The Blue Period by Luke Jerod Kummer

Luke Jerod Kummer is the author of The Blue Period, a novel about the tragic events that led Picasso to experience a breakdown and render society’s forgotten souls when he was a young, struggling artist in Paris and Barcelona. Luke spent a lot of time staring at Picasso’s paintings to envision the man and his voice. 

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Long before his surname became a worldwide synonym for tangled mish-mashes of human and animal form, Pablo Picasso was nothing but a struggling young painter from Spain who possessed an ability to make tenderly lifelike works – increasingly melancholy in temperament – that repeatedly failed to sell. Arguably, however, such haunting images are more powerful today than the abstract figures that followed them, for which Picasso is best known. These frequently autobiographical, socially conscious products of his tumultuous youth are what inspired my novel The Blue Period. The book tells how tragedy, want and an outpouring of empathy for the human condition led an artist in his late teens and twenties to depict the downtrodden in lonely, nocturnal shades.

Unquestionably, creating historical fiction about Picasso’s early years came with much to grapple with, including that many readers admire his paintings but feel well-deserved loathing for his persona later on in life. He behaved awfully toward women (and men) after the soaring fame he experienced exploded into bouts of full-blown egomania. Others might have difficulty imagining a cultural icon  who died at 91 still in post-adolescent throes.

But focusing on a prolific artist also afforded me rare opportunities as a writer. Vast troves of artworks available in museums, books and online served as invaluable aids as I pieced together a narrative, establishing the story’s timeline and providing me with fascinating windows into what one of my main characters was seeing and feeling.

Picasso’s father, himself a painter and drawing instructor, drilled the crafts’ fundamentals into his son when he was small. There is a visual record of Pablo’s upbringing in Málaga and A Coruña, including domestic, seaside and bullfighting scenes, and then there are the somber, religiously themed canvases he made after the death of his sister. Indeed, the trauma this event inflicted on the family helped imbue Picasso’s oeuvre with its sometimes-violent streak. In all, these images aided me immensely in depicting the artist’s childhood.

Likewise, when I sought to reconstruct the look and feel of where and how a maturing Picasso lived in Barcelona and Paris, or what his households, friends or lovers were like, there were  paintings, pastels and drawings allowing intimate glimpses both of his surroundings and what was going on inside him.

For example, from looking at the progression of Picasso’s teenage works, it’s clear to me how his influences were expanding beyond his father and academic training. After he dropped out of school at age 16, many pictures reveal an appreciation for the rebellious modernisme movement that arose in Barcelona before the turn of the century. This shift added to the tension of The Blue Period’s coming-of-age story in which Picasso seeks to define his role in the world apart from what’s been set aside for him by family, the classical tradition, and then the money-driven art market. So too, one can see just how much the young man was becoming infatuated with the lush poster art of Paris and its enticing bohemian milieu, which he would soon join.

As with Picasso’s imitations of Toulouse-Lautrec, so often I could see where his head was by observing the styles he was experimenting with. For instance, when while living in Paris he suddenly turned to the social-realism that Goya deployed or began stretching and twisting his figures like the mannerist El Greco, I saw a desire to return to Spanish roots and also the way he was contemplating art as a political weapon, or weighing how he might reach beyond pure representation toward transcendence. After Picasso suffered the suicide of his best friend – the poet and painter Carles Casagemas – and he began to depict his lost comrade in the moody, percussive brushstrokes of van Gogh, whose death a decade earlier was already part of the lore surrounding tortured artists, I felt Picasso wrestling with the notion that suffering and creativity are intertwined.

In the summer of 1901, Picasso secured a letter from a physician to gain admittance to the Saint-Lazare women’s prison and infirmary and depicted the convicts who were confined there – sometimes alongside their children – for petty crime or being infected with syphilis, which was a deadly disease then. It’s hard to stare at Femme aux Bras Croisés, Femme Assise au Fichu or Maternité, as I did for countless hours, and not succumb to the incredible sadness within these frames.

