Thanks to his 'diary' -- a superb portrait of Picasso
New York — "My works are a form of diary. . . . I have painted my autobiography," said Pablo Picasso. But the man kept written diaries as well. And his friends and critics kept records in their heads and on paper, too.
Thus our society is being accorded the privilege of viewing hundreds of his works at the retrospective on view at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, May 22 through Sept. 16. But it is also being accorded the more convenient and perhaps even more revealing privilege of learning about this modern master and his work in a film which should be regarded as a required supplement to a visit to the show or as a substitute for those who may not be able to see the show at all: "Picasso -- A Painter's Diary" (PBS, Monday June 2, 8- 9:30 p.m., check local listings for premiere and repreats -- thanks to the programming wisdom of WNET/NY, the funding judgment of IBM, the directorial ability of Perry Miller Adato, and an amazingly lean script by Jean-Claude van Itallie,
Unfortunately I was able to preview the retrospective at the MOMA the day before I previewed the 90-minute film, which was made with the cooperation of the French National Museums and the Museum of Modern Art. I came out of the museum dazed, puzzled, impressed. But after viewing the film I felt that, if I still did not appreciate everything Picasso did, at least I now understood what he was trying to do -- and why.
"Painter's Diary" is filled with marvelous talking heads doing what they do best -- talking -- about Picasso.
There is daughter Paloma and son Claude, Joan Miro, photographer David Douglas Duncan, and MOMA director William Rubin. There are friends, neighbors, critics, writers, all of whom are seemingly eager to add to the Picasso legend. And there are sketchbooks, newsreels, family album photos, as well as Duncan's superb collection. There are Picasso paintings and drawings and sculptures and notebook sketches. But, most important in addition to the Picasso work, there are the Picasso words brought to vivid life by Hector Elizandro.
Some quotes from Picasso's own diaries, notebooks, interviews, writings:
"It has taken me my whole life to learn to paint like a child."
"I have never hesitated to take from other painters anything I want. But I have a horror of copying myself."
"It has always been this way with me -- the critics say I am very good, and when I change my style, very bad."
"Painting was my form of exorcism."
"Fame is the castigation by God of the artist.'
"Wealth disgusts me. Thank God for having given me poverty for part of my life."
"When I paint, all the painters that are or ever were are watching."
"At first there were so few who understood you -- and later when you are acclaimed there are still few."
Throughout this film there are the words of those who knew, loved, observed, perhaps even resented or envied Picasso. In general the comments are as revealing of the observer as they are of the man Picasso. Said Gertrude Stein about the portrait of herself which she sat for 80 times only to see Picasso erase the head and much later inset the head from memory:
"It is the only I for me."
Said Jean Cocteau who collaborated with Picasso on the ballet "Parade":'
"He is the most sacred of all the sacred monsters."
Both daughter Paloma and son Claude reveal much about themselves as they tell stories of how their father somehow always managed to find time for the family without slowing his phenomenal output of work, sometimes, according to Paloma, going to a beach picnic with them and eventually turning the leftover food into a sculpture. Claude reveals just a little resentment in his story of how his father would sometimes raid the boy's stockpile of discarded toys in order to make a sculpture -- toys which Claude might have had some use for himself.
"Picasso -- A Painter's Diary" is as intimate as it is objective, as revealing as it somehow refuses to invade certain private areas of his life (preferring to go with the man as he saw himself as well as how others saw him). There are as many inconsistencies in Picasso the man as there are in Picasso the artist. And this superb film is like Picasso himself in that it has many styles to suit its subject, its period, its moods. This is true of the fascinating music tracks as well.
Said Picasso: "Painting is a question -- it alone gives the answer."
For laymen and casual art appreciators who have become accustomed to seeing the many styles of Pablo Picasso in museums, in reproductions in homes or books, this film is an extraordinary opportunity to be helped with "the answer." It is the quintessential art film -- allowing you to meet and understand the man as well as the artist. By all means see it before you brave long lines at the Museum of Modern Art. And, if you are not going to see the Picasso retrospective, you can feel confident that the film alone has solved the old Ad Reinhardt question of the man looking at a modern painting and saying: "And what do you represent?" And the painting looking back at the man and saying: "And what do youm represent?"
"Picasso -- A Painter's Diary" proves once and for all that a Picasso work represents Picasso -- and, as one of the many experts in the film says: "What he did was a summing up of the entire history of painting."
If you watch only one television show this season, let it be "Picasso -- A Painter's Diary."