By Julie Birmant & Clément Oubrerie
Translated by Edward Gauvin
Colored by Sandra Desmazières
Published by SelfMadeHero
By Matthew Jent
“He made me eternal.”
Dreamy, symbolic, curious, and strange. Pablo by Julie Birmant and Clément Oubrerie is ostensibly the story of Pablo Picasso, a man, a modern artist, and an icon of the 20th century.
But it’s a story told from the point of view of Fernande Olivier, also known as Amélie Lang, also known as Madame Paul Percheron, also known as the subject of more than 60 portraits made by Picasso. The real Fernande met the real Pablo after fleeing her husband and moving to Paris, finding work as a model for artists. They spent years together as artist and muse, and as lovers, before Picasso became the most well known artist in the world. Decades later, Picasso paid her a pension in exchange for her promise not to publish memoirs or scandalous revelations about their relationship while they were both alive. Her journal from their time together was publicly released after both Fernande and Pablo had died as Loving Picasso: The Private Journal of Fernande Olivier.
Fernande’s voice is what drives Pablo, the graphic novel. She narrates her own story as well as Picasso’s, in cursive-lettered narrative captions. Even before she meets the painter, Fernande (born Amélie Lang) is curious, imaginative and driven. She finds herself married to a physically and emotionally abusive brute after rejecting a boor of an accountant, and being rejected in turn by the aunt who raised her. Her absent mother and father are depicted as a perfume bottle (“elegant, distant, fragrant”) and a top hat (“a man of the world”), respectively, but the art doesn’t turn incomprehensibly surreal. Cynthia Rose’s review of Pablo in periodical form for The Comics Journal said, “The books’ creators start with Picasso’s own conclusion – that to really comprehend one must imagine, not just reproduce,” eschewing the kind of images photography could reproduce, and instead create what is emotionally true instead of what is literally real.
While Birmant’s script (translated from French by Edward Gauvin) provides the oar, the art by Oubrerie is the sea we sail through. It is cartoonish but heartfelt, never distant, always joyful, often intense. Sandra Desmazières provides vivid colors from an ever-shifting palette that not only bring Montmarte to life, they reflect the light, dreamscapes, and sometimes sooty world of early 20th century France. Oubrerie and Desmazières work together on what could be an overwhelmingly daunting task: create a visual representation of arguably the greatest artist of the last century.
Pablo is about creation, inspiration, interpretation, and partnerships. Talking about the relationship between art and artists can be like trying to grab a fistful of water — the harder you try, the less you succeed — but Birmant and Oubrerie and Desmazières and Gauvin have created a testament to love, art, and the pain of creation They are time travellers, taking us back a hundred years or more, telling a story that’s still true today.