Picasso’s Broken Vow

Musée Picasso, Paris/RMN-Grand Palais/Art Resource © 2015 Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Pablo Picasso: Blind Minotaur, 1934–1935

To understand Picasso’s major works of the early 1930s we must go back to his youth at La Coruña, on Spain’s north Atlantic coast, where his father, Don José, was director of the local art school. Don José Ruiz Blasco had three children: Pablo and two girls, Lola and Conchita. Over Christmas 1894, Conchita, aged seven, contracted diphtheria. Serum had been ordered from Paris but weeks would pass before it arrived. Fourteen-year-old Pablo so adored his sister that he vowed to God that he would never paint again if her life were spared. He did paint again and the serum failed to come in time. Conchita died on January 10, 1895.

According to Françoise Gilot, Picasso had never divulged the secret of his broken vow to anyone but the women in his life. It was a warning that they, like Conchita, would be sacrificed on the altar of his art, a fate that all of them, except for Gilot, would share.

The broken vow also set off his votive reaction to the disasters that would afflict him in the 1930s. This knowledge casts new light on the meaning of his work, not least on his two greatest prints, the Blind Minotaur and Minotauromachie, both of which are in the collection of the newly reopened Musée Picasso in Paris.

In August 1934, Picasso embarked on his last trip to Spain. Although he was doing his best to divorce his wife, Olga, he took her and their son Paulo with him. Since Olga became a Spanish citizen on marrying Picasso in 1918, a divorce would have to be issued in Spain before being granted in France. This explains why he accepted an invitation from the fascist gastronomic society GU to stay in San Sebastián, the chic beach resort, where he would encounter José Antonio Primo de Rivera, founder of the Falange, and his sidekick Ernesto Giménez Caballero. The trip also involved seeing a number of bullfights in Madrid, Toledo, Burgos, and Barcelona.

Within weeks of returning to Paris, Picasso started work on the Blind Minotaur, a print that commemorates his lifelong obsession with his eyesight. He was immensely superstitious and would ward off his fears in his work. In the Blind Minotaur he turned to a votive act—an expression of intense devotion, in this case to his sister Conchita. Sure enough she is at the heart of the print, albeit endowed with the face of Marie-Thérèse Walter, his mistress since 1927, while he had become increasingly estranged from Olga. Conchita is running toward a young man on the left: the artist as he would have looked at the age of fourteen, the year of Conchita’s death. She is seemingly in flight from the men on the boat, about to…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account.