I go through phases when it comes to books, on to fall back on tried and true genres that I call comfort reads. These are the books I read when I don’t want to think too much, and I am so familiar with the genre that I can predict the plot before I crack open the book. This post isn’t about comfort reading. It’s loosely about Madame Picasso, the book I read for review, and the biography phase I went through in my 20s. They’re related because I wouldn’t have done one without the other.
In my 20s I became obsessed with artist biographies. I read several, but the two I remember enjoying the most were Lust for Life, the biography of Vincent Van Gogh, and Frida Khalo: A Biography. This is the biography Selma Hayek became so obsessed with and ultimately produced into a movie. The publication date is actually from the 80s, not 2002. I have no idea why I feel compelled to point this out. Carry the knowledge to your grave; it’s that important.
What I loved most about Lust for Life was the strong fraternal love between Theodore and Vincent. Theo was Vincent’s brother to the end, his biggest supporter when absolutely no one appreciated Van Gogh as an artist. I was so touched by their bond (Theo died not six months after Vincent), that I petitioned for the name Theo when we were pregnant with Nico. Petition denied, as in not even maybe.
What I loved most about Frida Khalo: A Biography was the love story between Frida and Diego. Their bizarre, unfailing loyalty to each other through countless affairs, a divorce, and then a second marriage was beyond my frame of reference. I’m not that passionate…or tolerant, honestly. I really don’t care how talented you are or what sort of impact you will have on art through the ages. Keep it in your pants, please.
That consuming love affair artists have with their partners is why I agreed to read Madame Picasso. Prior to this, Picasso never interested me. I knew nothing about him outside what you pick up over the years about someone so famous. I knew he had a daughter, Paloma. I knew he went through multiple phases in his art, most notably a rose period, a blue period and, of course, Cubism. (Confession: in high school I assumed cubism meant the artists were from Cuba. I sure did!) I knew he was politically active. I knew something about him and women, maybe that he had a great love. Something like that, at least, so I said accepted the opportunity to read the book.
The first thing you should know is that this book is a work of fiction, although events that occurred in real life were written as accurately as possible.
The second thing you should know is that Picasso was womanizing runt of a man. Also interesting to note: of his seven great loves, two committed suicide, one was left destitute, and Gouel, the subject of Madame Picasso, died in her 20s of cancer or tuberculosis–the facts aren’t clear. Fitting for a man who once said, “For me there are only two kinds of women, goddesses and doormats.”
As for the book, I initially had trouble with the writing style, which you can read here in an excerpt, but either the lyricism slowed down or I became used to the heavy descriptions. I spent a lot of time between the book and the internet researching–it’s one of the things I love about historical fiction–so I’ve read several accounts of the love story between Eva and Pablo. I believe Girard made an effort to show Picasso and his affair with Gouel in a more flattering light. I remain on the fence about how successful she was in that regard.
After reading about Le Petite Lothario, I was feeling a little disillusioned about artists and their muses, like they’re all a bunch of drummers in an 80s hair band wielding brushes instead of sticks. I did some research (of course I did) and found a few more positive relationships to end this post on a happy note. Like life, these relationships are not without their problems.
ALFRED STIEGLITZ & GEORGIA O’KEEFE
From 1914 until 1946, this couple exchanged over 25,000 letters. They wrote to each other every day, sometimes multiple times per day, and the letters are now a historical account of their relationship from platonic acquaintances to married partners.
CHARLES & RAY EAMES
Ray met Charles at his architecture firm, where she also worked. They married in 1941 after he divorced his first wife and together created some of the most iconic furniture designs of the 20th century. They were together until Charles’s death in 1978.
GERTRUDE STEIN & ALICE TOKLAS
These two are next on my list of biographies to read. While not technically artists, Stein in particular was a huge supporter of modern art, especially Picasso. They met on September 8, 1907, the day Toklas arrived in France. Stein ended the relationship she was in at the time and moved Alice into her Paris apartment. They lived together until Stein’s death in 1946, of which Toklas said, “It was Gertrude Stein who held my complete attention, as she did for all the many years I knew her until her death, and all these empty ones since them.”
Photograph of Frida Khalo and Diego Rivera by Martin Munk�csi
Photograph of Pablo Picasso by Andre Villers
Photograph of Alfred Stieglitz and Georgia O’Keefe: source not found, but on display at Crystal Bridges Museum
Photograph of Charles and Ray Eames: source not found
Photograph of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas in Piazza San Marco, Venice, circa 1908