Picasso: The Full Story Review

Presented by a friend of Picasso in his later years, John Richardson, Picasso: The Full Story is an accessible and comprehensive look at the life of the most important artist of the 20th Century, examining the influences and the secrets behind many of the masterpieces he created. Televised previously on Channel 4 as Picasso: Magic, Sex and Death, the programme is divided into three parts.

Part One: Magic (77 mins) traces Picasso’s early influences back to his birth in Málaga in 1881 and early childhood in Barcelona, attempting to relate his artistic power with the influence of Southern Spanish Andalusian gypsy lore, comparing the “search for the sacred fire” in his painting with voodoo and shamanism, where women are seen as sacrificial offerings made for his art. This is intriguing and Richardson makes a good case, examining numerous works and tying this into the well-known influence of the powerful symbolism of tribal and prehistoric art on Picasso’s later work. There is undoubted power in Picasso’s work and it is worth examining what the secret of that force is, but calling it ‘magic’ feels somewhat sensationalist and is far from convincing. What the first part manages to do successfully however is draw a clear line between Picasso’s life and the various early periods of his artwork, making a good connection between the duality of sex and death in Picasso’s work up to 1916; the death of his friend Cassagenes in Paris in 1900 as the inspiration for his Blue Period; his affair with model “La Belle Fernande”, their visits to Gosol and the beginning of his Rose Period; and the development of cubism with Braque. Particular attention is given to his ground-breaking work on “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon”, examining the influences of tribal art, early Iberian art and El Greco on this key work.

Part Two: Sex (49 mins) focuses on the numerous women in Picasso’s life (although they weren’t exactly scarce in the first part). Again, this episode is very well constructed and thematically strong, full of intriguing links between Picasso’s life and loves and the powerful influence the various women had on his work. This part looks at Picasso’s work with Jean Cocteau on a cubist ballet, his marriage to ballet dancer Olga Koklova, their visit to Pompeii and its influence on his fascinating Neo-Classical Period, leading to the brief refinement of his Duchess Period. It’s not easy to keep up with the numerous affairs he conducted while married to Olga, but Marie-Thérèse Walther and Dora Maar are singled out for particular attention, the programme examining the various depictions of women and sex in Picasso’s work, finding them not erotic or salacious, but deeply powerful, matching the tone of the content to the intensity and the secrecy of those relationships. It briefly tackles more recent charges of misogyny, but quickly dismisses them as being culturally endemic in Picasso’s Andalusian make-up, seeing women in the dual aspect of Madonna and whore. This part ends with a fascinating new look at the masterpiece “Guernica”, interpreting it as the war in Picasso’s own life between his various mistresses, which is something I hadn’t heard before and it makes the case very well.

Part Three: Death (50 mins) charts the final stage in Picasso’s life from the war years in Paris through to his time in Antibes, his later involvement with the Communist Party, the Peace Movement and the years leading up to his death in 1973 at the age of 91. This is the period the presenter Richardson is most familiar with as it was the time he came to know Picasso, but there is surprisingly little personal reminiscence. The episode nevertheless covers well Picasso’s work and his relationship with the women in his life. These later years are marked with a struggle to remain vigorous and active against the encroaching spectre of death by keeping plenty of younger women around. Françoise Gilot, his lover and 40 years his junior at the time, contributes to this section with comments on the work he created in his later years, on the paintings that show the joy of life and the ceramics in which she is immortalised. His final works, revisiting and reworking the old masters, is also examined, along with his final years with Jacqueline Roque.

Each of the programmes makes extensive use of photographs, footage of Picasso and illustrations of the numerous paintings examined, visiting galleries and collections all over the world. There are one or two interviews with friends and family of Picasso and of course Richardson himself offers an informed and insightful perspective on his own knowledge of the painter, but more often the interviews and opinions offered are from art historians, biographers and Picasso experts, often to bolster the speculations and interpretations made on the works. Overall however, this is a fine, well-structured and academic look at Picasso’s life and works, often with new ideas and insights, which nevertheless remains completely accessible to any viewer interested in one of the greatest artist of the last century.

Picasso: The Full Story

is released by Revolver Entertainment alongside Vincent: The Full Story, as part of their new Cultura label, focussing on accessible programming in the arts arena. The DVD is packaged as a 2-disc set (on two single-layer discs) and is encoded for Region 2. Recorded for Channel 4, the quality of this DVD release is equivalent to television broadcast quality, with a mainly artefact-free transfer to DVD with fine, clear Dolby Digital 2.0 sound. There are no subtitles on the release for hard of hearing, which is a serious omission for a release with good educational content, though the lack of extra features is not surprising.

Never less than fascinating, Picasso: The Full Story is a wonderfully made program drawing intriguing parallels between Picasso’s life and art and presenting them in a clear linear fashion for anyone who is unfamiliar with his work, while speculating and raising intriguing questions about key Picasso works in certain depth that I certainly haven’t seen covered as well elsewhere. It’s not always convincing in the conclusions it draws, but it gives the viewer a lot to think about and consider they next time they visit an art gallery, and after watching this accessible documentary you should be able to easily identify Picasso’s work with each period in his life and the women he was with at the time. As an opening set of releases from Revolver’s Cultura label, the choices of Picasso and Van Gogh couldn’t be any higher profile subjects and they are well examined with some new points to make, but it must be hoped that some less well-documented subjects will be presented in future releases.

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