Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
A Note from frequent Savant correspondent Chris
In the fifties there was a spate of documentary films about art and artists that sought to capture
of great painters; Raymond Durgnat in Films and Feelings devoted a chapter to them, probing
differences and similarities between painting and film. Henri-Georges Clouzot, fresh from a string of
darker-than-noir thrillers like The Wages of Fear and Diabolique, instigated
this filmic experiment, that works in surprising ways. Milestone has assembled the short feature
with a number of useful extras, and created a special treat for followers of art.
In a studio, the painter, director and cinematograher ready an easel rigged
to be filmed from the backside, so that we see every brushstroke of a painting while it is in
progress. Without a break, and accompanied by different music cues, twenty or so paintings are
created before our eyes.
The film starts with an abbreviated introduction. We see no 'genius at home' footage, no sunny
exteriors that another film might imply inspire the artist. Picasso, shirtless, approaches his
canvas. The narrator says that the film will allow us the best analysis of a painter that is
possible, the privilege to watch him lay down every brushstroke as they happen.
For a while, it doesn't seem very promising, as the early images are barely more than impressionistic
cartoon half-sketches. One of the first ones proceeds past what seems an apppropriately finished
state, to be more or less ruined-looking. Interestingly, instead of being able to conclude that
'with every work of art there's a point of perfection' that one must attain without going beyond, we
here realize that for every finished painting we see, the artist has has to deal with a living,
growing entity, and only he could decide when it was finished.
The paintings have a little variety but are mostly of nudes, artist & model studies, bullfighting, and
a few landscapes. Toward the end, there's one collage of vacation-like visuals that the artist
alters several times. Just as it seems to near completion, he repaints it, changing variables and
making it look darker and more oppressive. That's when we realize that because a painting-in-progress
with time, the 'mystery' is that Picasso is almost telling a story with his painting. It has
anticipation ('looks like he's almost finished this one') and suspense ('what's he doing now?').
When the picture is done, we're left with a complex awareness of earlier images and
abandoned directions. The visible work is just the top layer painted over
the now-buried earlier versions.
One realizes that painters must look at their finished canvasses and
think not of what's there, but of the earlier versions underneath that only they can remember, like
the invisible alternate futures of a Luis Borges time-travel story. The creation of each picture is an
animated film, an adventure where the director (Picasso) launches himself into regions unknown, and
takes us with him.
Savant is woefully illiterate in Art 101 or even basic appreciation skills. The Mystery of
Picasso didn't give me great insights about the painter or art. But it does afford us the curious
excitement of experiencing the act of creation from as privileged a viewpoint as any studio visitor
Exactly how the film was accomplished is not clear to Savant. Picasso appears to be on one side of
glass easel, and the camera on the other. But what we see is a 'front view' - the screen starts white,
not clear, and we can't see Picasso through the glass 'canvas'. Also, if we were looking through
the back of the easel, we'd only see the first brushstrokes - successive layers would remain
invisible. So we must be really seeing the front of the canvas somehow, but without seeing the brush
or Picasso's hand. Maybe I missed something essential and obvious, but this threw me entirely. The
commentaries mention the problem of cutting the negative into hundreds of bits and getting smooth
joins. This indicates that the film is edited to remove time gaps between brushstrokes, but we see the
strokes going down on the picture, without a brush or hand being visible.
Making the rounds of U.S. revival houses at the moment is Henri-Georges Clouzot's Quai des
Orfèvres. It's a highly-recommended mystery rarity unseen in the U.S. since its 1947 debut.
Image's DVD of The Mystery of Picasso has a good transfer that brings out the paintings
in bright colors, which is a good thing. If the color had faded, the show would
be almost worthless, and Picasso's work lost.
But this show is one of those rare films where the screen aspect ratio changes midway, when
Picasso switches from boxy-shaped pictures, to a wide format. Apparently the first few reels were
either shot flat, or in CinemaScope, with the periphery masked. Then, at the appropriate time, the
masks retreat to enlarge the canvas. This probably worked great on old theaters designed for
widescreen, where a normal film could suddenly stretch out as the curtains retreated. Nowadays, of
course, most theatrical screens just narrow top to bottom to accomodate the Scope image, making
the picture area actually become smaller. On many a multiplex screen, the smaller canvas of the
first half of the film would look like 16mm. I feel safe in betting that this is one title that
will never be shown in a Mall, however.
