Few painters have been as awe-inspiringly prolific as Pablo Picasso. One of the most influential and celebrated artists of the 20th century, his career spanned more than 80 of his 91 years, during which time he produced an estimated 50,000 works. His passionate nature and relentless creative drive were inextricably linked to his personal life, which included tumultuous marriages, numerous affairs and ever-shifting political and personal alliances. Constantly reinventing himself, Picasso always strove to innovate and push the boundaries of artistic expression, leading to his worldwide renown as a genius.
The second season of National Geographic’s Emmy-, Golden Globe-, and Screen Actor’s Guild Award-nominated 10-part global event series, Genius: Picasso, explores the Spanish expatriate’s devotion to his craft, his contribution to modern art and his turbulent personal life.
Antonio Banderas brings to life the artistic career of the titular artist: Pablo Diego José Francisco de Paula Juan Nepomuceno María de los Remedios Crispiniano de la Santísima Trinidad Ruiz Picasso.
Having played Picasso, what have you learned about the nature of genius?
The crew and I have been trying to describe or define what a genius is. It’s not easy. I suppose that it is somebody who does something very good that affects a very large number of people in the world — someone who has the capacity to change lives for good. Albert Einstein was in that group of people. I think Picasso is too, insomuch as we get affected by art and artists. They can change our lives and the perception that we have, and the reality that we live in. I think Picasso did this so very well, probably more than anybody in the 20th century.
Why did you want to tell Picasso’s story?
It has a lot to do with Málaga — my hometown where I was born and where Picasso was born too. He left Málaga a little bit younger than I did. We were, are, both artists, but I cannot compare myself with him. Nobody can. I was offered to play Picasso when I was younger. There was something that said to me, “No, no. You shouldn’t get in those shoes.” This particular time, it came with guarantees that we were going to tell the story as accurately to what his life was — his relationship with art and the world in which he was living. I decided to say yes.
You mentioned the “rosebud of Picasso.” What is that?
The other day, I asked one of our script writers, “What was the rosebud of Picasso?”—remembering the Orson Welles movie “Citizen Kane.” In the end, it was just a toy. Kane remembers the toy because he had it when he was very little, before he became powerful and a millionaire. I think probably toward the end of Picasso’s life, Málaga became his rosebud. It was the possibility to again see the light that he saw when he was a child, to walk on the beach that he walked on when he was a child, and see the buildings that surrounded him when he was a child. He couldn’t go back because Spain was under the dictatorship of Franco, who died two years after Picasso. It is a pity because when Franco died, all of those artists that had been exiled out of Spain came back — all of them. It was an honour for the country to receive them and recognise them: Rafael Alberti, Sanchez-Albornoz, writers and painters who could not live in their own country because of the dictatorship. Picasso never had this opportunity.
Why did you want to shoot in Málaga?
I insisted on it! I brought Ken Biller [executive producer and showrunner] to Málaga, and I took him to all the places where Picasso lived when he was a child. Ken agreed, and we shot for several days in Málaga. This was a gift to me and to the city. It has a very special meaning to us to bring Picasso back to the town that loves him.
Did you and Alex Rich [who plays the younger Pablo Picasso] work together to portray the same character at different periods in his life?
We had a lot of conversations before the start of the show. I was in London, and he was in Los Angeles. In truth, I think Alex has worked more with me than I worked with him because, quite simply, Picasso was Spanish, and I am Spanish. We are both from Málaga. I speak similar to the way Picasso spoke. Talking and accents are one of the most important features that an actor may use in creating authenticity. I think Alex more imitated me than I him, but we did discuss and talk about mannerisms that we both could use.
Did you watch any footage of Picasso?
There is very little footage of Picasso talking. You can see some documentaries where he is basically painting and moving in front of the camera, but not talking. I watched a couple of interviews, and I can see things that are happening there that I’m trying to incorporate into the character. There are a couple of moments that I can see his full body and how he walks. His walk is very characteristic. His feet are open. When I did a scene, and I did that kind of walking, immediately my whole body went into Picasso. I don’t know why. It’s very weird.
How did you transform into Picasso?
Two things that are very fundamental and have never been more fundamental in my career than they have been here on this show: One of them is makeup. I have never used prosthetics in the way that I am using them now. And prosthetics are a mask that you have to learn how to use. If you put them on and you just go and don’t look at yourself in the mirror and try to understand what is happening in your face and your expression, you are making a mistake. I’m trying to understand me, this new me, with this new mask and trying to move it, so it has that specific weight that I need for Picasso to have. It can be inconvenient, but I think that we’re working with excellent professionals in order to achieve Picasso.
How long does the makeup take?
Anywhere from two to five hours, depending on the age.
What is the other area in transforming into Picasso?
