The Surrealist photographer Dora Maar once told John Richardson, the biographer of Pablo Picasso, her lover in the Thirties and Forties, that when a new woman entered the artist’s life, everything else changed: the style of his work, the coterie of friends, his poetic foil, even his dog. She, like most of the other women in Picasso’s life, was abandoned by him after a tempestuous few years together, when the painter Françoise Gilot caught his famously intense gaze.
Maar’s theory has become orthodoxy: it was the grounds for much of Richardson’s multi-volume biography, a project that, for all its remarkable insights and research, has drowned out alternative responses to the man and his work. Now, it’s very clearly the blueprint for the BBC’s three-parter marking the 50th anniversary of Picasso’s death, and indeed quoted by one of the talking heads, the Gagosian gallery’s Michael Cary.
And that’s the problem with the series, produced directed by John O’Rourke with Alice Perman as series director; it feels safe. The opening credits promise much, “50 years after his death, we need to talk about Picasso.” But the episodes feel surprisingly unenlightened by contemporary attitudes. In the wake of #MeToo, in the light of contemporary debates about colonial appropriations of and misunderstandings about objects from sub-Saharan Africa that inform his invention of cubism— the transformative movement of early modernism—this was a prime opportunity for a radical take on Picasso and his art.
What we get is a pretty straightforward biographical journey, with little equivalence to Richardson’s art historical acuity. There is plenty of analysis – and even psychoanalysis, thanks to Philippa Perry – of Picasso’s relationship with lovers, from Fernande Olivier in the early Parisian years, through Russian ballet-dancer wife Olga Khokhlova, to his young mistress Marie-Thérèse Walter, Maar, Gilot and his second wife, Jacqueline Roque, who survived him.
We hear about his tenderness and sexual appetites, relentless evidence of coercive control, and some domestic violence – he pressed a lit cigarette to Gilot’s cheek. We see how his different partners informed his work and its many phases. And we learn of the trail of death and tragedy in Picasso’s wake, not least the suicides of Walter and Roque, and those of Picasso’s son and grandson, after the artist’s death.
But I yearned for a sharper take. Partly this is to do with the use of the talking heads. It boasts about unprecedented access to family, friends and archives. But while the historical footage is wonderful and powerfully used, the relatives, aside from his ever-compelling daughter Paloma, give little insight and indeed perpetuate nebulous legends around Picasso’s genius: Diana, his granddaughter, suggests that, when it snowed on the day he was buried, “it was as if a mythical figure had passed away”.
Then, experts in his art, and art generally, are too little used. I wanted to hear more from Frances Morris, former Tate Modern director, Anne Umland from the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the critic Louisa Buck, and Gijs van Hensbergen, “biographer” of Picasso’s masterpiece Guernica. But the art feels somewhat secondary to the story. Sadly few of the works are filmed in situ, so we’re left with too many inadequate reproductions. As a result, you don’t get a feel for the physicality of his work, his use of materials, and why it was so revolutionary.
Cubism is rather inadequately explained – there’s no mention of the astonishing invention of collage in the later synthetic cubist period. The too-rare moments where art takes centre stage, as when there’s an analysis of Picasso’s responses to Velázquez’s Las Meninas, hint at a far more engaging alternative. Artists are undiverse and those that are here, including Jenny Saville and Jeff Koons, are underused.
Perhaps I am asking too much. If there was not so scandalously little BBC arts programming, or even if BBC Four was what it was, O’Rourke’s undoubtedly entertaining series might sit perfectly well alongside more confidently intellectual and polemical shows. But because Picasso: The Beauty and the Beast is all we have to mark this momentous anniversary, it feels like a missed opportunity.
Towards the end of the final episode, Anthony Penrose, son of Picasso’s friend, the artist, collector and writer Roland Penrose, opines that “we have to separate the work from the personality”. But should we? And if so, why? Is it even possible, when, as Picasso himself said, his work is like a diary, and even dated like one? These are questions the series leaves unanswered. If its aim was to “talk about Picasso”, it should have done so with more dynamism.
Picasso: The Beauty and the Beast will air from September 21 on BBC Two and iPlayer