Last year, National Geographic’s anthology series Genius earned 10 wide-ranging Emmy nominations for its stunning inaugural outing, which explored Albert Einstein’s personal and professional evolution. The series returns this month to spotlight another enigmatic intellect: prolific Spanish artist and proud bohemian Pablo Picasso.
Like its predecessor, Genius: Picasso features two actors in the titular role — GLOW’s Alex Rich and movie star Antonio Banderas, this time — to capture the freethinker’s nine-decade life, a vast and colorful canvas of shifting personal and political alliances, fraught romances and astoundingly disparate artistic styles.
Banderas’ connection to Picasso traces back to his youth in their shared hometown of Málaga, Spain, where he used to pass the artist’s childhood home on his way to school. “I am talking about a time in Spain in which we didn’t have too many international heroes,” says Banderas, who rejected pre-Genius offers to play his countryman. “So, I grew up with this projection of this huge artist who was capable to make the people all around the world fall in love with his art.”
And to fall in love anew as he moved through his legendary artistic periods, which reflected the triumphs and tumults in his life.
“In order for genius to express itself, you really have to take the art form in a new direction and redefine the medium,” says Rich. “As certain goals were met, a new direction was necessary to keep him fired up and working — and he never stopped working. When he got jaded with painting, he would search for inspiration in sculpture or poetry, or other styles to keep himself going … to do more and do better and push further.”
Rich told us more about delving into the icon’s art and life.
CGM: How did you go about becoming the young Picasso after you landed the role?
Alex Rich: It’s been an ongoing process in terms of investing myself as far as I can into his life and this production. I spent a lot of time working with Antonio. It’s so amazing to have him as a co-creator to share this world because he’s such an icon and he is so talented. So, I watched him and collaborated with him in terms of different ideas that we wanted to bring forward to provide some continuity to Picasso’s life — little nuance things that we’re trying to establish so that we can create a whole person.
And I’ve also been reading [Picasso’s nephew] Bernard’s book and John Richardson‘s books and different sources that I can find to really try to get a sense of how people related to him and what makes him human. There’s the genius that everybody knows. Then there’s the person behind him that we’re all trying to bring to life and do justice.
You are a creative, as well. Even though Picasso could at times be considered a rebel and a cad, did you understand, on some gut level, that drive to inject each day with color and passion?
Absolutely. I think that Picasso used his paintings as almost a diary of his life. He really blurred the lines between his personal life and his work. And you’ll see the reflections of all of the relationship and how he felt about various people he encountered and friends that he had. They all changed his perspective and its expression. The way that he lived his life really was indicative of that approach. He lived fast and had a lot of fuel for the fire of his artwork and he dove all the way in. … Just the sheer amount of content that he created was exceptional.
Where are we in Picasso’s life as the series begins?
We literally take the whole journey with him. We go birth to death. I pick up his story at 17 and take it to 40, and then Antonio will carry it for the rest of the way. We also have a couple of younger actors from different ages for his life before 17. So, we really get to see the whole thing — or what we can tell in 10 hours!
Studying Picasso’s evolving artistic style is a job in itself, but also a necessary — and, I’m betting, fun and exhilarating — means of understanding his literal, emotional and psychological view of the world. Was that a fine adventure for you to see these familiar paintings and see this person in a whole new light?
It has been absolutely incredible. It’s so cool — having done all the research and having found out as much as I can about Picasso — to then go back and look at the artwork that I’d seen throughout my whole life. Most people are familiar with his work in some way, and some know who the women are, know which paintings are Marie-Thérèse Walter, which paintings are Dora Maar and which paintings are Olga [Khokhlova]. But to have a personal connection to all these people, and all the subject matter—and being able to understand it at that deeper level—is one of the most exciting parts of this job.
Is there some sort of intentional structure with regard to how his periods are presented or is that element organic to where he is in his life in the story?
It’s both. As he became wealthier and better known, he had proven his name as an artist and he was always searching for a new medium and a way to express himself. At each stage, those new ways created these brilliant movements. I think it’s simultaneously structured in hindsight when we look at the different events that in his life created these movements, but very free-flowing in that it was driven by inspiration and the desire to do more and do better and push further.
One of the things I loved most about the Einstein season is how the women in his life weren’t treated as accessories or accoutrements. We got to fully know these extraordinary women. You’re in the company of some incredible actresses, as well, so can you talk to me a little bit about that and what you think Picasso got from each of his loves?
I love that about this series and the way that it was structured. It really allows us to feature these women that otherwise might have been passed over by history and bring their stories and their hard work, and their lives and their passions to life in a way that really highlights who they were.
I get to engage with a couple of the women that were really important in Picasso’s life. Fernande, and Olga are two of the bigger roles, and we’ve got Germaine as well, who I meet when I first get to Paris.
The people who really affected his relationships bleed into his work in massive ways. For example, with Fernande, when he first met her, he was so deeply and madly in love with her, and the paintings are beautiful, highlighting her beauty and how he saw her, and what he got from her. You see the shift as they really get to know each other, and the honeymoon phase is over, and they grow apart. His paintings of her become more angular. We start to see the angularity and the shadows and the harshness as his own perspective about Fernande switches.
And then with Olga, you see his marriage and the birth of his first child and how she changed him. She polished him up, and she really refined him, and she showed him how to exist as an aristocrat. And you have Eva who passed away before they had the chance to really see their love unfold in any important way.
All of these relationships, all of these women are depicted as multi-dimensional — real people with their own stories, which is just a testament to how brilliant this team is.
Genius: Picasso, Tuesdays, 9/8c beginning April 24 on National Geographic