The other part that is helping me enormously is costumes. How I’m dressed is making me shorter, it’s making me wider, it’s making me more Picasso. As soon as I get into those pants, shirts, everything, it’s not only just re-creating the time but the person. It is actually making me Picasso. It’s reshaping my body. It’s very difficult to explain, but if I come here with my jeans and everything, I walk in a completely different way — I move in a completely different way. Then when I get in makeup and I put on my costume, I feel Picasso. These big, big parts of my Picasso are given to me by these magnificent professionals. It’s helping me a lot to find him.
Picasso was viewed as being sort of a rebel. He has that rebellious spirit, and it is part of who he is and part of the story. If you could think of an anthem that he might have, whether it’s from contemporary music or music from his time or before, is there something that conveys the essence of Picasso?
He loved Spanish popular music, from what I understand. He loved flamenco. Flamenco is very rebellious and very open, and it’s a scream, in a way, for freedom. He embraced that. He also embraced paso doble, which is kind of very Spanish music danced by workers and the people. He feels very close to that type of music. Maybe those would be his anthems. I agree that Picasso is described as a rebel. He says it, actually. It’s verbalised in our show. Many times, he says, “I don’t have rules.” And he creates the rules as he goes, and they may change with the time, depending on a given moment. He may just change all of those rules continuously, which happens in his art, too. One of the features of Picasso as an artist is that he practices many different styles. There are magnificent painters, like Matisse, who was admired by Picasso. He admired many other painters. But they all pretty much stayed in their own style from the beginning of their lives. Picasso? No. Picasso just practiced everything. He did impressionism, expressionism, cubism, surrealism. Everything has a very strong value. I feel toward the end of his life he found the key he was actually looking for, the child that he prayed to be some day. In the end, he paints literally like a little kid— very simple forms, very simple shapes and simple colors. It’s extraordinary: When he was 14, 15, 16 years old, he was painting like Velazquez already.
What is your opinion of Picasso as a person?
I have my personal opinions, but I tried not to bring it on set with me. I think it’s a mistake if I try to establish a morality on his character. I don’t want to think about the morality of Pablo Picasso, why he did or didn’t do things, because the circumstances were different than the ones that we are living today. The show is going to show that the characters were living in a completely different time. This is a man who was born in 19th century Spain. The relationship between men and women was completely different from the one that we have today.
What about Picasso’s relationship with women? How was that expressed in the show?
The relationship with the women is interesting. Sometimes he’s very harsh with them, and it actually moves me. I don’t want to be like that. I remember a scene I had to play in which he was really hard on Dora Maar (Samantha Colley). That’s probably the relationship that hurts the most to me, Dora. I think Dora loved him completely, but she was too obsessed. If you were obsessed around Picasso, he rejected that. She probably didn’t realise that about him. He preferred somebody who allowed him to have freedom. If there is some kind of possession feelings around him, he escapes. He just goes away. It’s very painful. At the same time, Picasso, when you study his life, you see that he never stops taking care of all of them. Almost like he kept them in a closet. Francoise Gilot said that. “He just keeps all his women in a closet and he just brings them out when he needs them.” It’s ugly but he couldn’t avoid it. He needed all of them. I think he was in love with all of them. But how can you do that? How can you live with all of this array of women? It’s not logical. It’s not. Even for him, but he has this fight inside. I tried to show those moments of tribulations in the show, even if they are not written. It’s extraordinary. And at the same time, you can judge it in many different ways, in terms of morality, but I still save him. I’m sorry. I have to do it. I think he was absolutely sincere and he did exactly what he felt in the moment that he felt in love.
What drove Picasso?
I think Picasso actually never stopped being an artist during the 24 hours of the day of the 91 years that he lived. He treated life as art — because he knew of the influence that real life had on his painting and everything that he did. If you look at it from that point of view, you may understand some of his relationships. Yes, there were muses. He worked his whole life to never stop being a kid, to not become a mature person. He didn’t have to. He allowed himself to create a life in a bubble in which he lived, and he didn’t have to respect the rules of society, the society in which he was living. It’s very interesting because as he’s getting older, he’s getting more and more modern. Picasso didn’t have all of those barriers, the shields in front of him. Picasso was just absolutely sincere, at any moment. When he uses lies, it’s just a game. It’s just a game to obtain something — and it’s kind of funny for him. He always behaved like a kid. And kids can sometimes be really cruel.
When people think of a genius, sometimes the first thing they think of is a scientist, like Einstein. Is Picasso more understandable to a modern audience?
It’s interesting because when I saw the first season of Genius with Albert Einstein, when I was watching it, I was thinking, I don’t know if they are treating the life of Albert Einstein as a scientist or as an artist? Why? Because we forget something about scientists, and it’s that they have to use their intuition, as an artist does, and their creativity, as an artist does. It’s very important that they do that. They have to actually just take those steps ahead and risk, in a way, feeling that there is something behind that page that nobody has turned. At some point, I remember joking with Ken Biller about the possibility of treating the life of Picasso as a scientist. But the life of Picasso is more complicated than that. It also has theories of relativity that have to do with art and his personal life, and especially his relationship with women.