Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Masterpiece Test: The Mystery of Picasso

Year of Release  1956
Country  France
Length  75 min.
Director  Henri-Georges Clouzot
Cinematographer  Claude Renoir
Editor  Henri Colpi
Original Score  Georges Auric
Cast  Pablo Picasso

Beauty  A documentary in which Pablo Picasso creates twenty one-of-a-kind drawings, paintings, and collages obviously meets the basic beauty requirements for a masterpiece.  The Mystery of Picasso’s novel yet low-key approach to presenting those pieces of art  – Picasso creates each of his works on a special transparent canvas that fills the screen, allowing the viewer to watch the artist’s inspiration in action – is what makes it so spellbinding and delightful.  While there understandably isn’t anything on the level of, say, Guernica in this batch of artworks, each piece is nonetheless gorgeous and distinctive.  It’s a pleasure to watch a vague germ of an idea transform into something completely different by the time Picasso is satisfied with it (or tired of it).

Strangeness  Supposedly all of the pieces created for The Mystery of Picasso were burned immediately after filming, so that they would only exist for the movie.  If there is any truth to this bit of trivia, then the film is unique and special simply for containing these artworks by one of the world’s great masters.  Even if the pieces are out there in somebody’s private collection, as some scholars allege, the film still holds value for demonstrating in minute detail Picasso’s process.

Unity of Form and Subject Matter  By essentially turning the screen into Picasso’s canvas, Henri-Georges Clouzot allows viewers the greatest possible opportunity to see a master at work.  The first few drawings are shown developing literally stroke-for-stroke, while the latter pieces employ smartly timed jump cuts to trace the evolution of some of the more ambitious pieces.  Clouzot also changes the film’s aspect ratio as Picasso moves onto larger works, bringing a welcome dramatic flair to this stylistically modest documentary.  The process of creation has perhaps never been as viscerally realized as it is in Clouzot’s film.

Tradition  Clouzot actually wasn’t the first to film Picasso’s works in action.  A Belgian film called Visit to Picasso (1949), which I haven’t seen, features the artist painting images on glass plates from the viewpoint of the camera.  That said, it’s hard to come up with any contemporary equivalents of Clouzot’s documentary.  Stan Brakhage’s shorts in which he painted directly onto film strips seem like The Mystery of Picasso’s closest relatives.

Repeatability  Art history students and aspiring painters could probably learn a lot from rewatching Clouzot’s film.  Or perhaps not; despite the film’s introductory voiceover suggesting that we only need to watch Picasso’s brushstrokes to understand what he’s thinking, the artist’s seemingly improvisatory technique isn’t really any easier to grasp by the end of the film.  The brief interludes where Picasso takes a break and has brief discussions with Clouzot don’t really shed any light on the artist’s process, and mostly serve to disrupt the film’s flow.

Viewer Engagement  It may not ultimately give viewers any real insight into what made its titular artist tick, but The Mystery of Picasso is a highly enjoyable and lovely film that offers a rare and fascinating glimpse of a great artist at work.

Morality  Part of the point of The Mystery of Picasso seems to be that half of Picasso’s genius was in simply putting in the work.  The emphasis on process, and the (sometimes stroke-by-stroke) evolution of the works of art onscreen suggests reasonably that Picasso was not magically imbued with talent, but that he became a great artist by constantly trying new things and pursuing each of his ideas to their logical end.  Unfortunately, Clouzot’s film occasionally seems divided against itself, with Georges Auric’s incongruously pompous musical score frequently aiming for a tone that suggests that the work being shown on screen is some sort of transmission from the gods.  The film would’ve been better off if Clouzot didn’t take his occasional awkward half-measures toward attempting to explain Picasso’s talent, and simply let the works of art speak for themselves.

The Mystery of Picasso fails the Masterpiece Test

UP NEXT  A more ambitious and biographical look at an artist, Peter Watkins’ Edvard Munch.

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