In The Fight Between Bull and Human Being Dominguez Takes The Unusual Side

Oscar Dominguez “The Bull and the Toreador” (1946)
Oscar Dominguez “The Bull and the Toreador” (1946)

In a dizzying composition the surrealist painter shows clash not only between toreador and the bull on an almost circus arena of bull-fight but between primordial motifs of several cultural frames of reference – head and body, angelic and animalistic, human and sub-human, sunny and earthy, artificial and authentic, and calculation and simplemindedness.

By putting the viewers behind the bull and in front of toreador, instead of following objective (from the side) perception of the bull-fight almost always used by Goya and Picasso when they address similar topic, Dominguez makes the bull representative of our, the viewers’ point of view and breaks our “natural” identification with the bullfighter. By positioning the bull between toreador and viewers, Dominguez transforms bull into, as if, our bodyguard. Because our point of perception is repeating that of the bull, we see the toreador as the invader of our space.

As a predatory sun-bird, the toreador, as if dived on the bull (appreciate his solemnly yellow and orange-brown costume-wings and the pathetic epaulet looking like an aristocratic emblem), as if, he jumped down on the bull from the sky (and was immediately thrown back up by the horns). The central position of the epaulet on the toreador’s body, as if it is a heart of toreador, makes what is the part of the costume, an embellishment, a sign of rank – the essence of toreador’s being. The epaulet becomes a definition of a toreador, his nickname.

“Iconic” apotheosis of the body of the toreador pierced by the bull’s horns was preceded by an elaborate battle – the bull got three lances to his flesh before the sword delivered what was supposed to be the final blow. The blood is a motto of toreador’s sword – its handle is solemnly, even pompously red. Toreador’s costume is of sunny colors – his pretensions are sunnily grandiose – but his face and hands are pale, dead, paper-like, as if they were doomed to fail. But why are the hands, the palms of the toreador as pale, as dead as his face/head? A dead body doesn’t so quickly turn pale. Is it because the human mind which plans and realizes its attack on the bull – is as paper-like as are toreador’s hands? Is it because toreador’s thinking [the head] and his deeds [hands/palms] are not existentially real, are frivolously artificial in comparison with bull’s earthy darkness? But, according to Dominguez, this darkness is only the surface. Look attentively – Dominguez asserts that the bull’s insides are… white (that the bull’s internals are metaphysically pure)!

There are many semantic miracles in Dominguez’s painting, but two are easy to discern – the whiteness of the bull’s anal sphincter, and the whiteness at the end of his tail (a whiteness Dominguez adds or left in between the almost fingers of the top of the bull’s tail). It is, as if, the bull is posed to slap the toreador’s face with its tail, to slap him for his attack on the “noble earthiness” of bull’s life that is more real than toreador’s pretensions to be not only a super-human, but over-natural. His counterattack on the intruder is more natural than toreador’s crush on the bull’s flesh. All the deaths are authentic (when they are not faked) but not all are genuine.

Dominguez takes the side of the bull over the toreador’s bloodily entertaining game! The predatory nature of the toreador Dominguez expresses through his facial grimace – as if, right before his death he wanted to bite the bull’s body. We see the body of the bull as his face, but – the head and hands of the toreador not even as his body, but as his crumpled costume! Dominguez makes these praised human brain and hands as belonging to the wrong side of the universe, as if, body/brain of the bull is superior to the toreador’s head/hands belonging to human being who cannot find smarter things to do than to be preoccupied with performing militant dance of killing the bull in a bombastic ritual under the applauds of an admiring public. The painting was created right after WW2, and we understand together with Dominguez that the same head/hands can applaud totalitarian leaders with not lesser enthusiasm.

The geometrical and over-intense composition of the painting emphasizes that the bull is fighting for his survival with the head of the bull-fighter frivolously/ruthlessly calculating success. The representation of the fight between body (of the bull) and head (of the toreador) awakens in us the psychoanalytic scenario of the fight between mind and body of human beings. When human mind represses the bodily “desires” and our body resists this repression with all the bodily passion’s awkwardness and innocence, we have a situation similar to the one addressed here by Dominguez. The bull represents the human body while the dead human head – the human mind seized by a deadly megalomania of the delusion of being superior to “matter” and “flesh”.

Look again at the paleness of toreador’s dead body. It’s made of paper while his costume is a cardboard. But by making bull’s anal orifice as white as toreador’s face Dominguez makes analogy between human face and bull’s body. He is saying about the equality of the body (any body) and the mind – because he is saying about the basic/essential equality of a developed mind and the potential of a mind for the development, of an adult’s mind and the child’s one, of human mind and that of the animal, of a mind and a baby- or poppy-mind. Ultimately, Dominguez is telling us here about the superiority of a natural holistic mind over a human technical one.

Then Dominquez’s bull is a metaphor of genuineness of being – his defense of his life is different from risking your life for the sake of extra-survival reasons – to satisfy super-survival needs like desire to be in charge, to make profit, to control for the sake of asserting ones power and advancing your leadership position, to feel yourself superior and to win admiration of the public, to build your glorious self-image, etc.

The bull’s motivations are in agreement with the logic of creation. But the motivations of the toreador are artificial – he is not even like a hired murderer during tough times (who needs money to feed his family), he acts for the sake of fame, professional prowess, money, popularity, glamour. It is this inanity of vanity, this trash what is metaphorized by Dominguez when he represents the matador as a deformed paper and cardboard. Toreador can reach whiteness only after death while the bull’s internal whiteness is his existential condition of basic innocence.

Where toreador is supposed to win cognitively (murder efficiently) bull is winning existentially (even when he is losing) by a god-creator-given right to try to defend himself.

Oscar M. Domínguez (1906 – 1957)
Oscar M. Domínguez (1906 – 1957)