Genius

The second season of National Geographic’s anthology series Genius shifts from Geoffrey Rush as Einstein to Antonio Banderas as Pablo Picasso.

Retaining its concurrent storylines of younger and elder subject, a silver-haired Banderas depicts the famed Spanish painter from 1937, when Hitler is bearing down on Europe.

Despite refusing commissioned work, Picasso is coerced into painting Guernica at the Spanish Pavilion at the Paris International Exposition. His mural, a response to the bombing of a village during the Spanish Civil War, was to become one of his most celebrated artworks and stands as a powerful anti-war statement.

This is contrasted by ambitions of the young artist circa 1890s whose one pursuit in life is to paint the perfect painting.

As a child the young Pablo prays to God to give up Art if his ill sister lives, but after she dies he carries guilt for a long time. Despite his father’s desires that he become and Art teacher the adolescent Pablo dreams beyond scholarly pursuits.

In Art class he shows talent beyond his years, even if the styles he learns are traditional and conventional.

“You must draw straight lines,” his teacher demands. “Without discipline, you will fail.”

The focus in the first episode falls heavily on Picasso as young man, played by Alex Rich, who isn’t such a bad choice for a young Banderas (although it feels like he is mimicking his accent). As Spain goes to war with the US, Picasso yearns for his own freedom and hiding from the army encourages him to break the rules.

But he still lacks his own artistic voice, further encouraged when he meets artist / poet Carlos Casagemas (Robert Sheehan), with whom he rooms.

The adult Picasso is also cavalier, having an affair with photographer Dora Maar (Samantha Colley), sometimes to the protests of other socialites. It’s a very male-dominated first chapter.

“She makes me wish I was 18,” he declares.

Writer / director Ken Biller assumes duties previously helmed by Ron Howard and writer Noah Pink. Hans Zimmer provides a flamenco score, and the production design is dripping in European period.

Whether Banderas’ screen presence gets in the way of something close to Picasso remains to be seen (I suspect it will). Perhaps when he resembles the elderly artist we recall from vintage film reels the two will marry a little better.

In the meantime Genius helps paint an image of the artist, the man, in between the lines.

Genius 2 premieres 7:30pm Tuesday April 24 on National Geographic.

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