The boy who became a man who became a god


PORTRAIT of the artist as a young rule-breaker: Picasso’s 1906 self portrait, a precursor to cubism and expressionism. Photograph courtesy

The name ‘Pablo Picasso’ has become idiomatic for so much: from superficial reflections on talent to car brands. But its associations have also become so completely flattened into a very narrow understanding of what this artist was all about, and why his work was important to the world. Phil Grabsky’s visit to the earliest works of this child prodigy offers very detailed and interesting insights into the boy who became the man who became the icon. Young Picasso is a deeply engaging filmed experience, but it is not for everyone.

If you get a rush out of genuine storytelling that doesn’t stoop to trying to ‘sexify’ itself to keep your focus, and rests on the opinion of experts to ensure its correctness, you will love this work and you will want to savour its every minute. Uncompromisingly about the art, the piece is direct and clear, informed and meaty. It is, however, formulaic, as a work like this must be, featuring talking heads and gentle music. Consequently the story it tells is through the eyes of academics in museums and filming the act of looking at the works themselves.

Born in 1881 to a man who was an art teacher, Pablo Ruiz had support in his craft from day one. The family was not wealthy, but 100% support from a parent can be worth more than mere money. Indeed the film, which takes you through Picasso’s youth in Málaga, a small village in Spain, to his presentation in Barcelona and later, Paris, where things were happening, explains Picasso’s lack of a secular education, and describes the energy of the artworld around him as he moved and shook all that art was about.

As the trajectory of the Picasso story unfolds, you are exposed to Picasso’s explosive revelations around an African aesthetic, and the producer takes you by the hand through some of the more complex findings around works such as Picasso’s very famous (and maybe the most important work of his career) Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, which he finished in 1906: a painting which effectively drove the whole prospect of art history into a new and unexplored direction.

Trailing off at Picasso’s other tremendous work, Guernica (1937), the film is jam-packed with artworks from all over the world: Picasso produced an estimated 50 000 works in the 92 years he had on this earth. And this focus is the unapologetic edge of the film. You are not exposed to what was happening in the world when Picasso made his portraits as a teenager. You do not feel the cultural texture of society when Picasso was consorting with prostitutes in Paris in the late 1890s and, similarly, you do not feel the looming presence of war in 1906 when there were frenetic movements in western art, movements which were socially conscious as they were technologically seduced.

And while artists of the ilk of Paul Gauguin (1848-1903), Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780-1867) and Henri de Toulouse Latrec (1864-1901) are touched upon, the whole rich cacophonous network of people who were working concurrently with Picasso, from a theatre and a music perspective, as well as painters, sculptors and printmakers, is glossed over. But these are not flaws in the work’s texture. Picasso (who died in 1973) was so prolific and huge in all the periods of his life that a documentary on him has to make clear editorial decisions.

So you come away from this work with a very cohesive understanding of the fact that art is not simply drawing well, and that an understanding of the value of art in society is more akin to that of magic than that of likeness. It’s a thorough project, which reaches deep and shows much.

  • Young Picasso is directed and produced by Phil Grabsky and features creative input by Stephen Baysted and Susan Legg (music) and Clive Mattock (editor). Release date at Cinema Nouveau, Ster Kinekor: June 1 2019. It has just four scheduled screenings between June 1 and June 6.


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