Painting has earned a bad rap among film makers because of its sedentary nature. It just sits there, forcing the camera to do all the work by searching its surfaces for insights into the passion and virtuosity that created it.
One obvious way to inject life into art is to film it in process. French film producer Henri-Georges Clouzot didn't discover that, but he proved himself a master of the genre in his 1955 work "The Mystery of Picasso." After 25 years of being out of distribution, the film of Picasso at work opens Friday at the Samuel Goldwyn Pavilion Cinema in the Westside Pavilion shopping center.
Clouzot not only takes you into Picasso's den (actually a film studio in Nice), he strips away all obstructions--including the artist. You see the master at beginning and end, and occasionally mixing inks or talking with cameramen, but most of the footage consists of white sheets of paper being transformed into artworks.
Dots grow into lines that become images of bullfights, reclining nudes and studio interiors. The magical process is the result of Claude Renoir's filming from the back of absorbent paper, which allows ink to completely penetrate its surface.
Instead of being distracted by the artist's hand or studio trappings, you hear the sound of drawing tools on paper and see how a few confident lines can become an artist-and-model scenario or how a bunch of flowers can turn into a smiling fish, then a chicken and finally the horned face.
Even creative genius can get boring if it becomes repetitive. Clouzot sidesteps that possibility by adding George Auric's music and changing pace from instant creations to more complex compositions. Soon whole lines and blocks of color and pattern appear in a dazzling parade of visual evolution. This is film about aesthetic decisions, but they happen so fast that the point is almost lost in the fascinating spectacle.
You want to stop the action when the artist nearly kills a drawing with heavy-handed shading, but as the ink lightens you see what he was after. Not that Picasso is portrayed as infallible. In an amusing sequence, he furiously reworks a seaside scene until he finally buries it in mucky pigment and cheerfully starts over.
Producing this lighthearted film was a harrowing business for Picasso, who had to engage in a customarily private act with an audience of technicians, adapt to their schedule and work under scorching lights, constantly stopping and starting for photography. Fortunately, the film shows none of these travails, so you are alone with the art in fluid process.
During the course of the 85-minute film, Picasso produces about 20 whimsical, muscular, sexy artworks. According to an agreement between the him and Clouzot, all were burned at the conclusion of the filming.
There is a survivor, however: a painted black-and-white wood sculpture called "Centaur" made at the end of filming incorporating the artist's easel, wooden camera boxes and parts of camera equipment. The sculpture, which has a bit part at the end of the movie, is on display at the County Museum of Art (through March 9), near the Ahmanson building entrance.
According to the museum's press office, the sculpture was long thought to have been destroyed, but it was actually owned by the artist's son Claude. Television producer and museum trustee David Wolper bought "Centaur" from him in 1982 and recently gave it to the museum.
The half-man, half-horse assemblage is no masterpiece, but it is a marvelously spirited sculpture that epitomizes Picasso's witty facility for making art of anything within his reach. In this case, he spoofs a Greek mythological figure in a gawky, black-and-white form made of film equipment. The head, perched high atop a skinny neck, is a lens box. The neck and front legs are a light stand, while back legs come from a painter's easel. Striped patterns for ribs and bones suggest filmstrips.
The "Centaur" has the flimsy look of something Picasso knocked out in a couple of spare minutes, but it's actually a very sure composition that shares the film's overlay of images. Both horse and man, the ungainly beast has a funny face on his breast and human arms flailing above it.
"Centaur" is crudely made and, like a theater set, meant to be seen from one side only, but that's part of its charm. Like a flawed hero, it lumbers along looking flamboyant, absurd and recognizably human.