What is the role of an artist in a time of international crisis? Are they bound to use their platform to speak up, either through their work or other means? Or should they remain silent, stuck in their lane and apolitical?
The second season of National Geographic’s anthology “Genius” takes a hard stand for the former. The limited series, which followed Albert Einstein’s life last season, turns its gaze to Spanish painter Pablo Picasso in the late 1930s. Fascism is on the rise, and the curators of Paris’ Exposition Universelle want Picasso to create something on a giant, wall-sized canvas at the expo. But they don’t want just any Picasso painting — they want something that will speak to this moment, to the fear of creeping Nazism across Europe.
“The threat is enormous, so the picture must be enormous, so as to move the people,” one of the curators says. Picasso, as played by Antonio Banderas, is wary, both of the scale of the project and the idea of being so political: “Pictures cannot stop a war, no matter how gigantic it is,” he says. But the 1937 bombing in Guernica inspires him to create his most famous anti-war painting, named after the city. Silence, for Picasso, is not an option.
Eight decades separate Picasso’s showing at the ‘37 exposition and present day, but the threat of fascism is still very real, and our expectations of artists have not changed. We expect the art of Donald Trump’s America to say something about this moment, to comment on current events in a way that wasn’t expected in the comparatively safe confines of Barack Obama’s administration. When celebrities don’t speak up, either in a statement or their work, they’re a disappointment to their fans, as Picasso would have been to his devotees had he not painted “Guernica.” (Of course, Picasso’s fans couldn’t just tweet him to demand an answer.)
“Genius: Picasso” is generally about the artist as a brilliant mind, emphasizing his genius by calling him so many times throughout the series (four episodes of which were provided to press for review). But the show is even more interested in the idea of Picasso as a former revolutionary, showing us his rebellious days as a young artist (played in flashback by Alex Rich). Before “Guernica,” Banderas’ Picasso lives a lofty and luxurious life; his art no longer challenges authority in the way it once did. How is this man the same as the one we see in his youth, so determined to upend norms and change the status quo?
Of course, the answer becomes clear as Picasso paints “Guernica”: The artist never lost his fiery spirit. He just didn’t have to use it during less threatening times. It takes no less than Adolf Hitler and the rise of the Nazis to make Picasso passionate again.
The more “Genius: Picasso” focuses on that divide between the young firebrand and older laggard, the better the series is. Unfortunately, as the show goes on, it increasingly turns to its ensemble of Picasso’s friends, admirers, and lovers.
To a one, the cast is strong; as Dora Maar, one of Picasso’s more serious lovers, Samantha Colley is a particular standout. She plays Dora as formidable opponent to Picasso, capable of holding him accountable in a way no other can, while emphasizing her deep love for him. Colley is one of four players returning from “Genius’” first season, joining T.R. Knight, Seth Gabel, and Johnny Flynn for another round.
The problem is one of focus. The show isn’t “Genius: Picasso and Pals”; it’s about one man, one genius. As the show’s attention spreads, “Genius” increasingly feels like an ensemble series. Unfortunately, with so few episodes, and two different timelines to progress through, side stories feel like distractions from the core idea of the season.
When Picasso is at the forefront, though, “Genius” is impressive. It presents him not just as the legendary painter remembered by history, but a flawed figure with tremendous talent. It doesn’t shy away from Picasso’s troubling behavior with women, in either timeline. As a young man, we see him impulsively insult a woman client’s appearance because he doesn’t like the work she’s commissioning. As an adult, we see him chase after increasingly young lovers in an attempt to defy his own age and gain validation from those who remind him of who he once was.
What brings him closest to his former self is not a woman, though, but “Guernica.” Through that work, Picasso’s present syncs up with his past. The responsibility of an artist to be political will likely remain in question for eight more decades; it is an issue without obvious resolution. But for Picasso, speaking up is required. As we see in his younger self, that’s just who he is.