Fascination with A Picasso

A Compelling Portrait of Painter and Provacateur, Exploring the Boundaries Between Art and Ego

If you can get a seat at one of the small marble-topped tables in the café at Vienna’s English Theatre, the pre-theatre wait can be part of the show, the dark-suited, pearl-clad crowd sipping wine against the backdrop of chandelier and dark green walls, red curtains, and potted trees…Then, the bell rings.

Miss Fischer (Nicole Butler), an agent of the wartime German Ministry of Culture, questions Pablo Picasso (Tim Hardy) about the authenticity of his confiscated art | Photo: Reinhard Reidiger

We’re in Paris, 1941, looking into a vault below the streets lined with steel shelves and white cloth covered canvasses (set design by Hans Kudlich). Pablo Picasso waits impatiently to the tune seductive piano and accordion — the music of impending wartime romance — when a tall, slender Frau Fischer enters, sharp and cool in a crisp grey trench. The tension is immediate in A Picasso, written by Jeffrey Hatcher, directed in Vienna by Hans-Peter Kellner, a brilliant pas de deux between art and politics, power and submission.

Miss Fischer (Nicole Beutler), a German agent under orders from the ministry of culture, questions Picasso (Tim Hardy). “I am guilty of nothing,” he proclaims casually. In an impeccable, dark double breasted suit and white shirt buttoned to the top (design by Lothar Hüttling), Fischer presses on revealing three Picassos. One must be burned along with other “degenerate” art. The painter of Guernica, hashish smoker, and “nurse-screwing” Picasso knocks on wood.

He was free until the Nazi occupation in Paris. Although forbidden to paint, Picasso did just that, along with “eat and breathe and shit.” Hardy, in vested suit and charming red tie, adeptly dives into playful sarcasm and lilted witticisms, punctuated by sounds of German troops marching overhead. Although Hardy bears little resemblance to Picasso, his grey hair combed to the side, his performance is dynamic enough to convey the spirit of the artist. He passionately recalls childhood moments, cheeks rising high with smiles, and eyes looking brightly ahead. Young “Pablito” and the quixotic Picasso are one and the same. He was destined to paint—even against promises to God.

Frau Fischer, trapped in the events of her time, sucks the air from the room. Picasso eyes her legs in sheer back-seamed stockings.

His playfulness gives her life again, and she becomes transformed, slowly letting down her guard. Beutler’s coiffed blond hair stays in tact, but by the end, her top shirt buttons come undone.
Even if it is only to save his paintings, Picasso shares his artistic energy with her. Her duties deny her artistic passion, his vigor draws it forth.

At first stiff-lipped and upright, she smiles momentarily and laughs cautiously as Picasso gruffly tells about his portraits of whores and Gertrude Stein. The dynamic shifts suddenly when she insinuates Picasso’s intimate relations with Apollinaire.

“No one fucks Picasso,” he snaps. The daring language returns throughout the play, but then, Picasso—spoken in “third person superior”—entitled himself to a world without boundaries.

Picasso defies all limits when he closes in on Frau Fischer, drawing her in with his eyes—the same ones she admired on the walls of her childhood home during the “purification.” She is an art critic, torn between her love for Picasso’s art and her duty to the Nazis; her parents are alive and safe because of who she is and what she does.

As Hardy goads Beutler with an affected naiveté, tilting his head, searching for approval with puppy-like brown eyes, she becomes increasingly part of the crime. The breaking point comes when Fischer pours her heart out to Picasso with fire and longing, her German accent intensifying as she loses control.

Hardy maintains the egotism of a man hiding his weaknesses under bold gestures. Picasso, who imbibed sensuality at every chance and exhaled it into his art, blames women for the world’s and his own misdemeanors:

“You make us love you, you make us do horrible things.”

To Hatcher’s Picasso, sharing his heart means both giving up control and part of his creative energy.

He attempts to regain control, leaning over to kiss Fischer. She spits in his face, but that only delights him more, and he bounces into an energized artistic fervor, scribbling her portrait on a piece of paper—a fourth Picasso, with signature—placing it gently into Beutler’s hands. She smiles vulnerably until she realizes it must be burned. It is uncertain if she dares burn this portrait, which holds the essence of them both—“If you burn a Picasso, you burn Picasso.” The artist and his art, he insists, are inseparable.

The play ends with teasing looks between the artist and his subject. He saves himself from ego-destruction, she is rescued from complete self-denial.

After this provocative performance, discoursing over a glass of wine in the café would have been ideal, the perfect extension of the sparkling dialogue on stage. But, sadly, it was already closed. We left the theater, in search of an alternative.

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