For the DVD, the Academy-shaped flat material fills the frame, and then gets chopped down to flat
letterbox. This reverses what was once the, 'This is Cinerama' unfolding screen moment. It's kind of a letdown, but
unless one was prepared to watch a tiny windowboxed image for 40 minutes, or until we have monitors
that stretch left and right, it was probably the only thing to do.
One extra is exceptional. Guernica is a short film from 1950 that through camera moves 'animates'
Picasso paintings as a backdrop to anti-war poetry. It's by Alain Resnais and is narrated by
María Casarès and Jacques Pruvost.
The other extras are a pair of audio commentaries
by noted art experts. Art students and aesthetes will probably find them a great resource of insight and
knowledge; to Savant they're mostly the kind of thing that drove me out of Art classes with acute
boredom. Consider that a confession and not criticism, although Ms. Parsons' commentary does have
of a tour guide. She's always breaking in with unneeded statements ("There's a wipe. That's a film
technique") or telling us why we should go to the Picasso museum in Paris, as if giving us a recipe -
it's one of her favorite places! Sure, I'll drop in the next time I'm visiting Brigitte Bardot. Ms.
Parsons does have some useful facts to relate, like which paintings survived.
I confess, however, that I would have liked to hear how cinematographer Claude Renoir (related both
to the director and the famous painter) shot the darn thing - I get the feeling that the answer
is ingeniously simple.
As Milestone's specialized product is not available in every video store, I've been asked to
print this toll-free phone number (800-603-1104) to help buyers locate vendors.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Mystery of Picasso rates:
Supplements: 2 commentaries: Peggy Parsons of the National Gallery of Art;
Archie Rand, Muralist and Senior Professor of Visual Arts, Columbia University, Trailer,
Alain Resnais' Guernica (1950, 13 min.)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: January 20, 2003
1. It appears that, to make the film the final artwork, almost all of the
'canvasses' were destroyed after production was over. So it's rather important that the negative
not be allowed to fade. The disc and its commentators proudly state that the film is now
a registered national treasure of France.
A Note from frequent Savant correspondent Chris
Glenn, thanks for the review of one of my favorite
films of all time, The Mystery
of Picasso I'm not sure I knew it was out on DVD -- I know I looked for
it, but I don't remember if I found it. If this is a new release, then I
guess I didn't.
I'm a painter and a draftsman (in addition to my other various interests and
professions). I've done very little and worked very slowly because I
considered myself meticulous. But I was privileged to see Picasso when
it played at the Film Forum in Manhattan and I was deeply inspired. I saw
the value of simple scribbling and, taking that to heart, I jumped in to
my own series of drawings. I've been selling them on eBay and have sold
probably about 200 in the last year. So the film is inspirational! (You
can see what I'm selling
My understanding of the film was that it was shot in 'scope only for the
painting parts, and those were filmed in stop motion, or rather animated like
an oil painting Harryhausen. The drawing scenes were filmed through, as
one site calls it, ``bleed-through ink and translucent paper'' -- that seems
about right to me, although I suspect from the way the ink ran in places
and the sounds of the drawing that it might have been ground glass. Two
places say it's paper, though, so there you go. I'm surprised the DVD didn't
In addition to the art I found the film enjoyable for its view of the
filmmaking process -- counting down feet of film and so on. It struck me
as oddly both documentary-like and carefully rehearsed (how else would one
get footage of running out of film?).
One thing you left out of your review was the music. I found the music to
be excellent in spots and really, really intrusive in others. Mostly I was
so entranced by the images I forgot how weird the music was. There's one
avant garde that managed to stay avant, thank God.
Thanks for the review and the reminder that I've got to expand my DVD
collection by at least one more disc. Chris.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson