In the aftermath of the Holocaust and Hiroshima, the art documentary underwent an unprecedented flowering across Europe. Although T.W. Adorno had proclaimed that, after Auschwitz, poetry was barbarism, an intense interrogation of life-affirming creativity swept through Europe. To reassert the “humanity” of humankind became an urgent issue. Before the advent of television, the cinema seemed to be the best medium to sensitize the mass public to creativity—a gift which, besides language and thought, is absolutely unique to being human. Yet the use of painting in film triggered a wave of hostility among art historians. How could the nonhuman, inanimate eye of the camera have any respect for the touch of the painter’s hand? How could the hand of the film editor cut into pieces a work of art, regardless of its internal logic? For the art world, film editing was a mechanical procedure which could destroy the artist’s style.
It was especially the prominent French critic André Bazin who defended the cinema against art history’s objections. His charge was not to elevate the status of film, but to prove that this popular medium could move beyond an educational approach. By associating the art documentary with an avant-garde sensibility, Bazin looked for a symbiosis between cinema and painting. The art documentary was a paradoxical project, for it combined two extreme and allegedly incompatible definitions of creativity. The value of art lies in its power to produce the most unique forms, as well as in the way it can channel the maximum of self-expression. Yet, in the case of the documentary film in general, art’s subjective creativity meets the most supposedly “objective” of nonfictional genres.
Given such high stakes, how could anyone dare to plan an art documentary about a sacred monster like Pablo Picasso? Many filmmakers—among them: Luciano Emmer (Italy), Paul Haesaerts (Belgium), and Alain Resnais (France)—took on this formidable challenge. Despite the beautiful text by Paul Éluard, read in voice-over by actress Maria Casarès, Bazin was quick to criticize Resnais’s Guernica (1950) for having mixed together different periods of the artist’s work. In contrast to this negative evaluation, Bazin did not hesitate to celebrate Henri-Georges Clouzot’s The Mystery of Picasso (1956). Recipient of an award at the Cannes Film Festival, this was the most philosophical film ever made about the trope of the artist at work in his studio. Indeed the word “mystery” is appropriate for Clouzot’s title. Human creativity is so profoundly intertwined with a person’s essence that neither words nor images can ever fully disclose its mysterious process.
In his review, Bazin argued that The Mystery of Picasso was a “Bergsonian” film; that is, a work inspired by Henri Bergson (1859-1941), a turn-of-the-century French philosopher for whom modernity was characterized by an excess of technology and an overvaluing of science. For Bergson, time, qualities, and intuition relate to art, whereas space, quantities, and intellect belong to science. The latter’s usefulness does not eliminate the death-bound nature of human life. To be sure, we can control time through clocks, but this is only an artificial solution that cannot intuitively sense the creative energy that keeps the whole universe pulsing. Within this cosmological framework, for Bergson, art, much more than science, is a mysterious form of life that creates more life in us and around us.
The Mystery of Picasso re-orients the pictorial canvas from space and surface towards time and depth. A well-known director of thrillers or “mysteries” that systematically reject a logical solution, Clouzot injects spectacle and suspense into his film about Picasso. This particular artist, in turn, was the right choice because he loved risk, chance, and surprise. With his static camera, no voice-over narration, and a musical score by Georges Auric, Clouzot records the metamorphosis of one sketch turning into another: A scene of seduction between man and woman paves the way for a bullfight. Later, a Trojan horse precedes a beachscape with the elongated size of a Cinemascope frame. There, the playfulness of appearances and disappearances depends on a stop-motion animation technique, which neither impacted the size of the canvas nor altered Picasso’s rhythm of execution.
Since the film was originally shot in black and white, the shapes of forms stand out even more forcefully. Meanwhile, the introduction of color signifies “painting,” without ever mixing itself with the dark space of a windowless film studio. Without altering the spatial integrity of Picasso’s evolving surfaces, Clouzot’s accelerated montage limits itself to the elimination of the stages in between the end of one iconographic series and the beginning of the next. This approach did record faithfully Picasso’s real time drawing, erasing, and coloring, while it stressed the unpredictable and automatic self-confidence of the artist’s strokes. As if the latter were not even borne out of his hand, dots, lines, arrows, patches, loops, and scratches seem to appear all by themselves. Sitting directly across from Clouzot’s camera and hidden behind a special kind of paper ready to soak up ink, Picasso created sketches that appear organic.
By the end of the film, thanks to a second camera operated by Claude Renoir, we see the painter and the director standing in front of one another. They decide to take one more risk by sharing an extremely tight temporal framework to test the painter’s speed. This meant that the painter would generate one last series of sketches in sync with the length of the filmstrip left inside Clouzot’s camera. Picasso’s time, the internal time of creativity, becomes visible in competition with a measurable and small quantity of celluloid. It is as if Clouzot had stepped back into the days of early cinema, when the minutes of shooting had to match the quantity of film in meters. Picasso’s rhythm in real time matched the length of Clouzot’s film, rolling inside his black box. Instead of a race, this experiment became a two-way encounter based on mutual respect.
Although Picasso’s art relied on the hand and Clouzot’s medium is a machine, the cooperation of these two real friends here defeated the potential selfishness of celebrities.
Picasso and Clouzot lived as neighbors in southern France and helped each other during this ambitious project.
Clouzot’s use of a screen to hide Picasso’s presence triggers an unusual reversal of art into science, and of celebrity into modesty. The screen absorbing Picasso’s inks recalls the opaque plate of an x-ray device onto which the artist’s mental life can begin to look like an anonymous scientific documentary of visual cells in process. Despite the civilizing mission of art and cinema, by 1956, The Mystery of Picasso barely had time to revamp empathy for the universality of the human condition before the good intentions of the postwar period quickly degenerated into the war, blood, and suffering of the Cold War, the Korean War, and the Algerian crisis.