Tender Brute

As mentioned before I am posting a short critique of two works of art, an assignment from a survey course I am taking, specifically dealing with art of the ancient (western)world. Beware of typos, it is still a draft.


Myron, 480-440 B.C.

Minotaur Bust 

National Archeological Museum of Athens

90 copy

Michael Ayrton

plate from a series of ten, Minotaur, plate IX Revealed

The Minotaur:

A Critical Comparison Between Myron’s Minotaur Bust and Michael Ayrton’s Revealed

In discussing two works from disparate cultures many factors need to be considered, many of which are the guidelines for this paper: theme, aesthetic appeal, cultural significance and composition. But what I find of greatest interest is the psychological and philosophical significance of each of these works.  I can think of few creatures that have inspired so many important artists as has the Minotaur.  William Blake when illuminating Dante’s Divine Comedy evoked the monster to great affect; the Surrealists Remedio Varo and Leonora Carrington both played upon the theme- in their cases, fashioning a Minotauress;  and of course Picasso who famously returned to the theme time and again, integrating themes of sexuality, aggression and humanity. But my desire is to explore two works, one attributed to the 5th century Greek sculptor Myron, a torso fragment and the other, an etching from a series of eleven, entitled Minotaur (1971), with an emphasis on plate IX, Revealed, by the  20th century British artist Michael Ayrton.

As the myth of the Minotaur is an ancient one it might be best to start with the 5th century marble sculpture.  Myron, working between 480-440 B.C. is best known for his monumental Discobolus; he was in fact well regarded for his depictions of athletes and rather surprisingly to me, animals.  Pliny sights in his Natural History a particularly renown heifer. It should perhaps then not come as much of a surprise that the Minotaur Bust is such a visual success. Initially believed to be part of a fountain composition animating the Theseus/Minotaur narrative, this fragment now resides in the National Archeological Museum of Athens. It is notable that this artist who was able to imbue his human figures with such grace and power , could also give such elegance to what in essence is a monstrous beast.  Working his Classical magic Myron has the cold marble yield in such a way that this monster is as lilting and as sensuous as any Apollo. The creature’s twisted posture (or what is left of it) belies a sentient being, wounded, lost, broken. This  creature does not lack vitality or power but he does seem cowed, conquered, not at all the blood thirsty fiend of the Labyrinth. In fact fresh water streamed from his lips not the blood of virgins.  Myron is masterful in crafting a work that depicts no simple monster but in fact expresses the humanity of the unfortunate beast. If Myron deified his athletes he humanized our nightmares.

As mentioned the Minotaur of ancient myth is a fearsome thing, a brutish killing machine lurking in murky corners ready to pounce. But contrary to this savage imagination are the tender inclinations of artists like Myron and Myron’s spiritual/aesthetic heir Ayrton who also yearns to depict the monster empathetically, imbuing this ferocious hybrid with poignant pathos.

Michael Ayrton, English born (1921-1975) best known as a Neo-Romantic in the British tradition, was a gifted painter, a robust sculptor (trained by Henry Moore) and a  meticulous printmaker. He was also by many contemporary accounts difficult, described as insufferable by some. Struck early at 11 with a near crippling bone disease, Ayrton had a noticeable life-long limp.  Managing a physical disability and an irritable temperament, Ayrton ruffled a few feathers (the actor John Gielgud made note of his “savage resentment”). How his isolation, his disability and his surly demeanor  affected his work is up to conjecture but a brief examination of his work, most notably the colossal bronzes, one can reasonably assume  personal psychological significance. For in his depiction of the Minotaur (in both bronze and engravings) Ayrton twists the monster’s  body in painful and unnatural poses, revealing robust musculature yet a back broken and mangled, bones protruding through stretched flesh,  from his hairy face, limpid eyes look up in grief.  His Minotaur series, particularly plate XI reveals a terrible, visceral self loathing. For it is in this image his mother, Pasiphae reveals his true nature by holding up a mirror reflecting his monstrous visage. It is a difficult image, one that has brought me to near tears at times ( as has the whole series); Pasiphae seems intent upon breaking his spirit, he in turn is indeed broken. What is the significance of this composition? One in which a mother, that in tradition is supposed to be a nurturing being,  is now revealing herself to be the truer monster.  Ayrton’s Minotaur,  like Myron’s, is a broken figure, he may harbor base instincts and desires but as in the best humanist tradition he also harbors a spark of the divine.  His soul transcends the heavy lumbering ungainliness of his form revealing a warmth and tenderness difficult to discern in his royal mother.  Both of these depictions, one from the 5th c. and one from the 20th depict not monsters, but in the humanist tradition, they reflect something more complicated, they reflect ourselves.

minotaur from YSL estateMinotaur Torso from the (former?) estate of Yves Saint Laurent.

I could not find a link to all ten plates so instead I have relied upon an exhibition  catalog, and rather lamely photographed each teeny images. Pardon the quality but it gives you a gist of the emotional quality of the series.


I , As Embryo


 II ,Consecrated


III, As Calf


IV, As Yearling


V, Rising


VI, Risen


VII,Full Grown


VIII, Pent


IX, Revealed


X, Alone

In closing his mentor Henry Moore perhaps described Ayrton work best “…a fascinating side-alley;not mainstream, but a significant eccentric.”

That is an epithet I could live with (so to speak).