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Last Night, I Watched Picasso Paint


by Stephen Becker 19 Jun 2009

It’s pretty rare that I would describe a film as “mind blowing,” though that term is thrown around pretty loosely by some critics. And it’s not for lack of opportunity with me, as I see 70 or so movies a year. Thursday night, though, I saw a film that blew my mind. Samuell Lynne Galleries […]

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picassoIt’s pretty rare that I would describe a film as “mind blowing,” though that term is thrown around pretty loosely by some critics. And it’s not for lack of opportunity with me, as I see 70 or so movies a year.

Thursday night, though, I saw a film that blew my mind.

Samuell Lynne Galleries kicked off its Motion Picture Masterpiece Nights series with The Mystery of Picasso, a French film that debuted at the Cannes Film Festival in 1956.  The movie itself could not be simpler – director Henri-Georges Clouzot documents Picasso painting a series of canvases in an empty studio. The genius lies in the execution. Cinematographer Claude Renoir (his grandfather is the Impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste) trains his camera on the back of a translucent paper, which fills the entire frame.

At first, Picasso creates some fairly simple line drawings in real time. With each stroke, you find yourself wondering where this is going. (“Is that the beginning of a table? No, it’s a picture frame. Oh, I see, it’s a window!”) Later, he brings out the oils to paint more complex scenes, which are shown in time lapse as bits of the work are added.  When the piece is finished, the viewer is allowed to contemplate it for 10 seconds or so before a wipe comes from the left and a new canvas appears. Very little dialogue occurs in the film; instead, a diverse score plays as the works unfold.

The result is a stroke-by-stroke look at the inner-workings of a master’s mind. Not being a painter myself, I had always figured that artists saw the picture in their heads and then just painted what they saw. As the film illustrates, Picasso had a rough idea of where he wanted to go, but the final picture is really the result of several moment-by-moment reactions to how the piece is taking shape.

And sometimes, those ideas are really rough. One painting begins as a fish, morphs into a rooster and ultimately becomes a face that looks like it could belong to a cat. (This is still Picasso we’re talking about here.) At the end of the film, he creates a vacation scene at the beach that undergoes at least 15 incarnations that could have been the final image. Just as we become attached to the piece, its creator paints over it to take it in a different direction. It makes you wonder: Of his work in museums, how many masterpieces are painted under masterpieces?

An added bonus of the night was artist and emcee JD Miller, who co-owns Samuell Lynne with Phil Romano. Miller introduced the film and conducted a lively post-screening Q&A with the full house of 35 or so people. Having an accomplished artist in his own right offer his thoughts on one of his influences was an elightening look into both men.

And did I mention that wine and jellybeans are included in your $10 cover charge, which goes directly to Romano’s Hunger Busters charity? It should be noted that the wine can have a potential negative effect. At Thursday night’s event, two women sitting in the back talked and laughed during each of the film’s 78 minutes. It seemed odd that we were getting a rare chance to watch a true genius work, and yet these people found their own voices to be more interesting. But I digress …

So many people signed up for Thursday night’s screening, that there is talk that a second showing will take place on July 9. If you’re looking for a cheap (and legal) way to have your mind blown, make your reservations today.

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  • I loved and made me cry.

  • Jennifer

    I was there, too! I agree that it was an eye-opening film and something that would probably benefit from a second watching.