"The word 'illustration' has just been uttered."—Jacques Derrida, The Truth in Painting 294
We look through the canvas from the other side. Indeed, we are the canvas, painted upon by the master. Pablo Picasso, using special inks and paints that bleed through, paints, sketches, transforms images before our eyes. That is all there is to this: Picasso painting—in black and white and in color, in full-frame and in Cinemascope. We see him in real time and edited into a frenzy. He paints women and bullfights and artists. From time to time, he stops to rest while the director pushes him to get back to work before the film runs out. There is no other story, except the stories that these paintings tell.
This is a film about what it means to be an artist. Or perhaps, merely what it means to be the artists' canvas.
A friend once expressed to me his disappointment with art in the 20th century. "A child could paint that stuff," he said, "It doesn't make any sense. Can't they just paint realistically?"
I blinked a couple of times and responded, "Of course they could. You don't think Picasso was perfectly capable of painting a realistic figure if he wanted to? He just didn't want to. That wasn't real enough for him." At the time, I was thinking of Guernica, perhaps the most important painting of the 20th century. Take a look at it again. The color is washed out, as if we are in a world already burned to a cinder (no wonder much of the picture is made of newsprint). Figures push forward from the picture plane and out into space, escaping the terror that engulfs them. There is a manic energy here, a muscular reach not seen on canvas since Caravaggio. And yet, this depiction of the chaos of war is highly organized: each piece, each fragmented body, merges into one struggling image.
In a way, Guernica moves less like a traditional painting, with poised figures, and more like a film, with a camera sweeping around the battlefield at the moment of impact. Indeed, painting has probably never been the same since the advent of cinema. There is a plasticity to cinema that painting rarely matches. A few shrewd artists (Dali, Warhol) have played that to their advantage, attempting to make their own canvases equally plastic in response.
In spite of Picasso's reputation as a trickster, a man as likely to sign forgeries of his paintings as the real thing, it is surprising to think that he generally stayed away from making films, apart from documentaries and a couple of cameo appearances for friends (most notably Jean Cocteau). The notable exception is The Mystery of Picasso. By far the most complete portrait of the artist as an old trickster, Mystery enlists the talents of several of Picasso's friends, including composer George Auric and cinematographer Claude Renoir (grandson of painter Auguste and nephew of director Jean)—but most importantly, director Henri-Georges Clouzot.
Clouzot is best known, of course, for his mastery of film noir. You can fill in the gaps on his masterpieces, Diabolique and The Wages of Fear, by checking out the Deep Focus column I wrote on him here at DVD Verdict. Among other things, film noir is about the vagaries of fate: how love, money, success are fleeting. Oddly, this makes him the ideal choice for a film about the metamorphic potential of art, how inspiration is fleeting and painting, transformable. Watch Picasso draw those flowers, then transform them into a tropical fish, then into a hen, then fill in the color to produce a curious, perhaps devilish face. A reclining woman seems to turn her body as he draws and redraws her folded legs. A goat lives several lifetimes, as colors change around and over him. A seaside vacation undergoes seasonal changes, characters emerge from the water, then are submerged, and finally Picasso abandons the picture when it is clear that it has mutated even beyond his control.
Legend says that Picasso upheld the theory that art is transitory by destroying all the paintings created for the film after shooting. In her commentary track, Peggy Parsons of the National Gallery of Art dispels this myth, claiming to have seen several of the paintings herself. Parsons has a shrewd sense of humor, well aware of the trickery in the film, and gives plenty of history and analysis without becoming stiff or pedantic. She thinks of The Mystery of Picasso as a "suspense movie" shaped by the fierce improvisation of Picasso and the cold dominance of Clouzot. Watching the film, you can see that she is right: Picasso's efforts become more complex and adventurous as the film progresses, and Clouzot matches him in each painting by looking for new tricks with which to present the artist at work. Putting the audience in the middle of the action, watching the painting emerge rather than focusing on the physical presence of the audience, creates a dramatic tension akin to, well, a mystery narrative. Shapes rise up out of the white space as if from a fog, then transform into new shapes. We never know where Picasso is heading, and likely nor does he. We are on an adventure.
Peggy Parsons has a good grip on what sort of games Picasso and Clouzot like to play with the audience, with their staged conversations and clever editing. Archie Rand's commentary track is less successful, if only because he seems more prone to slip from the poetic to the pretentious. As a painter himself (and professor at Columbia University), he looks for "lessons" in the film, trying to pick Picasso's brain throughout. As such, this track is not as accessible as Parsons' commentary, but is certainly interesting for advanced students of art theory.
Alain Renais finds his own inspiration in the work of Picasso. His 1950 short on the infamous Guernica is less a direct analysis of the painting than an evocation of war inspired by it. Layering together an entire history of war-inspired art underneath somewhat pompous poetry, Renais indirectly shows how Picasso's masterpiece is the culmination of all prior art about war, a testament to the inhabitants of the Basque city burned to the ground by Nazi incendiary bombs in 1937, and a prediction of the terrible technophilia of fascism.
Milestone Films has done an impressive, almost Criterion-level job with this important and intriguing film (an official French national treasure, no less). The color print (which switches from full frame to widescreen as Picasso pushes himself to paint more ambitious subjects) is bright and fairly free of defects, if a bit soft in spots. Although the soundtrack has some hiss early on, George Auric's occasionally overbearing score still works. The commentary tracks cover all the necessary territory, and Renais' "Guernica," while flawed, makes an intriguing companion piece.
The Mystery of Picasso is one of the most unique documentaries ever produced, and because it eschews exposition in favor of direct presentation of the artistic method—not just the trickery of painting but of cinema as well—it is easily accessible by an audience that may know little of art history or the iconography of modern art. Cubism may seem obscure when presented in a textbook, but just watching Picasso layer in perspective after perspective answers more questions in a few minutes than a professor likely can in an entire class. Nevertheless, Picasso's work, not to mention his psyche, maintains a degree of mystery, allowing us to read into the paintings what we will. The result is a documentary that allows viewers to learn something new with each viewing—something few documentaries can claim.
Picasso and Clouzot, masters of their respective mediums, are released immediately. Milestone Films and Image are commended for a fine DVD release. Case dismissed.
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice
Studio: Image Entertainment
• Commentary by Peggy Parsons
Review content copyright © 2003 Mike Pinsky; Site design and review layout copyright © 2015 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.