The Mystery of Picasso (1956)
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Criterion DVD also includes "Guernica", a short documentary directed in 1950 by Alain Resnais before any of his feature films. Picasso's "Guernica" is one of the most famous paintings of the 20th Century which was created by the artist in response to bombing and destroying the ancient Basque town of Guernica by German aviation on April 27 1937 during Spanish Civil War. The painting is a passionate protest against war as well as the fascinating work of art. Resnais' 13 minutes short film is based on paintings, drawings, and sculptures by Pablo Picasso from 1902 until 949 including "Guernica" and is set against the ode written by French lyrical poet Paul Éluard and recited by Jacques Pruvost and María Casarès. In his early short film, Resnais already uses his famous jump cuts and cross-fades. "Guernica" is a valuable feature which goes well together with the marvelous "The Mystery of Picasso" and adds to understanding one of the most prolific and mysterious Artists of the last century.
Title (Brazil): "O Mistério de Picasso" ("The Mystery of Picasso")
Of course not, don't be ridiculous. Pablo Picasso, seen here in his seventies, creates 20-odd paintings for the camera (a couple of them in real time), running rings around us as he goes. We see a line cross the screen, and then another, and then color spatters about; drawn on bleed-through paper the images come to us unmediated, like daydreams. Before we know it scenes take shape, populated by Picasso's stock company of matadors, clowns, leering old men, and towering, serene, bare-breasted women, their faces regally aloof.
This is Picasso Playful. Clouzot informs him at one point that there are only five minutes of film left and asks him what he wants to do. The old man replies "It'll be a surprise," quickly sketching a bouquet of roses and then taking it through acrobatic transformations, faking us out with deadpan glee. His buoyancy counterweights some of the director's more awkward touches, such as the portentous intro, some over-dramatic music, a few probably staged conversations... but who cares? This is dynamic, visual cinema-- in a sense, a great animated film.
Some of the earlier drawings are merely a master's doodles; others make your jaw drop with their absolute sureness of line. He'll send a stroke wriggling upward, graceful as a ribbon of smoke, and suddenly that wriggle is a bull with man tossed on its horns, and as the shapes gather and the colors erupt the thing becomes impossibly beautiful, a small perfection. Picasso returns to the image later, breaking out the oils, and here the film truly takes off. "I want to go deeper," Picasso tells Clouzot, and he does. We realize what we were missing in those first drawings: texture. The head of a goat coheres and takes on animal reality, the pigments bright as stained glass. Picasso ages it, makes it solid. What would be a major work for a lesser artist here is a throwaway, literally; the paintings were destroyed after filming. The least of them could have paid for my house.
In that intro Clouzot says something about "looking into the mind of the artist" or somesuch, but the title really says it all. At the beginning the artist saunters out shirtless from the studio's shadows. At the end he declares, "It is finished," and saunters back. What could possibly account for the existence of a Pablo Picasso remains a mystery untouched.
Now, some of these pictures Picasso whipped off aren't particularly good. But Picasso worked fast normally. And as Motherwell once said, his unsuccessful paintings were necessary stepping-stones to the good ones. If you've looked at a lot of Picasso's work as I have, including the Skira suite of 180 drawings titled in the English edition "Picasso and the Human Comedy" of 1954,* which relates directly to some of the drawings done for the film, there won't be much "mystery" about the sequences--particularly as they relate to drawings. Toward the end though, Picasso starts doing some full-fledged paintings with overlays (I'm not at all sure how that was filmed, possibly by another method), where he really changes things all around multiple times (as he did with some of his etchings too--and looking at the sequence of them will give you very similar information). That's more like the abstract expressionists (De Kooning, for instance) memorably chronicled in the "........Paints a Picture" Art News articles, and such metamorphoses do show the genius of the man, if not really how it works, since we're looking at, not into. I think Atkinson calls Georges Auric's music "bombastic." I found it unnecessary and turned it off (though thereby missing some of the self-conscious narration and dialogue), and I also speeded up the painting sequences because I can think visually faster than this movie plods along. The self-importance of the project is not untypical of other Fifties coverage of super-famous artists and it's mildly grating, but though I waited a long time, this film had to be seen.
*This book cost about $25 then. It is now worth a couple thousand dollars. Similarly the film has supposedly been declared a "national treasure" by the French. "Bourgeois" or "hagiographic" or self-important though it may be, this is an invaluable record..
