Classics Illustrated 

“The Mystery of Picasso” offers a rare glimpse into the great man's art.

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"I'm not concerned with the camera. I'm just doing this as if I were at home,” Pablo Picasso says toward the end of “The Mystery of Picasso,” a fly-on-the-wall documentary by director Henri-Georges Clouzot that reveals more about the great man's creative process than a hundred art history classes ever could. 

The movie, screening as part of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts' “Friday Films” series this week, is a lively, don't-miss companion to the museum's history-making Picasso exhibit. Here we get to take in 20 extra works by the master, creations infinitely more obscure and ephemeral than the ones across the hall — they no longer exist. Picasso himself was keen to destroy the work so that they would survive only on the finished film. For this unusual project, a new type of transparent canvas was brought in so that the artist could work on one side and cameraman Claude Renoir — the grandson of painter Pierre Auguste Renoir — could film on the other.

All protests to the contrary, Picasso proves himself a natural on celluloid, drawing and redrawing, starting in one place and ending in another, using the medium to reveal and disguise. Shirtless and gnomic, clutching paintbrushes and sneaking cigarette puffs, he comes up with a splendid series of sketches, paintings and collages that tell stories, scene by scribbled scene. Sometimes we watch his pen line move in real time, at other times (with more ambitious works), the details pop into the frame, stop-motion style, as Picasso draws, erases, alters and adds details.

It's a fascinating look at how an artist creates — an unusual experiment that originally bombed internationally at the box office but copped a special jury prize at the Cannes Film Festival. “It's what animation should be but isn't,” remembered New Yorker critic Pauline Kael, who called “Mystery” one of the greatest films of all time. Not everyone was so enthralled — The New York Times' Bosley Crowther said the whole affair was an “artistic stunt.”

And it was. But Picasso picked just the right collaborator to help pull it off. Director Clouzot, often referred to as the French Alfred Hitchcock, was a specialist in setting a mood (see “The Wages of Fear” and “Diabolique”) and rejected conventional documentary language. Except for some corny narration at the beginning, “Mystery” is mostly a sleek, streamlined 76 minutes of a great artist at work. We get little of the man's studio, nothing of his personal life. The only enforced drama comes from George Auric's terrific, jazz-influenced score, which alternates Spanish melodies with heavy drum solos to sometimes thrilling effect.

Clouzot shows off his cinematic trademarks — timing and suspense. At one point, he directs Picasso to finish one painting before the reel runs out, and it's touch and go if the artist is going to make it. With seconds left, Picasso has to mix some paint. “I cheated to give you more time,” Clouzot informs him before yelling cut. Starting up again with only seconds to spare, he radically changes everything at the very last instant. Then the work is wiped away and it's on to the next blank screen — where we might see a bullfighter being thrown, a cubist landscape set to tribal drums, a circus, a majestic donkey head, whatever Picasso dreams. But he's a tough self-audience; stopping to look at one painting, he declares it superficial. “I want to do something more dangerous,” he says.

Paced like a thriller, “The Mystery of Picasso” ends on a discordant note that fits with Clouzot's penchant for downbeat film noir. In one of the final scenes, Picasso invests considerable time in a colorful magnum opus, a work that begins something like an elaborate vacation postcard and transforms itself several times, not always for the better. The creator is dissatisfied. “It is bad, very bad,” he says. He works and works until, finally, he hits on something he likes. But the effort has been exhausting and he's still not sure about it.

Picasso and Clouzot debate ending the film right there. “You wanted drama and now you have it,” the painter says.

“But at the end of the film, it's annoying,” the director remarks candidly. “What about the audience?”

“I've never concerned myself with them,” the 75-year-old Picasso tells his friend.  “And I'm not about to start at my age.” 76 min. S

“The Mystery of Picasso” will screen at the Leslie Cheek Theater at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, 200 N. Boulevard, on Feb. 25 at 6:30 p.m. Tickets are $7; $5 for members. For information, go to vmfa.museum/FridayFilms.

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