The latest instalment in Self-Made Hero’s Art Masters series presents us with a graphic biography of Pablo Picasso. Just as in Barbara Stok’s Vincent, we focus largely on a period in the artist’s life rather than comprehensively taking the reader on a journey from infancy to death (and given that John Richardson’s masterful biographies of Picasso are currently in their third volume, despite only having reached 1932, it’s probably more than we could hope for for EVERYTHING to be crammed into a single graphic novel). Birmant and Ourbrerie’s Pablo charts roughly a decade at the beginning of the 20th century, when Pablo was in Paris, finding his way but experiencing difficulties all the same. The best way of approaching the book is with some understanding of Picasso’ life and work because what we have here is largely the period when he was in a relationship with Amelie Lang/Fernand Olivier (who he split from in 1912 and who was largely unknown until her memoirs were published in the 1980s).
This means we follow Pablo roughly from the moment he arrives in Paris to the point at which he starts to enjoy some success. This takes in his Blue period, his Rose period, his African period (including Les Demoiselles D’Avignon, which causes quite a stir) and takes in Cubism (which he seems to say is founded by Braque, rather than himself) and looks towards ‘the paintings of the future’ (so, the last of his works that we ‘see’ in the book is his Homage to Wiegels). Pablo, we sense, is a social animal, so there is much in the way of drinking and carousing in the book, shots fired into the night, small groups of men yelling the catchphrase that informed their work at that moment. We get the sense of the rivalry that existed between Matisse (old guard) and Picasso (young Turk), and we get a sense of the clash that we know went on between the established Salon clique and the way in which new young artists sought to make a name for themselves. Birmant and Ourbrerie are good at creating the tumultuous cultural and creative shifts that went on in Paris at the beginning of the twentieth century, Gertrude Stein and her brother Leo the eye of a storm that would come to shape literature as much as painting. The book also looks beautiful: similar in some ways to Herge’s early ligne claire style but shot through with an affecting autumnal palette and nicely shaky handdrawn frames. The story is also told with handwritten print which helps you to stop wolfing down the book, as is sometimes the way with graphic novels.
The only downside to the book is, in spite of its size (it runs to 350 or so pages and feels as hefty as Alan Moore’s From Hell), it sometimes feels as if the writers have bitten off more than they can chew. Pablo sometimes gets lost – and there are times when you can’t help but wonder if Birmant and Ourbrerie couldn’t settle on whether they wanted to write about Pablo, or Pablo and Fernande, or Paris at the beginning of the twentieth century. It’s a smorgasboard is what we’re saying and an unruly smorgasboard at that – one whose climax offers the most noticeable example of ‘hey, we’re not quite sure where we draw the line so we’re going to have a sort of dream-prophecy outline the future so we can quit things and get out before any reader asks us too pointed a question’. All of which means that there are points in the book where you wonder why we are being shown one scene rather than another, and this undermines the book as a whole. It’s a valiant effort, make no mistake, and anyone reading this in order to find out more about Picasso will find out a thing or two to be sure. But is it entirely a success? We’d have to say not entirely, no.
Any Cop?: Not quite up to the standard set by Vincent, but worth a read, particularly if you are interested in Pablo’s early years.