George Frederic Watts, ‘The Minotaur’ 1885
George Frederic Watts
The Minotaur 1885

Watts’s The Minotaur is a terrifically ugly painting. The angle, the cropping, the palette - the poise of the thing - seem to speak in the brutish vernacular of the monster itself. The painting, like the monster, feels abortive, inadequate, mistaken; the allegorical portent and repugnance is superseded - for me, from here, far away from the painting’s historical symbolic intelligibility - by its demonstrable material unwieldiness. Which might be to say that it feels close to a contemporary ingenuousness regarding a kind of performance of painting.

From our perspective, over the Minotaur’s shoulder, one gets a sense of its bulk and ignorance and animal impassivity. Perhaps we’re meant to find his gaze inscrutable because of this. Conversely, I can clearly see the same fantasy on the horizon and certainly feel the same avid anticipation. For me, where once perhaps to speak of man’s inhumanity was to speak solely pejoratively - was to speak against God - my empathy is not with the imminent sacrificial virgins or, culpably, with the horrible King Minos. My empathy goes out to the monster, in all its dumbness and moral impunity. I’ve always-already forgotten the bird I killed so absentmindedly.