Picasso’s obsession with the plight of the sick and impoverished, motherhood, mourning, and death, shows other psychological and circumstantial developments that shaped The Blue Period. In addition to these canvases drenched in shades of cobalt, ultramarine and Prussian blue, which gained notice only after Cubism brought Picasso acclaim, there also have been some surprising recent discoveries shedding light on his youth. For instance, a cryptic and lewd caricature of the art dealer whom Picasso lived with in Paris was found hiding behind the back of another canvas in 2000, which may alter our view of that stormy relationship.

As John Richardson, the late author of a multivolume analysis of Picasso’s career noted, in becoming increasingly famous over the decades, the artist seemed ever-more determined to obscure his past by purposefully misleading reporters and biographers with embellishments or even downright deception. Many of these distortions have been absorbed into the mythology around him. But in his early paintings, there are truths to learn. Some support long-held beliefs about Picasso; others run counter to what history has given us. These may be hiding in plain sight on museum walls, or in some cases they’ve long been buried just beneath the surface.

Technological advancements, for example, have rewritten our understanding of La Vie, the climactic painting of Picasso’s Blue Period, which shows the dead Casagemas together with Germaine Gargallo, the woman whom he killed himself over. She also had an intimate relationship with Picasso. Radiography has detected that layered underneath it is Last Moments, an older painting that set into motion the two friends’ fateful first trip to Paris before the suicide. What’s more, X-rays confirmed that the artist originally painted the woman embracing not Casagemas but himself.

I recall learning this during my research for The Blue Period and thinking, neither for the first nor last time, who says a picture is worth only a thousand words?

Many thanks, Luke, for sharing your experience with Picasso’s art and insights about his life. I’m sure many readers will enjoy your novel.

The Blue Period by Luke Jerod Kummer ~~ Set in turn-of-the-century Barcelona and Bohemian Paris, this gritty historical novel reimagines the tangled relationship between a young Pablo Picasso, the poet Carles Casagemas, and Germaine Gargallo — a bold, free-spirited painter’s model whom the two traveling companions from Spain encountered after arriving in Montmartre on their way to the Exposition Universelle. Based on real-life events during the now-famous artist’s early days, the book explores the dramatic turns that led to Picasso’s storied Blue Period, a brief, intense window in his long career when in the wake of tragedy he was able to bring to life some of the most tender, empathetic, and moving works of the era.

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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

A WRITER’S JOURNEY INTO AN ARTIST’S WORLD

Arthur Hittner and his wife are longtime collectors of American art of the Depression era. To share his passion for the topic he’s written an intriguing novel ARTIST, SOLDIER, LOVER, MUSE set in the New York City art world of the late Thirties.

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A large wooden crate arrived on my doorstep on a winter morning in early 2006.  Inside was the painting Eventide, a 1936 work by the artist Harold J. Rabinovitz (1915-44), a poignant depiction of a crouching young mother in a rose-colored dress clutching her naked infant, the child looking out the open doorway at the approaching figure of his father, a lunch pail in his hand, an expression of exhaustion on his face.  As a collector of American paintings executed during the Great Depression, this 1936 work was irresistible, though I’d never before heard of the artist.  That so talented a painter could have gone unnoticed for much of the seven decades since Eventide’screation mystified me—and motivated me.

Years later, I self-published a brief biography and catalogue raisonne, At the Threshold of Brilliance: The Brief But Splendid Career of Harold J. Rabinovitz (The Rabinovitz Project, 2014; rev. ed., 2017).  I’d traced the living descendants of the artist, determining that the bulk of his output resided in the attics and basements of his nephews and nieces, and in the vaults of an art museum in Springfield, Massachusetts. I viewed and photographed the collections of the descendants and the paintings in the museum. Many were brilliant works, very much the product of the times in which he painted: a blind beggar in a subway car, his hand turned upward in supplication; a jobless man on a curb, his face etched with dejection and hopelessness; an old woman, clad in rags, selling pretzels outside a subway station. Along with the paintings, I’d gained access to an old scrapbook that had been lovingly maintained by the artist’s parents. Inside were yellowed newspaper clippings from the Thirties and early Forties, chronicling the young artist’s triumphs and later, his tragic demise.

