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.
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, Nook, Kobo, Google Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.