Watch Picasso Create a Masterpiece in Just Five Minutes (1955)

“One day in Paris a wealthy woman goes into a café and sees Picas­so,” writes Alas­tair Dry­burgh in Every­thing You Know About Busi­ness Is Wrong.

After a few min­utes, she sum­mons up the courage to approach him. ‘Mon­sieur Picas­so,’ she asks, ‘would you make a por­trait of me? I’ll pay you any­thing you want.’ Picas­so nods, grabs a menu, and in five min­utes has sketched the wom­an’s por­trait on the back of it. He hands it to her.

‘Five thou­sand francs,’ he says.

‘But Mon­sieur Picas­so, it only took you five min­utes.’

‘No, Madam, it took me my whole life.’

This anec­dote has been ele­vat­ed, in books like Dry­burgh’s, to the sta­tus of a “Picas­so Prin­ci­ple.” Indi­vid­u­als and busi­ness­es alike, this prin­ci­ple states, should price their goods and ser­vices in accor­dance not just with the time and effort required to do the job, but the time and effort required to make doing the job pos­si­ble in the first place.

Whether Picas­so ever actu­al­ly charged a rich lady in a café 5,000 francs for an impromp­tu por­trait, nobody knows. But that he pos­sessed the skills to cre­ate a ful­ly real­ized work of art in five min­utes is a mat­ter of cin­e­mat­ic record, and you can wit­ness such an act in the Roy­al Acad­e­my of Arts video above.

The video’s source is Le Mys­tère Picas­so, a doc­u­men­tary by Hen­ri-Georges Clouzot, the film­mak­er best known for 1950s thrillers like The Wages of Fear and Les Dia­boliques. Offi­cial­ly declared a French nation­al trea­sure and pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured here on Open Cul­ture, the film cap­tures Picas­so in action, cre­at­ing orig­i­nal art­works right before the cam­era. “Not many of the works he cre­at­ed for the doc­u­men­tary sur­vive,” say this video’s notes, but three of them were recent­ly dis­played in the Roy­al Acad­e­my’s exhi­bi­tion Picas­so and Paper, a vir­tu­al tour of which appears just above. In Le Mys­tère Picas­so the artist paints 1955’s Vis­age: Head of a Faun in just five min­utes, a severe time con­straint imposed by Clouzot’s sup­ply of film stock.

The direc­tor’s ten­sion comes across as clear­ly as the painter’s con­cen­tra­tion. While Clouzot puffs away on his pipe, Picas­so gets right down to work. “Picas­so plays with the draw­ing,” says the video’s onscreen com­men­tary, “tak­ing it from flower to fish to chick­en to face and builds up from a mono­chrome draw­ing with bright, sat­u­rat­ed col­ors.” As the rolling counter on Clouzot’s cam­era ticks off the final meters of film, Picas­so trans­forms the work-in-progress almost com­plete­ly, con­jur­ing up a wild-eyed fig­ure in sil­hou­ette, nei­ther man nor beast, to dom­i­nate the fore­ground. He exe­cutes every brush­stroke unflinch­ing­ly, filled with the con­fi­dence of a painter long since assured of his mas­tery. In one sense, Vis­age: Head of a Faun took Picas­so five min­utes; more truth­ful­ly, it took him 74 years and five min­utes.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Picas­so Paint­ing on Glass

Picas­so Makes Won­der­ful Abstract Art

How To Under­stand a Picas­so Paint­ing: A Video Primer

The Mys­tery of Picas­so: Land­mark Film of a Leg­endary Artist at Work, by Hen­ri-Georges Clouzot

Pablo Picasso’s Mas­ter­ful Child­hood Paint­ings: Pre­co­cious Works Paint­ed Between the Ages of 8 and 15

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

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  • Stephen Gunther says:

    To qual­i­fy myself I must say that I have no art qual­i­fi­ca­tions what­so­ev­er. All I have is good vision.
    I have always thought that Picas­so’s art were just the scrib­blings and doo­dles of a teen and he knew it but went on with his work because the “Art Elite” went gaga over his paint­ings and it beat work­ing for a liv­ing.
    I also put Dal­i’s work in the same genre, con artists at work with an easel and brush.
    I con­grat­u­late those two gen­tle­men and oth­ers of their school of paint­ing for thumb­ing their noses at “Art Crit­ics” while laugh­ing all the way to the bank.

  • Karl Reitmann says:

    You’re par­tial­ly right, both of these artists loved fame and mon­ey and they knew how to milk the sys­tem.
    On the oth­er hand, they were both supreme artists at least as tech­nique goes.
    If you get to the Reina Sofia gallery in Madrid, I chal­lenge you not to be awe-struck by Dali’s paint­ings there. One can walk up close to them and admire the tiny details, all the bril­liant brush­work of his assured hand.
    Once you step back and see the whole paint­ing… it might be a dif­fer­ent sto­ry and I myself don’t care for most of them, I just can’t be both­ered to unwrap the sur­re­al­ist enig­mas offered…

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