Although Pablo Picasso was a man of boundless ego and ambition, well aware from an early age of his preternatural artistic skill, he never declared himself a genius. In fact, he was suspicious of the notion, which he believed was too easily equated with fame. Of course, an abundance of both forces shaped the artist, who is brought convincingly, passionately to life by Antonio Banderas in season two of National Geographic’s series Genius: Picasso, premiering on 24 April. Across ten episodes and a shifting chronology, viewers will meet Picasso as a boy in Málaga, where he was born. Banderas is also from Málaga, and the actor insisted on filming there, bringing viewers into the very house where Picasso was born and to the local arena where his father took him to watch the bullfights that would inspire his art.
We follow the young Picasso (played by Alex Rich) to Barcelona and then Paris, where he and his poet friends lived a squalidly glorious bohemian existence. In sharp contrast, the financially secure, middle-aged artist (Banderas) occupied villas in the south of France, painting a succession of women – Marie-Thérèse Walter, Dora Maar, Françoise Gilot and Jacqueline Roque – whose individual personalities and overlapping relationships with the capricious and temperamental Picasso form the emotional center of the Genius series.
Banderas has been tantalizingly close to playing Picasso before. One production was announced a few years ago, but never got off the ground, and early in his career, Banderas was offered the role but declined, feeling that as a young actor, he wasn’t ready to play a figure he idolized. Picasso “was the part I rejected the most,” said Banderas, who appeared in New York on 19 April to discuss the series along with fellow cast members Alex Rich and T.R. Knight (who portrays the poet Max Jacob). Also present was Samantha Colley, who smolders as the complex Dora Maar, a photographer who struggled to carve out an identity for herself apart from Picasso. (The next woman in his life, Françoise Gilot, here played by Clémence Poésy, a talented artist in her own right, faced similar challenges, eventually leaving Picasso.) When Marr met him in 1936, Picasso was still involved with Marie-Thérèse Walter (Poppy Delevingne), the blonde teenager he spotted on a Paris street in 1927. Walter would be the model for some of Picasso’s most sensuous paintings, including Le Repos, 1932, a highlight of Sotheby’s upcoming Impressionist & Modern Art Evening Sale (14 May, New York).
The two women were never supposed to meet, but inevitably their paths crossed in Picasso’s studio. He refused to choose between them, telling them to resolve it for themselves; a now-legendary catfight ensued. Picasso would later say that he savored the memory of the confrontation, which made its way into an episode of the series (and what screenwriter could possibly omit such a made-for-TV moment?). It’s a shocking and visceral moment, made all the more raw because Delevingne and Colley, not stunt doubles, did the scene themselves. “I think Poppy won,” said Colley, joking. This palpable sense of authenticity was crucial to Banderas, who threw himself fully and physically into his role, even agreeing to shave his eyebrows to complete the transformation by Davina Lamont’s skillful application of prosthetics and makeup.
Deciding to finally play Picasso was like “jumping off a cliff,” Banderas said – and yet also somehow inevitable. At a leisurely ten episodes, Genius allows Banderas and his fellow actors to go deep into the complications of the life of a charismatic artist-god whose magnetic force pulled everyone into his orbit.
National Geographic’s Genius: Picasso premieres 24 April.