Tuesday, April 1, 2014


"Fernand and Pablo on the Stairs" © C. Oubrerie, J. Birmant, Dargaud

It’s a comic book that Pablo Picasso himself might have read with glee. Or perhaps not. The Pablo series tells the story of the Spanish artist in France, his tumultuous relationships and his controversial paintings, and it does so with its own striking artwork.

The cover of  "Pablo", Vol. 4
© C. Oubrerie, J. Birmant, Dargaud
Created by writer Julie Birmant and illustrator Clément Oubrerie, the four-volume series has gained a following among those who like both biography and bandes dessinées (comics), and the latest book is now the focus of an exhibition at the Montmartre Museum, high in the “hills” of Paris where Picasso and many other artists lived and worked.

“From the very first volume, I thought this was a wonderful story with fantastic drawings,” says Sophie Egly, the director of the museum. “We hope this exposition will attract new visitors to the museum, to discover the history of Montmartre and the legendary artists who lived here.”

The exhibition, titled Picasso à Montmartre: La BD de Julie Birmant et Clément Oubrerie, juxtaposes large-format illustrations from the comic books with photographs, sketches and paintings from the early 20th century - the period when Montmartre was a veritable artist’s village, rife with love affairs, intense friendships and venomous rivalries.

One can compare Pablo’s portrayals with the museum’s collection of historical documents and see how much research the authors must have carried out as they tried to recreate a bygone era. They began working on the series without knowing much except for the “names that shone with a familiar kind of light”, names that had infused their childhood, says Birmant.

“I grew up in Montmartre, in a family that was aware of cubism,” she recalls. “I loved Picasso’s primitive paintings which were like childhood posters for me.”

The Montmartre Museum. Photo: G. Lachaud
Meanwhile, her co-creator Oubrerie grew up in a house decorated with prints signed by Max Jacob, the French poet and artist who was one of the first friends Picasso made in Paris. Jacob had been a friend of Oubrerie’s own grandfather between the two world wars.

Pablo presents engaging stories of the characters that shaped this epoch, and visitors to the Montmartre Museum, housed in a rustic 17th-century building, will find themselves imbibing art history without too much effort.

The comic-book series begins with the Picasso-Jacob friendship, and it moves on, in volumes two and three, to Picasso’s relationship with writer and critic Guillaume Apollinaire and with fellow painter Henri Matisse.

But the whole series, and especially the final volume, is really about Picasso’s stormy liaison with Fernande Olivier, an “impossible woman” who was central to the creation of the violent, “revolutionary” artwork Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (The Young Ladies of Avignon).
Piscasso and Fernande in his studio
© C. Oubrerie, J. Birmant, Dargaud

Picasso did this painting in Paris in 1907, as a means to rid himself of the passion he felt for Fernande, according to some accounts. The comic-book authors make Fernande central to their story, conveying the idea that she was key to the artist that Picasso became, and the museum also picks up on this theme.

“In my research, I quickly realized that Fernande played a leading role in the growth of cubism,” says Birmant. “Without her, there would not have been the Demoiselles d’Avignon, and yet the public knows little about this woman. It was important to give her back her place in art history.”

Birmant came across Fernande’s autobiography Souvenirs intimes (Private Memories) by chance in 2010 as she was visiting a local library, and the book touched her with its “cultivated yet savage” tone.

“I wanted to understand what it was that, after 40 years, made her remember her time with Picasso as the most beautiful thing that had happened to her,” Birmant says.

She thought about turning the book into a screenplay but finalled settled on doing a bande dessinée - a genre popular in France. Now, after almost 2,000 drawings and 300 pages, art aficionados can follow this story both in the comic book and through the Montmartre Museum’s display.

Sacré Coeur © Tasshon
The exhibition begins with the introduction of the two “protagonists”, with panels showing them in a passionate embrace. Then original paintings and drawings of Montmartre, by famous 19th- and 20th-century artists, form a counterpoint to the comic-book artwork.

Visitors equally get to examine artistic representations of Montmartre’s famous sites, such as the Sacré Coeur Basilica, which lies just up the road from the museum, and the Lapin Argile, a rose-coloured cabaret house that both Picasso and artist Maurice Utrillo depicted in paintings.

Pablo tells the tale of the Montmartre of the 1900s, though a love story that’s both intense and tragic,” says museum directory Egly. “Could the Montmartre of yesterday be understood without the creative lens of today? That’s a good question.”

And would Picasso and Fernande have approved? That’s another good question. - L. McKenzie & J.M. De Clercq

The exhibition runs until August 31 at the Musée de Montmartre, 12 rue Cortot, 75018 Paris. The comic book is published by Dargaud.