In a winter’s night of Paris a Spanish artist named Carlos Casagemas announces a goodbye dinner at the Brasserie de L’Hippodrome. He has been in love with the model Germaine Pichot, but she rejects him: ‘He started shouting, and she called him impotent in front of everyone… He turned green and ran.’ Pichot attends the dinner, and ‘dug up her real husband for the occasion.’ The young man gets up to make a speech. ‘But instead of a sheaf of notes, he pulls out a revolver.’ Points it at Germaine. ‘Now you’ll get yours.’ Bang. And turns the gun on himself. ‘And I’ll get mine.’ Blam.
Such was Paris in 1901. ‘To be young in Montmartre in 1900 was to know cruelty, violence, madness,’ remembers Fernande Olivier in Birmant and Oubrerie’s comic biography. ‘In this filth, this slum where a band of ragged immigrants in rags invented modern art’. She continues: ‘Picasso loved me. Picasso painted me. He always wanted to erase me from sight… Instead, he made me eternal.’ Shuffling along the streets today – we see them through her eyes, a jarring collage of tourist pastels – she soars into the sky. She remembers herself at seventeen: ‘perched in a tree, being forced to marry a man I didn’t want.’ Birmant and Oubrerie give us a great juxtaposition of yearning here – the old woman looking down on her former self who is herself gazing out beyond the trees to the lights of the city.
Pablo is written like a novel rather than biography, exploring the young Picasso’s life and his development as an artist throughout the 1900s. Like many art histories though, it’s collated into ‘periods’: the passages of his life following the suicide of his troubled friend Casagemas are rendered in deep aqua and turquoise shades, rain, shadows, clouds, night. Art shows and functions are done in royal scarlet pixels. During his ‘African period’ Picasso sees ‘Iberian heads, his totems from Gósol’ streaming through the air like birds, and a black-red shaft shoots out of his eyes with the legend I SEE ALL.
It’s rare that the pointed surrealism for which Picasso is known penetrates the artwork of the comic. Characters are bright and distinctive and they speak in easy, accessible speech bubbles. There are portraits of kindly, tragic soothsayer Max Jacobs – Jacobs took Picasso in when he had nowhere to go, and they slept on the bed in shifts. Gertrude Stein appears as an amazing old battleaxe. No one seems to have any money but there’s lots of fun and parties. Young women earn by sitting languorously in front of canvas. A friend of Pablo’s quotes a Catalan proverb, translating as ‘When you want to fuck, fuck!’
But when Pablo and Fernande take opium together Fernande finds herself swirling through an underwater sky as a maenad with dilated pupils. An elephant appears in the Montmartre streets for absolutely no reason. Pablo dreams of a skeleton in a little girl’s dress, complete with pigtails, shouting ‘Papa! Papa! Pablo won’t come die with me!’ Another skeleton with the body of Germaine Pichot straddles him naked while Carlos shoots himself again in the background. Picasso’s obvious guilt (his little sister Conchita died of diphtheria at age seven) leads him to the truth F Scott Fitzgerald was busy discovering on the other side of the Atlantic: et in arcadia ego, beauty is not alone in the garden, death is waiting there too. ‘That we may fear our enemy no more,’ Pablo vows, ‘let us sculpt our worst nightmare.’
For a lay reader like me who’s ignorant of visual art Pablo is a fantastic introduction to the man and his work. But it is not about art so much as the effect art has upon the artist. The manic glazed look in Picasso’s eyes near follows you out of the room and down the street. And Birmant and Oubrerie are so good at the texture of life, the shades, ink and vellum of city streets and rooms. Their book captures what Fernande recalls: ‘I still remember the smell: a mixture of wet dog, oil and tobacco… the smell of work.’