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"Three Must-Read Novels About Artists"

The Millions, 2019


This summer, I published The Blue Period, a novel that follows a young Pablo Picasso from humble beginnings in Spain to turn-of-the-century forays in Paris, where the budding painter sought to define an identity apart from the pressure of his father—also an artist—until tragedy struck. It was during Picasso's resulting bout with depression in his late teens and early 20s that he set out to render society's forgotten souls in nocturnal shades, leaving us with such lonely and moving canvases as The Old GuitaristThe TragedyFemme aux Bras CroisésLa Soupe and La Vie. While this story arc doesn't cover all of the prolific but controversial figure's long life or many ups and downs—he died in 1973 at 91 years old—it explores how early setbacks and trauma paved the way for a post-adolescent outpouring of creativity and empathy, before Cubism catapulted Picasso to almost inconceivable fame.


Much to my delight, it turned out the book I'd been laboring on for years joined a bumper crop of künstlerroman that debuted around the same time. German lends us this mouthful of a word for an "artist's novel." Works in this tradition include not only stories of painters, sculptors and photographers, but also ones about writers, dancers, and musicians. Irving Stone's The Agony and the Ecstasy, Willa Cather's The Song of the Lark and Richard Wright's Black Boy are classics. Like other coming-of-age tales, this type of narrative—they may be fiction, nonfiction, or a hybrid—typically begins with the protagonist's youth, but then künstlerromane go on to detail the experiences that molded their subjects into artists. These books have helped show the world the many paths to creativity, while often adding context to well-known artists' lives. Art affects us deeply, and we want to understand how its practitioners learned to wield such an enormous power to make us feel.


Below are a few highlights from the new arrivals in this intriguing genre:


Life of David Hockney by Catherine Cusset (translated by Teresa Fagan)

At a recent event in New York, Catherine Cusset explained to her audience how in her native France the divide between what constitutes a novel and what can be considered biography is much less stark than in the United Sates. By presenting Life of David Hockney as a third-person omniscient narrative, which shares with readers the deepest thoughts and feelings of a famous living artist—even though she'd never spoken with him before publication—the author demonstrates just how unfettered she is by rigid categories. The result is an inviting and entertaining portrait that reveals how a working-class boy from Yorkshire, born on the eve of the Second World War, defied art's trend toward abstraction to make figurative works that would help reinvigorate painting and command astronomical prices. Cusset's brisk, engaging novel manages to leave readers with a sense that they know Hockney more intimately than if they'd try to plow through an art history tome. 

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Read the full article at The Millions' website.