As a teenager growing up in Malaga, Spain, Antonio Banderas felt that the people of his hometown were never able to pay proper homage to its most famous son: Pablo Picasso, who died a political exile from the rule of military dictator Francisco Franco.
“Picasso died in 1973, so it was impossible to receive the applause of the people of Malaga,” says Banderas of the man he’s portraying in Season 2 of Nat Geo’s “Genius,” premiering Tuesday at 9 p.m. “Franco outlived him and that was a pity. Picasso had a love-hate relationship with his own country because of Franco and the Fascists but he loved flamenco and bullfighting.”
In his own way, Banderas, 57, is making that gesture with his layered portrayal of the complicated — and often maddening — iconoclast who founded the Cubist movement and became, along with Henri Matisse, one of the leading artists of the 20th century. When he was offered the role, Banderas says he was intimidated, given Picasso’s dimension as an artist, but he accepted the challenge. “It was like somebody got me against the wall [saying] now or never,” he says in his raspy accent.
Born in 1881, Picasso was raised in an artistic home. His father, Jose Ruiz y Blasco, was a painter who, recognizing his son’s talent, sent him to the fine arts academy where the student was soon rebelling against traditional methods of painting. American actor Alex Rich (“Glow”) plays Picasso as the 19-year-old kid, who arrives in Paris with his best friend, Casegemas (Robert Sheehan), determined to make it as artists.
“His father tells him he can do anything in the world,” Rich says. “That instilled in him a sense of purpose. His father was painting pigeons, teaching Picasso how to use a brush so it was part of his life from birth.”
“Genius” contrasts Picasso’s humble beginnings in the Bateau Lavoir studio in Montmartre — when he figured out that the invention of photography meant that visual artists were no longer required to present a realistic pictorial portrait of the world — with his comfortable middle age, when he was a political figure. His 1937 painting “Guernica” protested the 1936 German bombing of that Basque village. He was also a celebrity, gracing magazine covers.
“Picasso was only one of the artists who didn’t abandon Paris [during the German occupation],” Banderas says. “The Nazis thought he was a degenerate. At the same time, there were some generals in the Nazi party who liked his paintings and tried to confiscate them. He played a game with them. The fact that he was Spanish, that he wasn’t Jewish — he was a slippery fish in their hands because they didn’t have a reason to arrest him. Personally, I believe he was unbelievably lucky.”
“Genius” also amusingly delves into the artist’s busy love life. Women threw themselves at him, even while knowing his reputation. Picasso did not hide his mistresses from each other, driving them mad. He had four children with three different women; three of them — Maya, Claude and Paloma Picasso — are still alive.
Banderas, though, does not consider Picasso a womanizer.
“He was clearly unfaithful, but I think he genuinely loved a lot of those women,” he says. “They became his art — Dora Maar (Samantha Colley), Marie-Therese (Poppy Delivingne), Fernande (Aisling Francoisi) — he was a piece of work.”
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