Henri-Georges Clouzot’s The Mystery of Picasso (1956) is probably best regarded as a fascinating failure, but a failure all the same. It’s a documentary that works on the debatable assertion that all one needs to do is watch the artist’s hands to understand the workings of his mind. To this end, Clouzot filmed Picasso painting with the aid of some camera trickery and special transparent “canvases.” If it reveals anything about the mystery of Picasso’s mind, it escaped me, but the mere fact of watching Picasso at work gives the film an appeal that transcends that shortcoming.
The film’s big notion of the special canvas is also its big problem. The idea is that you can see the painting take shape in front of your eyes since it can be seen through the canvas. This is not only a gimmick, it’s a gimmick that’s apt to make those of us old enough to remember it think of “Magic Drawing Board” on Captain Kangaroo. “Magic Drawing Board” was premised on 3-year-olds being amazed by seeing a picture appear before their eyes—even if it wasn’t much more than a Magic Marker bleeding through a piece of paper. Clouzot’s idea comes across much the same way, which results in a sort of art-for-toddlers experience. It’s not exactly compelling viewing.
More interesting is the manner in which Clouzot plays with color and the shape of his film, blending color and black-and-white, and Cinemascope and flat ratios. This actually does show you something you don’t see very often. And then there’s Picasso himself. Yes, the business of producing art-on-camera is a stunt (not that Picasso was above a stunt) and, no, the paintings (supposedly destroyed after the film) aren’t among his best works. But what’s amazing is how quickly—it only takes a few lines—what you’re looking at is so clearly the work of Picasso. The film may demonstrate no more than that, but that’s something worthwhile in itself.