Pablo Picasso is one of those artists both oblique and obvious at the same time. Like, say, Samuel Beckett, he just seems difficult because he is using handy and familiar materials in unusual combinations, with a whole language of icons and obsessions that are his own. It's not strange per se that Picasso liked to draw human beings with heads and necks twisted up as if they were baby swallows craning for mother's worms. Rather, it is strange that society tolerated for so long the bland representational paintings that were stifling the art-form from which Picasso emerged.
So for Henri-Georges Clouzot to dub his film The Mystery of Picasso (Le Myst`ere Picasso) was both a sly dig at Picasso's obviousness and a self-citation that winked at Clouzot's own previous run of suspense films such as Wages of Fear and Diabolique. Certainly no mystery is solved, for there is no mystery there. On the other hand, there is lots of information about Picasso in the film, information that helps democratize PP, and information which is triplicated in the new DVD version of the film.
Shot in 1955 and released in 1956, Picasso is a unique film. Essentially, it shows Picasso creating 20-plus works of art on screen. The artist is on the other side of a large vertical piece of secured and illuminated paper, and the camera, manned by Claude Renoir, is on the other side. The viewer does not see the artist as he creates, only the lines and colors he puts on the canvas, as if he were making finger drawings in a frosted window (in fact Picasso was using special "Sharpie" style pens provided to him by an American company seeking a promotional possibility). To the bombastic music of Georges Auric, Picasso inscribes nude painters, nude bulls, and nude models. There is an interlude in the middle of the film (in contrasty black and white) wherein Clouzot asks Picasso if he is tired and the macho Spaniard says no, but aside from that, and but for glimpses of him at the beginning and end, Picasso is screened from us. Also, near the end of the film the screen size changes from full frame to wide screen, at which point some time-lapsed paintings are erected before our eyes.
The film is fascinating as any work would be that shows an internationally famous artist creating masterpieces from the ground up. His non-stop fussing often threatens to ruin a sketch that looks just fine the way it is, but on DVD there is always the option of freezing the frame at the stage of construction that pleases the viewer. But all too often the finished product puts to shame the viewer's middlebrow horror at what Picasso is doing to his works. Supposedly, the pieces Picasso created were destroyed after filming.
Milestone Films, releasing the DVD through Image Entertainment, offers a wonderfully well-augmented platter. It’s a single-sided disc with a good transfer of the almost 50-year-old movie, and optional English subtitles. The Dolby Digital mono doesn’t do much for Auric's shredded music, but the supplements make up for that. There are no less than two audio commentary tracks, the theatrical trailer (for the mid-'80s re-release of the film), and Alain Resnais's 13-minute documentary (that's not quite the right word) Guernica, from 1950.
The audio tracks are by Peggy Parsons, of the National Gallery of Art, and Archie Rand, a painter and teacher at Columbia University. On her yak track, Parsons contextualizes the film within Picasso and Clouzot's careers, tracks some of his imagery, analyzes whether the drawings were really done in "real time," and describes Picasso's reaction to the finished film. Rand talks about the work materializing before us from the painter's perspective, the mind set of the artist, how Picasso learned from Goya and Rembrandt, for example, to contrast dark and light objects within his frames. For Rand, Picasso is creating a drama, and though the painter seems to be ruining some of his pieces, in fact these changes are just stages in the counterpoint that Picasso is creating. Picasso was interested in cinema but skeptical and somewhat dismissive of it as well, but Clouzot's Le Myst`ere Picasso justifies at least one artist's participation in the mongrel art form.
This essay originally appeared in Black Lamb in 2003.