Debut author Amato presents a historical novel based on the formative years of Pablo Picasso.
In 1915, a former Spanish member of the French Foreign Legion named Bianco seeks out a painting by his old friend Picasso titled Harlequin. Bianco had only seen it at an earlier stage, and he’s shocked when he sees the final version at an art dealer’s place. The work originally contained two dancers, but in its final iteration, the two figures have been changed into one. The narrative then moves back in time to Picasso’s early life in Spain. The once-great Spanish empire was losing wars abroad and enduring social strife at home. Although Picasso avoided much of the violence, his immediate family was poor; they couldn’t even afford a proper funeral for his sister, Conchita, who died before her First Communion. The sorrows of Picasso’s youth stayed with him as he threw himself into his work. The book follows the painter up until his initial collaboration with Jean Cocteau in 1916, and concludes before the name Picasso became world-renowned. The focus is on the artist’s lesser-known works and associations; figures such as Gertrude Stein receive mention, but far more important to the narrative are forgotten names, such as the young Spanish painter and poet Carlos Casagemas. It’s striking how many of Picasso’s friends committed suicide, and the narrative does well to show the dark edges of their seemingly carefree, bohemian lifestyles. This intriguing darkness helps set the stage for the artist’s fame to come. However, readers may find it difficult to engage with the narrative, due to the fact that none of the main characters—not even Picasso—are particularly likable or exciting. They drink and make art (or hang out with those who do); some go to war and pay dearly for the adventure. But there’s not much here to make one truly care about any of their fates. In the end, they seem like nothing more than a truly lost generation. (The book includes numerous photos, including images of several famous paintings.)
A novel that provides readers with a fuller, if not particularly thrilling, understanding of a legendary artist.