Yet when we look back to the original sources of imagery, we find a slightly different conception of the Minotaur. The defeat of the monster by the Athenian prince, Theseus, was a popular decorative motif for Attic drinking ware of the fifth century BCE and on these cups the two fighters are generally shown as evenly matched in strength and stature. It is this depiction of a balanced battle, rather than a titanic struggle in which man overcomes the beast against the odds, that remains the dominant conception of this scene through the Renaissance and well into the nineteenth century, Étienne Jules Remay’s 1826 sculpture in the Tuileries Gardens in Paris standing as a prime example.1
Remay’s sculpture marks a useful geographical starting point for tracing the history of the changing cultural conception and psychological understanding of the Minotaur, for it is in the Paris of the 1930s, against a backdrop of Freudian and Marxist Theory, accelerating urban modernisation and the aftermath of war that, at the hands of the Surrealists, the monster becomes explicitly positioned as an emblem of specifically male erotic desire.
To understand how the Minotaur came to be such a potent Surrealist symbol, we need to understand the movement’s conception of the urban landscape. Some early twentieth-century artists and theorists put forward a broadly optimistic view of the modern city; Le Corbusier, for example, saw in the development of a rational, technological urbanism a chance for an egalitarian advancement of human life and consciousness – careful planning and industrial progress would free society from its ills, the design of consumer goods would be refined and purified by factory production evolving toward Neoplatonic ideals.2 By the time he came to publish The City Of Tomorrow in 1929, however, the atrocities of mechanised warfare had suggested to some that this view of capitalist mass production was overly utopian and ignored a darker side, the partial consequences of a scientific rationalism being plain for all to see in the ruined towns and piles of charred and twisted corpses of the young littering Europe.
For the Surrealists, the answer was clear; writing in the First Manifesto of Surrealism in 1924, the self-appointed
leader of the movement, André Breton, described rationalism as a cage in which experience “paces back and forth” like a beast in captivity, “protected by the sentinels of common sense”. Breton suggested that the “strange forces” that lurked in the mind – madness, dreams and desire – far from being incarcerated and suppressed, should be celebrated, embraced and investigated: the darkest recesses of the mind should be exposed.3
To understand how the Minotaur came to be such a potent Surrealist symbol, we need to understand the movement’s conception of the urban landscape.
To this end the Surrealists embarked on a programme of practice in which the irrational, the primal and the chaotic took centre stage. Painters such as Max Ernst and André Masson, inspired by the “automatic writing” of occultists and spiritualists, allowed random pictorial processes such as splashing and scribbling to guide their work; Man Ray and Meret Oppenheim brought