What We Learned from the Evolution of Picasso Bull

January 17, 2017

Claude Monet made over thirty paintings of the Rouen cathedral under different lightings and seasons, while Paul Cézanne painted a series focused on the mountain Sainte-Victoire. Pablo Picasso's bull belongs to the similar artistic investigations of a motif. Although Modernists in the likes of Monet and Cézanne were preoccupied with light and geometrical forms present in nature, which they explored through a systematic repetitions, Picasso's bulls contains a more complex layers of meaning that surpass simple formal explanations. Although constantly present in his art, from drawings, to paintings and sculptures, the meaning of the animal is never explained by the artist himself. Different ideas about it persist to the present day, and include gender, historical and biographical explanations. Some found links between Picasso's bulls and prehistoric cave drawings, which is another controversial topic surrounding this specific motif. However, regardless of different ideas and opinions, Picasso's bull stands out as one of the rare constants in artist’s piece, which went through significant changes over the years. While done in numerous materials and formats, one of the best known representations of the animal in Picasso's oeuvre includes lithographs that are today considered a master class in formal exploration of a form, called – The Bull.

picasso's life design of apple and bulls is like in 1973 bull's museum
Pablo Picasso - Girl Helping Minotaur. Image via art.ayay.co.uk

Why Bull and How Did Picasso Represent It?

What most authors agree upon is that Picasso used bulls as a metaphor in his works. While the exact meaning of this metaphor is unknown, as Picasso refused to explain it, various possible interpretations amassed over the years. For some, the animal stands for the symbol of virility. In several of his drawings and paintings the animal takes the form of a Minotaur, and perhaps this anthropomorphic representation additionally justifies explanations that link bulls to masculinity and male strength. The Minotaur is also connected with the artist himself, and the representation of his personality. [1] He started to depict it around 1930, while he was traveling through Spain. The inspiration to use this motif came from Surrealists who often deployed it in their works as well. In Vollard Suite of etchings the Minotaur is featured with Picasso's lover Marie-Thérèse Walter. [2]

Picasso Painting

Bullfighting: The Brutality and Nobility of Human Nature

During 1930s Picasso also made a significant number of paintings and drawings on which he depicted bullfights, a national spectacle in Spain. Bullfight: Death of the Toreador from 1933 is an explosion of color that came after his Cubist and Crystal periods dominated by formal experimentation. As the artist later stated, he used to paint bullfights when he was unable to attend them. While here the theme is the death of a toreador, his figure is difficult to discern as his horse takes over the scene. The image of a dying horse together with the animal will reappear in Guernica as well, although done in a more abstract fashion. Brutality and nobility of human nature is symbolized through the fight between the toreador and the bull. The coexistence of such opposing qualities in a person and the fight to death in the bullring that increasingly preoccupied Picasso can be read as his apprehension of the rise of Fascism in Europe at that time. In the late 1950s Picasso made a series of bullfights artworks for a Spanish bullfighting collection called La Tauromaquia (The Art of Bullfighting). These simplistic but beautifully animated scenes were made in a variety of engraving print methods such as pen and ink, etching, dry-point and aquatints.

picasso's life view on apple was like a special bull's process way
Pablo Picasso - Bullfight, Death of the Toreador, 1933. Image via pablopicasso.org

Picasso's Bull Series and the Experimentation with Form

In 1945, sometime around Christmas, Picasso created perhaps his most famous collection of bull images, simply called The Bull. The collection containing eleven lithographs is today considered a master class in how to develop a motif from classical or realistic, to abstract. The Bull was created from a single stone, and it shows us how Picasso gradually dissected the image of a bull through basic forms until he reached a minimalistic, linear outline of its shape. This progressive analysis of the animal's form some theorists describe as “a successive stage in an investigation to find the absolute 'spirit' of the beast.” [3] To start with, Picasso created a realistic brush drawing of the bull, that he successfully bulked up to increase its expressiveness. In the next stage he dissected the animal along the lines of its muscles and skeleton, and simplified its anatomy. From there, he moved to erase parts of it, exploring the balance of form between each of its parts. Further reducing the form, he finally reached the level of a simple outline which perfectly captures the essence of the animal.

Among the simplistic renderings of the form, Bull's Head, a Picasso's sculpture from 1942 stands out. Although made from found objects - a seat and handlebars of a bicycle - it does not fall in the category of ready-mades. The found objects were put together by the command of artistic imagination, and while the sculpture had to be removed from the wall during the Salon d'Automne in Paris in 1944 due to demonstrations, its value resides in “the transforming power of the human imagination at a time when human values were under siege”, which is manifested in it.[4]

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Pablo Picasso - The Bull, 1945. Image via evanweinberg.com

The Controversy over Picasso and Cave Art

The controversy over the influence of cave art on Picasso's oeuvre, and especially on his bulls imagery, started from the alleged artist’s utterance made after he left the Lascaux that - we have invented nothing, or that we have learned nothing. However, this utterance although repeated numerous times was never confirmed as truly said by the artist. This, nonetheless, led many people to connect Picasso's bulls images, and especially The Bull series, with cave drawings found in Lascaux, and other places, such as Altamira. Although the simplicity of forms in some of the lithographs from the series resembles cave art, they cannot be straightforwardly connected with it, while other possible sources that inspired them are neglected. Paul Bahn describes Picasso as a sponge that absorbed ideas and influences from everywhere, and he links his bulls with Iron Age Iberian depictions known to the artist through exhibitions and casts.[5] Finally, whatever the possible sources of Picasso's bulls imagery, its evolution shows us the ideas, concepts, and issues the artist faced and tackled over the years, combined with his insatiable desire to experiment with forms.

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Editors’ Tip: Picasso's Animals

This beautifully designed book is filled with illustrations and photographs of the many animals in Picasso painted and drew, as well as those he loved. One of the few under-examined aspects of Picasso's oeuvre was his love of animals. The son of a pigeon breeder and an aficionado of bullfighting, Picasso had an eye trained for capturing an animal's movement, shape, and personality--often with just a single line. Organized around the different types of animals that played a role in the artist's body of work--from his beloved dachshund, Lump, to dogs, cats, and doves, among others--each chapter offers personal accounts, amusing anecdotes, and wondrous works of art.


  1. Anonymous, Dying Bull, 1934 by Pablo Picasso, www.pablopicasso.org [January 16, 2017]
  2. Dorment R., (2012), Picasso, The Vollard Suite, British Museum, review, www.telegraph.co.uk [January 16, 2017]
  3. Anonymous, Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), www.artyfactory.com  [January 16, 2017]
  4.  Gibson E., (2011), A Magical Metamorphosis of the Ordinary, www.wsj.com [January 16, 2017]
  5. Bahn P., (2005), A Lot of Bull? Pablo Picasso and Ice Age Cave Art, Munibe (Antropologia-Arkeologia) 57, p. 219.

Featured images: Pablo Picasso - Dying Bull, 1934. Image via pablopicasso.org; Pablo Picasso - Bull,1958. Image via moma.org; Pablo Picasso - Bullfight Scene, 1960. Image via pablopicasso.org. All images used for illustrative purposes only.

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