(Henri-Georges Clouzot, Le Mystère Picasso 1956. Netflix DVD. Not a particularly good one: minimal visual quality and the commentary would not open.)
When we look at a painting we see only the end result of a creative process. This film uniquely (to my knowledge) shows the previous steps in that process. How a picture evolves out of a trial process that produces several masterpieces, which are consumed and transformed into the end result - and, of which only the end result remains.
In this process you will witness many stunningly beautiful works. The motives are typical: homes, bulls, goats, women and landscapes in Spain. It seems as if Picasso's greatest weakness was that he overworked his paintings to a degree that they in some cases became less masterly than mid-way into a process - in some cases it even leads to the ruin of a whole work and the painter has to start fresh again.
For the joy and unique insight of Picasso's creative process that the film brings, it needs to be preserved and watched for all future generations.
You get a behind the scene look in the filming, with some dialogue added to the fluid operations taking place using the, I think silk'ish canvas that would be transparent to capture on celluloid.
One of the only films that you can never stop enjoying. To infinity, and then some. It's Picasso and Clouzot who validate cinema as fine art, or as close as you get to fine art, anyhow.
After some quick drawings with decidedly mixed results in which Picasso draws on the back of a light box ( We can see the colors change as the paint dries), Picasso tells the filmmaker he wants to replicate his actual painting process more accurately with oil paint.
The film technique switches here to time lapse photography, and what astounded me is how many revisions, obliterations and over paintings Picasso did. I had an image of him in my mind as a sure-handed artist who rarely reworked paintings- a supremely confident virtuoso. However he repaints parts of some of these paintings literally dozens of times. Different sections of the paintings are constantly morphing from one style to another. He often uses white to go back in and change the drawing.
In this respect, he is much closer to an artist like deKooning than I thought, constantly painting over entire sections and using white to define his line. A major difference was that deKooning left far more evidence of the struggle than Picasso. Interestingly, deKooning was near the height of his fame when this film was made. Picasso's greatest works, of course, were done 40 and 50 years before this film.
What we see here is an artist for whom the act of painting is enough, who is no longer in the avant garde, but who still struggles with the creative process. For artists of a certain age, for whom Picasso was a towering presence to be reckoned with, this film demystifies him, revealing an artist of mortal limitations. But also an artist of great courage and freedom.
Mystery of Picasso is an incredible film that unveils the painter's ingenious techniques and is just as suspenseful and intriguing as anything else Clouzot ever did.
The greatest art form of the 20th century records the greatest artist of the 20th century. Only Cinema could breathe this kind of life into the work of the master.
Picasso attacks the canvas like a man possessed, tapping an infinite reservoir of imagination and creativity.
He reworks and reinvents his paintings over and over again. The stop-motion techniques find perfect expression here and make the film seem less like live-action and more like a work of animation. Picasso's canvases are transformed into organic living creatures - in a constant state of metamorphosis and evolution.
The best part about having this on DVD is the option of the viewer in deciding when enough is enough. All you have to do is hit the pause button and admire the masterpiece before you.
The film is a perfect synthesis of an artist and a filmmaker - both at the height of their creative powers.
And by 'right kind of audience' I mean the kind that has an affinity or interest in art, and particularly for Picasso. I'm not art critic, so I can't pretend to go completely in-depth on all of Picasso's pieces, or explain definitively why they're good or crappy or masterworks. It is my opinion that Picasso's works are total originals, and they're like surrealist works from a childlike perspective, though still with a pure sense of the anarchic that we expect from such artistic rebels. But with certain drawings, like the two men staring at the woman, or the bullfighter and the bull, or that strange (dare I define which is stranger than one or another) picture of the flowers, or that creepy chicken, you don't really know what's going to happen next with the drawing or painting (especially if it's one of the ones in color and done in stop-motion), and this, alongside excellent and varied music, puts a sense of surprise into every painting, of what colors and movements will go next.
I loved this movie, though as I said it takes a certain mood to get into it. Obviously, any fan of Picasso or any of those 'out-there' early 20th century masters will go completely ga-ga for the film, and for the innovative style that's mixed in (i.e. going in-between sometimes the canvas itself and Cluzot sort of 'directing' Picasso to go faster or to another picture). But even for those who usually don't have an interest in this stuff, it's worth taking a chance; you certainly won't see anything else like it in cinema.