The Mystery of Picasso

There isn’t one set-in-stone way to make an art documentary, because there isn’t one set-in-stone way to appreciate art. Those who believe art should stand on its own, or trigger some kind of personal reading, may feel that the work is diminished by too much context and explanation. That seems to negate a documentary’s very reason for existing, and yet it also seems to be how Henri-Georges Clouzot approached making The Mystery of Picasso. The great thriller director’s only documentary, its reissue on Arrow Academy prompts a lot of thoughts about the director, his subject and the art documentary in general.

Clouzot begins by saying we can never know what was on Rimbaud’s mind as we wrote, but we can know what was on a painter’s mind “through his hand”. This is a very revealing statement. After all, a poem is a record of the poet’s thoughts, and for many people, it’s easier to read as such than a painting. Clouzot’s statement shows that he thinks in images. To him, there is no mystery of Picasso: it’s there on the canvas.

Most of the film simply observes Picasso composing new paintings and sketches. Clouzot films from behind a specially-made canvas which shows marks that are made on the other side, but is otherwise opaque. The technique is often claimed to be borrowed from Paul Haesaerts’s award-winning short A Visit to Picasso, which Arrow have included as an extra. Watching them side-by-side, you realise that they’re not exactly the same. Haesaerts films Picasso painting on glass, showing the art and the artist at the same time. In The Mystery of Picasso’s painting scenes the artist is invisible, leaving a beguiling impression that the images are somehow painting themselves.

The difference in filming techniques shows the difference in attitudes. Clouzot is interested in the art, not the man, which is fair enough. In The Mystery of Picasso, the title subject seems happy to paint but disinterested in interviews; about the only revealing statement he makes is “I’ve never worried about the audience and I’m not about to start now, at my age.” The lack of commentary is refreshing, too, given the occasional datedness of the Haesaert’s film’s voiceover (“Soon Picasso discovers Negro art, and adopts its vigorous and brutal rhythm” – ah yes, those African paintings, with their innate sense of rhythm).

On the other hand, A Visit to Picasso does allow you to see some of the great works, rather than just the ones Picasso was willing to make on camera. It also has a refreshing amount to say about his work as a sculptor, which tends to be overshadowed by his paintings in the public eye. Neither of these documentaries are perfect, but they feel nicely complementary, two different attempts at capturing an aspect of one of the most protean, complex artists of the twentieth century.

What is there of Clouzot in this project? Quite a bit, actually – about half an hour in Clouzot breaks the fourth wall to announce that they only have a little bit of film left, and so Picasso’s next painting becomes a race against time. It’s not quite The Wages of Fear, but it’s closer than you expect for a film in this genre. Might it be too fanciful to suggest that Clouzot’s push towards abstraction in his legendary unmade project Inferno was inspired by this? Watching Picasso rework his figures, overwriting and changing the image as he goes on, feels surprisingly cinematic – a kind of crude animation. Most of the images in the film, in fact, are entirely controlled by the painter’s whims. It’s telling that both Clouzot and Haesaert’s films end with Picasso signing his name. They may be the directors, but he’s the auteur.

The Mystery of Picasso is out now from Arrow Academy

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