Not surprisingly, no market exists for a biography of a long-forgotten artist, however talented. Except for the Frick Art Reference Library and the Yale University Library (where Rabinovitz obtained his degree), I could count the proud possessors of the fruits of my labor on two hands.

But no matter.  I wrote that book out of a compulsion to discover the story behind my painting. Yet I learned much more: I’d become immersed in another time and place—the New York City art world of the late Thirties, a metropolis teeming with struggling artists, many surviving on meager paychecks from government-sponsored artist support programs. At some point I had an epiphany. I realized that I could share this world with a wider swath of readers by turning to historical fiction.

Inspired by the life I’d just documented, I created my own young artist, Henry J. Kapler, placing him in the heart of the world I’d uncovered in my research. Buoyed by further research and honed by an endless succession of drafts, Artist, Soldier, Lover, Muse (Apple Ridge Fine Arts Press, December, 2017) was ready for publication.

Henry J. Kapler is not Harold Rabinovitz, although their lives share a number of salient facts, a common timeline, and even some of the same artworks. Henry is a figment of my imagination, as are his thoughts, desires, motivations, quirks, and foibles. Beyond this, I sought to portray the world in which Henry resides, the New York art world of the late Depression, including the artists, athletes, politicians, events, and institutions that contributed to the rich history of the period, with as much historical accuracy as possible.

In tackling historical fiction, one often uncovers little known characters and facts that prove the adage of Mark Twain that truth is stranger than fiction. In seeking a villain, an author could have done no better than New York Yankee outfielder Jake Powell, whose on-field belligerence was the perfect resume for his violent encounters with Alice and Fiona, the two women in Henry’s life, and whose ill-fated radio interview in 1939 and the events that followed are little-known footnotes in the shameful history of segregation in professional sport.   Similarly, the saga of “Bunny” Taliaferro, the gifted African-American athlete from Henry’s hometown of Springfield, Massachusetts and target of a 1934 racial incident in Gastonia, North Carolina, seemed a natural inspiration for Henry’s imaginary masterpiece, Gastonia Renaissance.

Scores of artworks make at least a cameo appearance in Artist, Soldier, Lover, Muse. Paintings by artists other than Henry Kapler are works that might have been seen by a young artist in New York City at the time. Some are monumental murals that still adorn important buildings in New York. The paintings attributed to Henry are about evenly divided between purely fictional creations and works painted by Harold Rabinovitz, although the inspiration behind all of Henry’s paintings, as well as the details of their creation, derive solely from my own imagination.

As many writers of historic fiction will attest, it is a delight to experience the will of the characters we create. They gradually assume their own personalities, dictating their actions in ways that are often serendipitous. Artist, Soldier, Lover, Muse became their story, and the journey on which they took me was gratifying, mystifying, illuminating and, at times, heartbreaking. I invite you to share the journey.

What an intriguing story, Arthur. You’ve given us a great insight into the spark that lights historical fiction.

Artist, Soldier, Lover, Muse by Arthur Hittner – Freshly graduated from Yale, Henry J. Kapler parlays his talent, determination, and creative energy into a burgeoning art career under the wing of painters such as Edward Hopper and Reginald Marsh. The young artist first gains notoriety when his painting of a symbolic handshake between a young, African-American baseball player and his Southern white rival is attacked by a knife-wielding assailant while on display at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington. Yet even as his art star rises, Henry’s personal life turns precarious—and perilous—when his love for Fiona, a young WPA muralist, collides with his growing attraction to the exquisitely beautiful Alice, an ex-chorus girl who becomes his model and muse.  Alice is the girlfriend of Fiona’s cousin, Jake Powell, the hotheaded, hard-drinking outfielder for the New York Yankees baseball club whose jealousy explodes into abuse and rage, endangering the lives of all three.  While Henry wrestles with his hopelessly complicated love life, he also struggles mightily to reconcile his pacifism with the rabid patriotism of his Jewish-Russian émigré father.  As war draws near, Henry faces two difficult choices, one of which could cost him his life.

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION  A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.