Madame Picasso

“Love changed people”: Imagining the influence of a great artist’s greatest love (Paris, Pyrenees and Provence villages, 1911 – 1914 ): The Spanish artist, Pablo Picasso, is universally known, but how well do we know the man?  It doesn’t help that what we know most famously about him – Cubism, an abstract art form he conceived – is tough to understand without the interpretations of art historians.  Perhaps you’ve heard unflattering tales of his womanizing.  Googling these affairs, I learned of five influential women who came into Picasso’s life at important artistic junctures – in addition to the two early ones featured in Madame Picasso – and reportedly there’s dozens, maybe hundreds, more.  If you knew all this, they paint a complex picture of a “vain, egotistical, selfish, and demanding” artistic genius.  But what if there was a softer, tenderhearted side that could be glimpsed in one of these amours, a love so deep, so sacred he – and his lover/muse – sought to conceal?  That is the fascinating premise of Anne Girard’s fascinating novel.

Even if you’re skeptical of the author’s imaginings – which some reviewers seem to be despite the author’s extensive research that included studying handwritten letters and interviewing Picasso’s last remaining close friend of 30 years, the French photographer, Lucien Clerque – you ought to applaud the author for tackling this giant of an artist, wanting to “honor” Picasso in this way.

This is not the first time I’ve been drawn to novels about artists during the atmospheric La Belle Epoque, bringing forth evocative prose.  Girard’s is tender and sensual, well-matched to her supposition that so was Picasso, if you closely examine the least known of his loves, a “petite country girl with massive blue eyes,” Eva Celeste Gouel.

Eva assumes the name and confidence of Marcelle Humbert when she comes to Paris at 24 to be swept up into this “vibrant new age.” She came to “drink the magic of the city,” peopled with a collection of historical figures who created their own magic – artists, writers, poets, dancers, actresses, and singers like Sarah Bernhardt, Isadora Duncan, Colette, poets Max Jacob and Guillaume Apollinaire, Gertrude Stein (Picasso’s wonderful early champion) and her kindly companion Alice B. Toklas, Mistinguett, Maurice Chevalier, Toulese-Lautrec, Cezanne, Matisse, Maurice Utrillo, and Georges Braque (“the  only other artist who truly spoke his [Picasso’s] creative language”).

Besides the pleasure/educational value, you’re likely to come away with another perspective of Picasso, and insight into his vulnerabilities, having lost two people early on that he cared deeply about: his sister, Conchita (illness), and his friend, Casagemas (suicide).  Picasso irrationally blamed himself for his sister’s death, which had a lasting impact on his religious beliefs, superstitions, and fears.  His friend’s death thought to be the catalyst for his Blue Period, painting in muted colors.  We see a man with a passion for art, women, and friendships, a man for whom events are life-changing.  If we believe Gerard’s estimations, in Eva he found his soul mate, a profound love that enormously influenced this prolific artist, who influenced so many other artists and art movements.

Eva has a quiet, elegant beauty and strength.  She realizes her “fantasies, like dreams, are very fragile things.” Still, she’s determined to get more out of life than what her parents want for her, despite grieving leaving them. We meet her running late to an interview for a seamstress at the Moulin Rouge that her chorus girl roommate, Sylvette, told her about it – the dancers always tearing their costumes with all that kicking.  It’s a skill her Polish mother taught her, and while not her dream, it’s an exciting start.

Eva lands the job, although winning over the stern wardrobe head, Madame Léautaud, takes reticence, proven talent, and quick wittedness.  When Eva peers out from the cabaret stage into the front audience, she spots an arresting man with “long, messy crow-black hair” and piercing eyes.  It’s Picasso at 29, but she knows nothing about art so she doesn’t recognize him.  Picasso locks eyes with Eva too (hers are so blue he “could swim” in them.)  They meet again at the famed Salon des Indépendants art exhibition, which Eva attends with her only other Parisian friend, Louis, a cartoonist and painter with ambitions; also Polish, their tie.  While she doesn’t understand Picasso’s overpowering paintings – “dangerous in his sexuality” – she’s stirred by the “Chaos.  Daring.  Certainly a wild heart.” Seems innocent Eva has a “heady spark of fire” too.

Flirtatious encounters with a famous artist may be amazing to Eva, but for Picasso they are far more pivotal.  He’s at a crucial stage in his life, frustrated by a tumultuous, ten-year relationship with his model and mistress, Fernande Olivier, an emotional beauty whose hold on him is frustrating his art.  Picasso’s confused feelings for Fernande are mixed up with gratitude and obligation since they were together during his Rose Period, paintings in oranges and pinks, many those recognizable harlequins and acrobatic performers.  His passion, though, is Cubism – “the cubes and lines speaking to him like poetry.”  Yet he’s only exhibiting a sampling of his cubist creations.  The rest, the wilder, more grotesque works the French public may not be ready for, so they are hidden, exploding riotously in his Montmartre studio, “the place where his soul resides.”

This private place is where Picasso invites/whisks Eva away for he must paint her now; she accepts his hand and off they run.  All she knows about him is that he has “set the French capital on its ear.”  Eva is emotionally moved by his paintings – “the color, the light, and the clutter, all of it together” – and by the man – the “sensuality that seemed to pulse through him.”  The point is that Picasso perceives Eva is not afraid of what she sees, or of him, even if she doesn’t comprehend what these powerful abstract images mean.

Understanding Picasso’s art comes later.  Eva is different than any other women Picasso has ever known.  He realizes her beauty, charm, and devotion will be a calming influence and thus the inspiration he craves.  With Eva, he marvels at “what innovative things might he dare to do in life.”

Peaceful togetherness does not come easily for the couple at first.  Eva must separate herself from Louis’ stranglehold, a “man who played at his art” whereas “Picasso was a man who lived it.”  For Picasso, it means painfully cutting ties with intimate friends loyal to one of their own, Fernande.  In spite of them all, Picasso escapes with Eva to idyllic French villages, freeing his creativity, so now his:

“palette of colors reflected his heart.  Where Paris had called to him the grays and muted shades of brown, beige and blue of the city, here he chose vibrant colors full of light.  Picasso has begun to play with shapes, as well, and after listening to a quartet … began experimenting further with musical instruments.”

Picasso and Eva’s love has grown so strong there’s “nothing in the world he would not have done to bring her into his life.”  For her part, Eva carries a secret burden that shows how staunchly dedicated she was to the man and to his art.

The trusting scene of Picasso pronouncing to Eva that “the most significant event of my life had nothing to do with my art.  It was falling in love with you” – imagine more important than “cubism [which] made him the master” – was so tender and convincing of Anne Girard’s premise that love changes people.


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