Picasso and Braque Go to the Movies, directed by Arne Glimcher (The Mambo Kings) and produced by Robert Greenhut and Martin Scorsese, explores the connections between the birth of the motion picture and the evolution of modern art, particularly Cubism.
Scorsese narrates this brief, hour-long 2008 documentary (released theatrically in 2010), which features insights from artists, scholars and filmmakers like Coosie Van Brugggen, Chuck Close, Eric Fischl, Adam Gopnik, Bernice Rose, Lucas Samarus, Julian Schnabel, and Scorsese himself. Featuring a collection of images and clips from cinema’s earliest films, Picasso and Braque dissects not only the incredible influence that the technological advances in photography and film had on these two artists, but that those innovations had on the world of visual art at large.
It’s fascinating to see the direct correlations between motion pictures’ ability to capture movement in real time and the Cubists’ depiction of movement in still life. This is most impressively shown early in the film through side-by-side comparisons of footage of Loïe Fuller performing “The Serpentine Dance”—a performance art piece which involved Fuller rhythmically manipulating great, billowing swathes of silk onto which light was projected, creating colorful, swirling, mesmerizing shapes that were later tinted to reproduce the colors in early films—and, for instance, the fractured, fan-folded faces in some of Picasso’s portraits.
There are brief biographical backgrounds given for both artists before the film posits that Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque and their contemporaries in the avant-garde communities of Paris at the dawn of the 20th century were suddenly, completely captivated by the work of Thomas Edison, the Lumiere brothers and others, such that these scientific inventions gave birth to art’s modern abstract movement, specifically to Cubism as pioneered by Picasso and Braque. The film rather grandly refers to these “new technologies that promised the annihilation of time and space as it was known”, but that’s probably not the overstatement it might seem if you can imagine what it must have been like to witness the very first moving pictures, to be present the very first time someone discovered that they could not only capture and keep, but change and manipulate a moment in time.
The Picasso and Braque Go to the Movies DVD bonus features consist of more than 80 minutes of groundbreaking short films from the silent era. Film geeks will be happy find an hour of Gaumont films, including longer clips of the aforementioned Loïe Fuller and “The Serpentine Dance”, 1911’s Le Retapeur de Cervelles (brilliant rudimentary animation in that one!), 1913’s Fantômas and several early examples of French farce. Also included are Thomas Edison’s Frankenstein and Ferdinand Zecca’s Slippery Jim, both from 1910.
Picasso and Braque Go to the Movies is probably not for everyone, and even for some film buffs and art aficionados it could come across as a bit hyperbolic. At one point Scorsese, in his enthusiasm for his subject, states “Cubism was not a style. It was a revolution that instigated a profoundly radical change of form—in fact a radical change of vision itself.” In his opinion, and clearly, in the opinions of other commentators in Picasso and Braque Go to the Movies, motion pictures were the engine behind that revolution.