The Mystery of Picasso Review

“One would die to know what was on Rimbaud's mind when he wrote The Drunken Boat, or on Mozart's, when he composed his symphony Jupiter. We'd love to know that secret process guiding the creator through his perilous adventures. Thankfully, what is impossible to know for poetry and music is not in the case of painting. To know what's going through a painter's mind, one just needs to look at his hand.” So begins Henri-Georges Clouzot's documentary The Mystery of Picasso (La mystère Picasso), a distinct change of pace from a director best known for suspense thrillers such as Les diaboliques and The Wages of Fear. A grand claim, but a dubious one, as what we are about to see is still a record from outside, as we watch the artist work. What is going on in his or her head can only be inferred by us. But this particular artist was one of the greatest and most influential of the twentieth century, and this is still an invaluable record of his work.

There's a popular image of an artistic genius being one of an unstoppable fecundity, of great work after great work pouring out like a mountain stream. Undoubtedly there were geniuses of just such a kind, and Mozart would indeed be one, though we don't see the constant practice, the learning of the craft and the incessant application of that craft. And there were geniuses who found creation uniquely painful, but is Beethoven, say, no less great? Picasso certainly would fit the former model, and he lives up to it in Clouzot's film, stripped to the waist, casually smoking, clearly enjoying himself and playing to camera, offering to continue working all night if needs be, creating some twenty artworks as we watch.

Clouzot and his cinematographer Claude Renoir – himself the descendant of a great artist, being the grandson via his celebrated film director father Jean of Auguste Renoir – set up transparent canvases in the studio so that Picasso could draw and paint on them and they could film the results. We begin in black and white and, although this is 1956 and three years into the widescreen era, Academy Ratio.

When we see Picasso in person, either at his easel or discussing with Clouzot and Renoir how to proceed, we remain in black and white, changing to colour and back again as the artworks require. We watch as the sketches and drawings take place, shot at times with the aid of time-lapse photography or an undercranked camera, accompanied only by Georges Auric's score, which uses different instrumentation from artwork to artwork, falling to silence as each one is completed. And then a wipe takes us to a new blank canvas.

Then, after three of the film's five reels, Picasso declares he needs a larger canvas, and we switch from Academy Ratio to CinemaScope, remaining in wide screen for the rest of the running time. Finally, Picasso signs his name and says, “This is the end.”

To adapt the opening voiceover, what we could have done to have had a camera to hand, let alone the ability to capture moving images, on film as here or more recently video, to witness the great artists of history as they created their masterpieces. And if we had, how would our observation have changed the artist's process? How different would it have been if those artists had created their works in solitude? A documentary, after all, is as shaped and heightened as any work of drama. (For one thing, the film was shot over the course of a month and not in the single marathon session it's edited to seem like.) Given the presence of the director and cinematographer in their own film, The Mystery of Picasso is a film partly about its own making, and these are questions that it doesn't avoid implicitly asking. But it is still a record of a great artist at work, and if you have any interest in the subject a riveting one and an invaluable one.


The Mystery of Picasso is released separately on Blu-ray and DVD by Arrow Academy. A checkdisc of the former version was received for review. As the film is a documentary, Arrow have exempted it from BBFC certification. The film was passed U without cuts in 1958 under the title The Picasso Mystery, and, while I doubt this film has any appeal to the very young, that's pretty much what the BBFC would pass it as today, the only possible issue being the on-screen smoking. Visit to Picasso (see below) was also passed at U back in the day, in 1951.

The Blu-ray transfer begins in the aspect ratio of 1.37:1, expanding to 2.35:1 fifty-six minutes in. This person with past experience of 35mm projection did wonder if just reels four and five were anamorphically squeezed on the release prints, or if the whole film was, resulting in black bars to the sides of the picture for reels one to three. That would be feasible if two projectors were used (likely at the time) though screen masking would have needed to change as the ratio did. Projecting the whole print spliced together on a platter through one projector would require a pause and some dexterity on the part of the projectionist to change the lens and aperture plate without too much downtime.

The film was shot on both black and white and Eastman Colour 35mm stock, most likely with the entire edited negative processed and printed on colour stock. (Splicing in the colour sequences in to an otherwise black and white print would have been possible, though the colour sequences are quite extensive.) However it was achieved, the results have been digitally restored by Gaumont, which is the basis of this Blu-ray. In the absence of the disc booklet, assuming the information is in there, it's not clear from which element the restoration took place, but a slight greenish cast to the black-and-white footage suggests it came from an element on colour stock and is likely to match what was seen in a cinema. (I had only seen the film before on television, on BBC2 on 13 June 1987, its UK television premiere, with the Scope sections fully letterboxed.) Certainly the details are fine and grain is present and filmlike.

The soundtrack is the original mono, and there are no issues with it, especially as much of it is devoted to the music score. English subtitles are available for this French-language film.

The extras begin with the Belgian-made documentary Visit to Picasso (Visite à Picasso, 20:24), directed by Paul Haesaerts in 1951. It was nominated for the BAFTA Award for Best Documentary. It was not the winner, as the disc menu erroneously claims, as that was the US-made and now forgotten Beaver Valley. While Gérard Philippe is credited onscreen as the narrator, the version on this disc has an English voiceover provided by Frank Silvera – and, regrettably, no English subtitles available, so the hard-of-hearing may well lose out. While it's pretty much inevitable, given the film's age, that it was made in black and white, just for once you'd have liked it in colour, as there are a parade of Picasso's colour artworks, with years of creation as on-screen captions, in a quick overview of his many changes of style, from conventional drawing and painting, the Blue Period, the Rose Period, Cubism, and so on. We then visit Picasso at his studio, and the film anticipates The Mystery of Picasso in that we watch him draw on a glass screen in front of the camera, though in this case we can see him as well.

La Garoupe (9:30) was shot by Man Ray in 1937, in somewhat faded colour, showing Picasso and his friends on holiday near Antibes. It's a good record of the man at play, some twenty years younger than he is in Clouzot's documentary, though without the provenance of those behind and in front of the camera, this would be simply someone's home-movie footage. As there was no soundtrack, this footage is presented silent on this disc.

Next up is an interview (25:30) with Picasso's daughter Maya, born 1935 and still with us as I write this, the older half-sister of the fashion designer Paloma Picasso. She was an assistant on the film, though doesn't appear onscreen – we do see her in on-set stills though. Clouzot and his then-wife Véra were family friends of the Picassos. The Mystery of Picasso was originally intended as a short, but expanded to feature length. As much more of a filmgoer than her father, Maya had to explain to him what CinemaScope was, and he went to see a film then in cinemas - Frou-Frou, from 1955 - to get the idea. (Scope is an unusually wide aspect ratio for classic paintings, in any case: Leonardo da Vinci's The Last Supper is wider than normal at approximately 2:1.) Maya is quite candid at times. Clouzot's first tests for what he wanted to achieve were carried out with the only nylon item available – her bra. She also claims that her father wanted her to sleep with Claude Renoir, he quite liking the idea of a child being produced who would be a descendant of two great painters. Nothing of this kind happened, not least because Renoir was some twenty years older than her.

Finally on the disc is a restoration demonstration (1:39), with particular sections of The Mystery of Picasso presented “avant” and “après”, the former showing quite a few scratches and speckles which are removed from the latter by the miracle of digital clean-up.

The first pressing of this release also contains a booklet with new writing by the artist John Coulthard, noted for the record but not available for review.

8 out of 10
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A rare opportunity to see one of the great artists of the twentieth century at work, using the resources of cinema.


out of 10

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