Pablo Picasso’s art emerges in front of our eyes in this remarkable 1956 film by the French master of suspense, Henri-Georges Clouzot.
The Mystery of Picasso (in French Le Mystère Picasso) is a unique collaboration between filmmaker and painter. Pauline Kael called it “One of the most exciting and joyful movies ever made.” The film is not so much a documentary as a carefully contrived cinematic depiction of Picasso’s creative process. While painting is generally experienced as a fixed art form, in The Mystery of Picasso we watch as it evolves over time.
In the first half of the 75-minute film, Picasso uses color pens to make playful doodles on translucent screens. These sequences bear some resemblance to a 1950 film by Belgian filmmaker Paul Haesaerts called Visite à Picasso (A visit with Picasso), which features Picasso painting on glass. As Clouzot’s film progresses, the artworks become more refined. Picasso switches from ink pens to oil brushes and paper collage. A work that took five hours to create unfolds in a ten-minute time-lapse. At the 54-minute mark Picasso says “Give me a large canvas,” and the film switches to CinemaScope.
Indeed, in The Mystery of Picasso, the film itself is the artist’s canvas. Clouzot draws attention to this fact through a series of contrivances. At one point he highlights the temporal constraints of the medium by creating an element of suspense. He asks cinematographer Claude Renoir (grandson of the Impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir) how much film is left, and then we watch as the film counter ticks away the time while the 76-year-old painter races to finish a painting. When the The Mystery of Picasso ends, the artist “signs” the film by painting his signature on a canvas large enough to fill the screen. As Clouzot later wrote, “It is someone else’s film, that of my friend Pablo Picasso.”
The Mystery of Picasso (now added to our collection of Free Online Movies) performed poorly at the box office but won the Special Jury Prize at the 1956 Cannes Film Festival. In 1984 the French government declared it a national treasure. Picasso’s paintings from the production were reportedly destroyed afterward. They exist only in the film.