Writing Pablo Picasso’s graphic biography

BEIRUT: Pablo Picasso needs no introduction. Few people know what kind of person he was when he was young, however, before fame and fortune found him.

Fewer still are likely to know the artists with whom he spent time. Who knows the story behind how his ground-breaking Cubist work came to be born? All this and more can be found in “Pablo.” Created by Belgian writer Julie Birmant and French artist Clement Oubrerie, this French-language comic strip explores the life of Picasso before he became known as the master of Cubism. Birmant discussed this unusual biography with The Daily Star.

Q: How did you come up with the idea of creating a comic strip on Picasso?

A: Chance, premonitions, friends’ advice – I don’t know. All I know is that [years back] I found myself ordering a book put in the backroom of the Clignancourt Library, entitled “Souvenirs Intimes” (Intimate Memories) by Fernande Olivier. From the very beginning, this woman in love attracted [my attention]. In her unfinished but intriguing book she spoke directly to me with her wild, refined, rough and sharp accent. In a nutshell, I fell under Fernande’s charm. Her silences [titillated] my curiosity, and I wanted to understand what made her remember her history with Picasso as the most beautiful thing that happened to her, 40 years after they broke up.

As my research progressed, I understood that Fernande had played an [important] role in the advancement of Cubism. Without her, “Les Demoiselles D’Avignon” wouldn’t have existed. No one knew who she was. There was this [feeling of] urgency about giving her the place she deserved in the history of art.

Writing about Fernande was about being an administrator of justice, since her memoirs had been banned for a long time. So I wrote this story with a lot of passion, and dreamed of finding an excellent artist to make a comic strip out of it. It was Clement Oubrerie, who was thrilled right away [by the project].

Q: Are the graphics and texts [entirely] based on the research you did on Picasso? Or is everything from your own imaginations?

A: Everything is real in this story. We wrote it based on testimonies and the works of the different characters.

Q: Had you collaborated with Clement Oubrerie in the past?

A: No, this is the first time. We knew of and appreciated each other’s work, but it was through our editor from Dargaud, Gisele de Haan, that we met. We [liked] each other immediately.

Q: March 21 marked the official release of the fourth and final volume ...

A: Yes, that’s right! The “Pablo” series – four tomes and close to 2,000 drawings in color on more than 300 pages – has come to an end. For three years, we impregnated ourselves with this story. We seized it with the audacity that came from our ignorance. We didn’t know much, aside from a few clichés about famous people: Max Jacob, [Guillaume] Apollinaire, [Henri] Matisse, [Georges] Braque, Gertrude Stein, Picasso ...

Q: How have you divided up Picasso’s biography to fill multiple comics?

A: The first tome – subtitled “Max Jacob” – tells how the poet fell crazy in love with the young Spanish man [Picasso] and how he helped him in the most difficult period of his life.

The second one [“Apollinaire”] focuses on the close friendship between the two poorly loved artists. Apollinaire digs in his sadness for [the inspiration behind] his masterpiece “La Chanson du Mal-Aimé” [The Song of the Poorly Loved] and he helped Picasso conquer Fernande.

“Matisse” – the third tome – shows how Picasso radically transformed his way of painting, inspired by Spanish [and] African primitives and by Oceania. He becomes an outstanding painter and means to supplant his biggest rival, Matisse.

[As for] the fourth volume – entitled “Picasso – it narrates how Picasso created “Les Demoiselles D’Avignon,” a gigantic canvas that he imagined as a response to Matisse’s “Bonheur de Vivre.” It is as provocative as an artistic manifesto.

Q: Were you concerned about the audience’s response to your comic strip, since it is one of a kind?

A: Biopics are trendy nowadays. Therefore, many comic strips deal with historic figures.

For us, the aim was to succeed in making the story and characters alive, while telling a crucial moment in the history of art:

The birth of Cubism.

Worries came [in the beginning]: Were we able to keep the bet? Drawing about Picasso, [writing] about his work, his loves, his friends, and being up to the task? It is up to the reader to judge.

We took a lot of pleasure getting into ... the younger years of major artists. Let’s hope that the audience will [enjoy] the fourth volume. Until now, we’ve been lucky – our books were appreciated by connoisseurs of Picasso, as well as by amateurs.

Julie Birmant and Clement Oubrerie’s “Pablo” is available on Amazon.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on March 24, 2014, on page 16.




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