Minotaure in Veiled Erotic, a series of photographs by Man Ray: woman constructed as the subject and substance of art combined.11 While this may have been in part a function of social convention and contemporary models of domestic dynamism that limited women’s movement between the public and private sphere thus excluding them from physical exploration of the city, some contemporary scholars have seen in Surrealism and its early male practitioners an inherent misogyny that is difficult to dispute.12 This is not to say that women were not also subject to mythological recasting and hybridisation. In the Surrealist symbolic dramatis personae, woman was cast as the Sphinx, an enigmatic avatar of Oedipal desire; it was a potentially dangerous riddle for the Surrealists to solve.13
The excessive masculinity of the Minotaur reaches its zenith in a series of 1930s engravings and drawings by Picasso. Here the beast, in his now familiar muscular depiction, nuzzles, caresses and rapes a series of women, sometimes willing and sometimes not, and in a drawing of
1936 Picasso makes his self-identification with the monster explicit as it prepares to penetrate his lover of the time, Dora Maar.14 It is worth noting that it was the Spanish artists, Picasso, along with Dalí15 and Joan Miró16 who most frequently depicted the monster, and it seems likely that their Catalonian heritage with its macho tradition of bullfighting was a contributing factor, and it is an interesting circularity that, as Robert Graves has suggested in his definitive account of Greek mythology, the ancient Cretan tradition of bull dancing may be the origin of both the myth and the Spanish tradition.17 It is in these works that the construction of the Minotaur as a visual metaphor of raging, virile sexual power is complete.
But how does the Minotaur fit into the contemporary physical and psychological territory of the twenty-first century metropolis? The contemporary landscape encourages a reconsideration of Breton’s conception of the city as a labyrinth of chance encounters with as yet unknown desires.
Sites of desire no longer need to be hunted down; in both the private sphere
of our homes and in the world at large we are subject to an unstoppable torrent of advertising in which objects, ideas, bodies and even desire itself have become commodified to an extent that even that great celebrant of mass culture Andy Warhol could not have foreseen. In our daily lives we negotiate a path through what Roland Barthes described as an “empire of signs”, a labyrinth so saturated in images and conflicting messages that different realities overlap and merge.18 In this world the symbols of consumerism have become so detached from physical matter that they become self referential, brand names and corporate logos acquiring such totemic power that they become the objects of desire in and of themselves.
The vistas of the modern city now veer wildly from the decay of empty shops and derelict public buildings to the glittering postmodern palaces of finance and high-tech shopping malls, and this, coupled with the increasing privatisation of public spaces construct the modern city dweller as a member of no community but that of consumers shepherded through a series of identikit high street and town centres,
even more standardised and planned than the “city of tomorrow” that Le Corbusier imagined nearly a century ago. As a character in J.G. Ballard’s Cocaine Nights notes, “We’re moving into the age of security grilles and defensible space. As for living, our surveillance cameras can do that for us. People are locking their doors and switching off their nervous systems.”19
In this world of Ballardian alienation perhaps the monster at the centre of the postmodern maze is not the bestial avatar of untrammelled masculine sexuality, but an abject, lost and confused creature to be pitied rather than feared.
In this world of Ballardian alienation and a bewildering onslaught of images perhaps the monster at the centre of the postmodern maze is not the bestial avatar of untrammelled masculine sexuality that Picasso depicted in his erotic engravings, but an altogether more abject, lost and confused creature to be pitied rather than feared.