After a man was photographed suspended between two bulls in a race this week, Kelly Grovier explores ways in which the animal has been depicted by artists.

Few symbols in history have signified the raw energies of life itself more potently than the bull. We grab it by the horns to demonstrate our authority over situations; we wave a red flag in its face to show our fearlessness. Since prehistory, the bull’s imagined muscles have clenched tight in our subconscious, like a hand grenade of crude virility waiting to blow.

As the famous Palaeolithic paintings discovered in caves in southwestern France have revealed, when human beings finally began to draw, they drew the bull. Studded with stars and stalking the sky, Taurus’s skull, so we imagine, constellates the heavens above us. When life is booming and the stock market stampedes, it isn’t the ram or bison or woolly mammoth that tramples the doddering bear, but the hulking hustle of the triumphant bull.

An image circulating in the media this week, captured in Indonesia during the so-called Pacu Jawi (or bull races, held in honour of each year’s harvest), reveals how robust the connection between harnessing the strength of a bull and projecting one’s own indomitability continues to be. Conducted in a sodden rice field, the competition requires jockeys to suspend themselves dangerously between the hurtling might of two bulls by clinging to a crude wooden frame – their bodies seem at risk of being split in two at any second as they skim a filthy tumult of mud.

The elegant balletics depicted in Bronze Age art of acrobats somersaulting poetically through the air, propelled by the brawny jut of a bull’s neck, suggest that such pastimes as the Pacu Jawi have, since time immemorial, preoccupied human culture. Indeed a whole history of art could be written tracing a line of imaginative descent from the cave paintings of Lascaux, through statues of Minoan bull-leapers, through Rembrandt’s 1632 depiction of Europa being snatched by Zeus disguised as a bull, to Arshile Gorky’s abstracted Study for a bull in the sun (1942), to Damien Hirst’s elaborate visual pun Cock and Bull (2012) – a formaldehyde-filled vitrine in which the artist has immersed a rooster perched on the back of a bull.

More so than any of these notable works, however, is a singular sculpture by Pablo Picasso that captures the curious spirit of this week’s photo. Like the jockeys who participate in the Pacu Jawi, Picasso saw the bull as a vehicle for advancing his sense of self and asserting his hefty machismo. “If all the ways I have been along”, Picasso once remarked, “were marked on a map and joined up with a line, it might represent a Minotaur”. Indeed the half-man-half-bull hybrid became a frequent trope in Picasso’s art – a kind of second self that pops up everywhere in his art.

Five years after painting his masterpiece Guernica (which features a bull’s head that many believe is an interjection of the artist’s self in the work), Picasso began seeing semblances of the bull in the most random objects and situations. In 1942, while passing by the disassembled parts of a bicycle, Picasso discerned in the adjacency of a seat and handlebars a “found” sculpture which he welded together to create the quasi-readymade Bull’s Head. Hovering ambiguously between a mundane utilitarian contraption, a bicycle, and an archetypal symbol for fertility (and not just male: the sculpture also resembles a diagram of a uterus and fallopian tubes), Picasso’s sculpture hoists itself perilously between the muscular charge of competing visual meanings. Placed alongside this week’s photo from the muddy rice fields of the Pacu Jawi, the imaginative flight of Picasso’s sculpture reminds us that, in seeking to understand our place in the universe, it’s art that gives you wings.

If you would like to comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Culture, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.

And if you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter, called “If You Only Read 6 Things This Week”. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Earth, Culture, Capital, Travel and Autos, delivered to your inbox every Friday.