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'I am ready'

In 1933 the Surrealists launched a new journal entitled ‘Minotaur’. According to the French Surrealist painter Andre Masson the Minotaur had been a strong symbolic influence since the movement’s inception and their enthusiasm for the Greek myth of the Minotaur had considerable resonance in the inter-war years, most notably on the work of Pablo Picasso. Their enthusiasm for this half-man half-bull, imprisoned in his Cretan labyrinth, sprung from the belief that he represented the free flow of the irrational and that Western culture would be unable to heal itself until the beast had been liberated form the unconscious.

There are two key points to the Minotaur myth. Firstly that he is the result of unrestrained (female) sexual depravity; a copulation between a bull and Pasiphae, the wife of Cretan King Minos as retribution for Minos’ vanity and greed. Secondly, that he is eventually killed by Theseus, a form of mythological matador, who, with his sword, restores order and reason to the island of Crete. Strangely enough, a very real Minotaur tale had occurred only several years before the launch of the Surrealist movement, at the close of the First World War.

On the morning of the 15th of October 1917 at the age of 41, Margaretha Geertruida Zelle was led from her prison cell in the centre of Paris to the barracks at Vincennes where she was executed by firing squad. Miss Zelle was a simple Dutch school teacher who, after a spell in Dutch Indonesia had abandoned an unsuccessful marriage and returned to Paris reincarnated as Mata Hari (Eye of the Day), an exotic dancer and courtesan. Attributed with single-handedly engineering a minor sexual revolution, the lean and conservative end of war government did not look favourably upon her licentious behaviour. On scant evidence she was tried and convicted of spying for the Germans.

Henry Wales, a young British journalist, reporting on the execution noted her composure and found her careful and meticulous choice of dress ‘grotesque in the circumstances’. Once she had ‘slowly and indifferently’ pulled on her gloves, she turned to her captors and informed them “I am ready”. Later she was to decline the customary blindfold with the question “Must I wear that?”.

Moments later Twelve Zouaves fired upon Mata Hari while the commanding officer stood by, his sword ‘extended in the air’. She slumped to the ground.

The Matador had returned.


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