“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.
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.