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Picasso, Action Hero 

A one-of-a-kind documentary of the artist at work

Wednesday, May 9 2001
The impressionists were daring and whimsical, but they weren't especially popular in their day. Credit Pablo Picasso with blowing away painting's reputation for airless solemnity in a tornado of macho modernism. As a side benefit, his astonishing productivity mocked the preciousness that accompanied most serious art. Oh, and another thing: The man could draw.

The proof is in the process, on vivid display in the one-of-a-kind 1955 French documentary The Mystery of Picasso. As we watch through a semitransparent canvas, the artist creates more than a dozen pen-and-ink drawings, then colors them in. The movie screen works like a giant Etch-A-Sketch, with figures taking shape and gaining power before our eyes. For variety, some of the pictures are created through stop-motion animation, with several lines or strokes added with each shot. The illusion is briefly suspended to show Picasso's pipe-smoking friend, famed director Henri-Georges Clouzot (Diabolique, The Wages of Fear), directing the tiny crew as they capture the artist -- or, more precisely, his hand -- in motion.

While Clouzot provides but a quick glimpse or two of a cheerful Picasso, it's sufficient to counterbalance such cinematic portraits as Ed Harris' tortured Pollock and Michel Piccoli's dour artiste in La Belle Noiseuse. Well into this movie, after Picasso has stunned us with both his ability to create beauty and his willingness to obliterate it a moment later, he remarks, "I haven't gone below the surface yet. Let's go deeper. Risk all." This is genius, as distinct from talent -- a fearlessness forged by the knowledge that new ground can only be gained by sacrificing every foothold, every security, and every accolade acquired to that point. Therein lies a clue to the power that musician Jonathan Richman alluded to in his oddball lyric, "He would walk down the street and girls could not resist his stare/ Pablo Picasso never got called an asshole."

About The Author

Michael Fox


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