disparate contemporary objects together in startlingly erotic juxtapositions creating fetishised totems of consumerist desire; and Salvador Dalí, arguably the most explicitly Freudian of all, painted dreamscapes in which ancient mythology and the very stuff of modern life collided, bringing masturbation, Oedipal lust and sodomy to the gallery walls of western Europe.
For these writers and artists, this pursuit of irrational desire was not merely confined to the studio. Like the flâneur at the beginnings of urban modernisation, whose wandering social anthropology had inspired the Impressionists, the Surrealists stalked the boulevards, parks and alleyways of Paris watching and recording the swirling parade of people, objects and events; yet unlike the “man of the crowd”, who, in the writings of Baudelaire4 and the paintings of Manet5 offered a disinterested viewpoint, the Surrealist reformulation of the meandering watcher had at its heart a more involved and active pursuit of sensory experience in the labyrinth of metropolitan modernity.
Guided by tangled threads of chance and coincidence, the Surrealists mapped the city with a symbolic mythology of desire, sometimes navigating the streets of one city with a map of another, sometimes, as recorded in Breton’s 1928 novel Nadja,6 abandoning themselves to following an attractive stranger glimpsed in a crowd. The city itself offered a playground of desire, a labyrinth of scopophilic pleasure where looking itself became an act of sexual consumption, its inhabitants as much fodder for the devouring eye as the consumer goods laid out in the markets and windows of department stores.7 It is no surprise that the Minotaur became the emblem of these early psychogeographers, both hunters of objects of desire and hunted by desire itself. The beast was out of the cage and loose in the city.
This adoption of the monster as a signifier for this investigation of the psyche of the city became explicit in 1933 with the publication of Albert Skira’s journal Minotaure. Edited by Breton and Pierre Mabille, a professor at Paris’s School of Anthropology, its first issue bore a cover designed by
Pablo Picasso.8 Against a backdrop of collaged cardboard, leaves, wallpaper and tinfoil, a monochrome ink drawing of a naked, smiling Minotaur gazes out of the page, head turned to the viewer brandishing a phallic dagger both guarding the contents and inviting the reader into the Labyrinth.
In its six years of publication the journal attracted a diverse range of contributors, from Henri Matisse, whose pre-war call for an art that could soothe “a tired businessman” seems at odds with the Surrealist project, to the pioneering psychoanalyst and linguist Jacques Lacan. The topics covered were no less diverse, with Minotaure presenting articles on anthropology, psychology, poetry, mythology and, for the first time in a Surrealist publication, architecture; and, it is in its richly illustrated pages that we find one of the period’s most startling images of the Minotaur.
In The Minotaur, a photograph of 1933, Man Ray uses a recurring theme of Surrealist practice, the fetishisation of the dismembered female torso, to construct the face of the monster.9 Sharply lit from above in an undefined
black space, her head and hands amputated by the darkness, the model’s breasts and arms become the eyes and horns of the beast; the agent and object of erotic desire conflated in an elegant and concise expression of sexual violence self-consciously inflected with Freudian theory.
The city itself offered a playground of desire, a labyrinth of scopophilic pleasure where looking itself became an act of sexual consumption.
It is important to note that it was only the male Surrealists who adopted the mantle of the Minotaur. Prior to research conducted by feminist academics since the 1960s,10 the traditional narrative of the period positions female artists – such as Oppenheim and the photographer Lee Miller – in the roles of romantic partners, muses and models rather than practitioners, as objects rather than agents of desire. Indeed, Oppenheim, naked and smeared with printing ink, appears in the pages of