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Archie Rand Chosen To Narrate Reissue of Classic Documentary, The Mystery of Picasso

By Colin Morris

As Picasso paints, the camera films the opposite side of the thin canvas whereby the brush strokes of the painter can be witnessed in real time.

When Archie Rand speaks, one can visualize the flow of his ideas as if they are being splashed on to a canvas. For this reason, among many others, the accomplished painter and visual arts professor was chosen to narrate a rare cinematic glimpse into the master craft of one of the 20th century's most influential painters: Pablo Picasso.

The film, The Mystery of Picasso has an interesting past. Henri-Georges Clouzot filmed the painter in 1955 using a new approach to capture Picasso in action. The director filmed a thin canvas from behind, enabling the viewer to see the actual stoke method and style of the painter in real time. The result is an unprecedented account of Picasso's mind and technique as the artist brings various works to life. After being out of print for over ten years, Milestone Films, a boutique distribution company in New Jersey, restored and digitized the film, which has been dubbed a national treasure by France, for international release on DVD.  Milestone, which had previously negotiated the rights to the overlooked classic, received many requests for the film before it was restored.  When asked where the inquirers had heard of the film, almost all conceded that they had seen it in Rand's classes at Columbia.  Milestone decided to ask Rand to record a narrative track for the film, discussing Picasso's style and process as he creates his art through a manner few in the public have ever witnessed. In the original version of the film there is no commentary and little dialogue. A score was composed for the film, each painting receiving it's own playful musical composition.

Rand describes Picasso's technique and approach with much fervor and authority. The professor explains that, in regards to earlier reviews and criticism of the film, "I didn't think that the core tangents I considered as being most important in the film were really being covered -- that you're watching one the greatest masters in the history of Western art actually think. It's an unbelievable experience. What I try to explain through commenting on it is that it can really be a helpful experience."

In the film Picasso employs a wide range of brush styles, paints and subjects. Some of the earlier works in the film appear similar to gesture-drawing exercises -- often featured in introductory drawing classes -- with Picasso actually illustrating painters working on subjects.  As the film progresses, Picasso starts working on a larger scale using full amounts of oil paints and filling the canvases with reoccurring themes of more personal importance.

Rand believes that a key theme in being able to understand Picasso's technique through the benefit of real time is the painter's narrative emphasis.  Indeed, through the engaging process of watching the master paint, such torrential changes are made to pieces as they are created that a narrative rarely seen before comes to life through Picasso's thought process.

Yet the final product wields no fewer narrative qualities as a freestanding work. "It is always about the story," Rand explains, "and that's an amazing lesson. And he never veers from that." Rand finds Picasso is ultimately being selfless and giving by allowing an audience such intimate access to his way of thinking and creation.

"What I found in this film is that Picasso is doing something that none of his biographers ever give him credit for -- in fact it's just the opposite: an absolute flood of affection and generosity." In regards to critics who focus on what they perceive as egotistical bravado on display, Rand explains, "I see showmanship -- but it's the kind that artists use to educate. And education in its best sense is an act of affection and caring."

Published: Apr 17, 2003
Last modified: Apr 16, 2003

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