Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

Genius: Picasso (Second Series)


The first of these planned series on the National Geographic Channel covered Einstein, who I think no one will disagree was the genuine article. Series three will be about Mary Shelley. I really wonder about that. Clearly they were desperately casting about for a female genius, and there’s no denying Ms. Shelley was smart, but genius? I don’t think so. A genius changes the way we look at the world. If we get one in a generation we’re lucky. And Shelley strikes me as tokenism, which I think does the subject no great service. It is not the fault of women that, until only a short time ago, they were oppressed and never given the chance to show what they were capable of, but that’s the fact, and proclaiming Mary Shelley the equal of Einstein is crazy. My opinion, you may view it as inclusionary.

The second series was about the life of Pablo Diego José Francisco de Paula Juan Nepomuceno María de los Remedios Cipriano de la Santísima Trinidad Ruiz y Picasso. Let’s just call him Picasso, okay? Some would argue his genius, too. They look at his crazed canvases and think “What the fuck?” As a younger man I did, too, but I hadn’t learned to look at his work. I learned how one night studying arguably his most famous creation: Guernica, the absolutely astonishing giant mural-sized canvas he painted, in black and white and gray, condemning the bombing by fucking German Nazis and fucking Spanish fascists under the command of Generalissimo Francisco Franco (who is still dead, I’m happy to say) of that Basque town in 1937. It is eleven feet by twenty-five feet, and the reproduction I was looking at was in a book, pretty small, but suddenly I could almost see the red blood dripping and hear the cries of the horse, the bull, and the dismembered people. I then knew what it was all about. It was a powerful moment. I wish I could see the original, but wonder if I could take it.

So I am a big fan of Pablo, though I have to laugh at the prices his works command. Even his signature is precious to collectors. He used to pay for things by check, knowing very few people would cash them because his signature was worth more than the charge. But that’s true of all art these days, and modern art in particular. Just last year a piece of garbage by Jean-Michel Basquiat, surely one of the most over-rated artists of all time, sold for $110,000,000. But don’t get me started on pickled hammerhead sharks floating in formaldehyde and other offenses against art!

The problem with this, as with the Einstein series, is that neither man led a particularly exciting life. With Albert it was all about sitting around thinking. With Pablo it was standing around slinging paint. Neither activity readily lends itself to drama. Einstein and Picasso both were threatened by the fucking Nazis (Picasso wasn’t Jewish, but his art was “degenerate”), but nothing really dramatic happened to them. I don’t want to come off as desiring car chases and gun battles, but really, it is a challenge to dramatize the process of discovering the laws of relativity, or of applying paint to canvas. In my opinion the writers and actors of Einstein made it work fairly well, but not so much this time. The narrative jumps back and forth between Pablo’s days as a struggling young artist and his later life, when he was the most famous painter in the world, and a general asshole, at least where women were concerned. And it just couldn’t sustain my interest. I didn’t like the old man much. We stopped watching after three episodes.

Maybe the Shelley series will be more interesting. Not that watching a woman dip pen into inkwell and scratch out words on paper is likely to be interesting, but she and hubby Percy and that skank Lord Byron and some others had some pretty hot times in Geneva while she wrote Frankenstein: or, the Modern Prometheus. I can hardly wait.