The Mystery of Picasso (Le Mystère Picasso) (1956)


One would die to know what was on Rimbaud’s mind when he wrote ‘The Drunken Boat,’ or on Mozart’s when composed his symphony, ‘Jupiter.’ We’d love to know that secret process guiding the creator through this perilous adventure. Thankfully, what is impossible to know for poetry and music is not the case in painting. To know what’s going through a painter’s mind, one just needs to look at his hands. Here’s what the painter’s experiencing.
— Henri-Georges Clouzot, The Mystery of Picasso.

Henri-Georges Clouzot’s 1956 film, The Mystery of Picasso (Le Mystère Picasso), sets out some lofty goals for itself. In only 75 minutes, Clouzot seeks to uncover nothing less than the “mystery,” not merely of Picasso’s process of painting, but of artistic production itself. We’re talking metaphysical meta-projects here, the search for the core truth of capital-A “Art.”

To this end, the film documents the production of 20 original works by Picasso. Some, the earlier works in particular, are rendered primarily in black ink, with a splash of color here or there; others, certainly the final ones, explore a wide range of colors. All have that post-Picasso “Picasso” feel about them. You know, the almost regimented feel of paintings painted like “Picasso would have painted them,” the kind of paintings more apt these days to draw yawns than elicit shocked gasps. Slightly abstract in quality, with the occasional old school cubist flourish, the paintings feature many of the master’s usual iconographic suspects: women and women’s breasts, bullfighting, Mediterranean scenes.

Clouzot’s primary aesthetic conceit is to represent Picasso’s process, literally, sans artist. By placing an illuminated piece of paper in tight close-up in front of the camera, and situating Picasso behind the paper (and thus completely hidden from view), Clouzot manages to remove Picasso’s body from the artistic method.

What we’re left with is brush strokes. As Picasso applies ink or paint to the back (or front?) of the paper, the paint bleeds through to the front (back?) to be recorded through Clouzot’s camera lens. The visual effect is dramatic: since the paper fills the entire frame, the strokes appear to leap across the screen with a life of their own, the effects of an absent cause.

While this makes for interesting film, it hardly gives us unmediated access to Picasso’s (and more abstractly, painting’s) creative moment. It probably creates the complete opposite. By strategically employing the techniques of filmmaking to separate the body of the artist from his work, we end up with an exercise in unintended alienation.

This is a big problem for a film that begins by asserting, “One just needs to look at his hands [to] know what’s going through a painter’s mind.” A host of interrelated questions beg asking. If “knowing” Picasso depends on looking at his hands at work, what happens when the hands aren’t visible? Is the director (himself an artists) arguing in bad faith when he asserts such a “truth,” only to deny its expression on film? And, in any event, even if one can see the artist’s hands on film, is this the same as seeing his hands in person? Is a representation of the artist’s hands (even such a “realistic” representation as that of film) the same as the flesh-and-blood hands themselves?

The Mystery of Picasso offers neither embellishment nor critique of its own rhetoric. It’s as if it’s engaged in a sleight of hand, making references to the artist’s body while systematically removing it from the very moment of artistic creation. In a weird way, the mechanical apparatus of the film camera assumes what should be, properly speaking, the physical place of the painter’s primary apparatus, his hands. It doesn’t take a giant leap of imagination to go one step further and wonder whether the director is usurping the role of painter.

It’s probably fitting then that Picasso is ultimately constrained by the limitations of the camera’s mechanics. In the film’s central visual “rupture,” about midway through what had been a seamless series of paintings, the camera lens suddenly fills the screen, front and center and in tight close-up (undoubtedly in conscious parallel to the placement of the painter’s paper medium throughout the film). A second camera then “shares” with the audience the dynamic of camera, director, and artist.

This is a powerful self-reflexive gesture but it is not, importantly, the beginning of a self-critique of Clouzot’s cinematic project. Rather, it functions almost like a pit-stop in which the director takes a step back from “Picasso-in-process,” and reaffirm the central and dominant role of director and camera in the overall organization of meaning.

Presented to the viewer in a medium shot are Picasso, his palate and paper, Clouzot looking over one of Picasso’s paintings, and the camera and cameraman presumably recording the “artistic event.” Turning to the cameraman, the director is informed that he has only 450 yards of film remaining in his current reel. In an almost imperious tone, like a foreman to a shop-worker, Clouzot lays down the laws of production to Picasso: “So let’s be clear. If anything happens, you stop. And I’ll do the same, since we have so little film left.” It’s clear that the film apparatus comes first, the predilections of the painter second. What could have been the beginning of a provocative dialectical dance between two creative agents, becomes instead an almost sinister affirmation of the control of the director.

There’s also a fair amount of talk throughout the film, concerning the painter’s “perilous journey” and the “risk” of the artistic creative process. It’s hard to imagine though, that there was much at risk for Picasso in being the subject for Clouzot’s film. Surely, even in 1956, when the film was first released, Picasso was supremely established, his once radical and avant gardist cubist aesthetic long since having achieved a safe and unassailable position within the artistic establishment. How can a work by Picasso, no matter how mundane, fail to achieve the status of a “Picasso” in 1956? Risk connotes the possibility of disaster, but surely disaster was never a possibility during the making of this film.

Yet, the film goes through the motions. During the rendering of the 19th, and penultimate, painting (the “failed” painting, “On the Beach No. 1”), Picasso makes grand allusions to the darkness of artistic failure: “All this is what I wanted to show: the truth revealed from within. It’s getting dark. It’s getting darker and darker. The moon… the stars… a shooting star. [The painting’s] really bad. I’ll get rid of the collage.”

But, as if assuring the audience that there was really never anything to fear, the threat of self-destruction turns out to be illusory, a charade. The artist, lost, suddenly finds the lighted path and, selecting a new sheet of paper, reveals in the final painting, “On the Beach No. 2,” the true meaning that resided, yes imperfectly but gloriously so, at the heart of the very failure he destroyed. A happy Hollywood ending for all.

In the closing moments of the film, Picasso comes shirtless before the camera and signs a large canvas with his name. Turning back to the camera, Picasso solemnly pronounces the words: “This is the end.” But of course, this is not Picasso’s film to end, it’s Clouzot’s. The words ring hollow, as if Picasso was playing the part of a ventriloquist’s dummy, forced to mouth words that were never his to begin with. Maybe Clouzot misspoke at the beginning of the film. Maybe he meant to say that we can only know the director by looking at his subjects.