Rosie’s #Bookreview Team #RBRT From The 1920s and 30s Paris art scene, PICASSO’S REVENGE by Ray Foulk

Today’s team review is from Olga, she blogs here

#RBRT Review Team

Olga has been reading Picasso’s Revenge by Ray Foulk


The author describes this book as ‘historical fiction’ and that is correct, but this novel leans more heavily towards the research side of things than towards the fictionalisation, and when we read the author’s explanation and the epilogue, it’s easy to understand why. Ray Foulk’s PhD dissertation focused on an element that appears in the novel (I’m not sure talking about it would be a spoiler, but just in case, I’ll be discreet), and it is evident that he felt the topic was too fascinating to be confined to academia. So much so that he first worked on a movie treatment of the same, and now it has become a novel. Therefore, it is not surprising that the book is packed with factual details, with quotes from historical characters, from novels, art critics, newspapers and magazines. But, although the character at the centre of the book, Jacques Doucet (yes, Picasso is central as well, but not the main character) existed in real life, and most of the information the book shares about him is true, we do not have access to his personal notes and papers (these were destroyed shortly after his death at his request), and therefore we can only speculate as to his thoughts and his reasons behind some of his projects, which seemed extravagant at the time, and would likely raise a few eyebrows even now.

Although I’ve read about the period (particularly in regards to Paris as a cultural centre and a meeting place where artists, writers, patrons of the arts, philosophers, musicians… met and exchanged influences and ideas) and studied a course called ‘The Exotic and the Primitive in American Literature’, and I’m therefore somewhat familiar with some of the concepts and ideas discussed in the book, I didn’t know much about Doucet before reading this novel. He was a famous couturier as a young man, and later became a collector of books and art, moving on from XVIII c. art to the Impressionists and eventually to what became known as Modern Art, becoming a patron of some of the best-known artists of the time. In the novel, we meet him when he is advanced in years and has lost interest in dressmaking  (dressmaking has also lost interest in him), and has become focused on his collecting. The book is narrated in third person omniscient person, interspersed with parts when we hear directly from a variety of characters in the first-person, most of all from Doucet himself. Although the main events in the book follow a chronological order, in his search for the truth (or for understanding, or… well, I’ll leave it to your judgement), Doucet talks to many people, and they sometimes recall events from the past, as does he, so there are moments we keep coming back to, again and again, and see them from different perspectives, and we get to slowly build up a picture of what might have actually happened. But some of the witnesses and the narrations/confessions, are far from straight-forward and reliable, so this is far from a standard mystery, where we follow the clues and get to a clear answer.

This is a book about an obsession, or several, that seem to mirror each other. It is a book about Doucet’s obsession with a painting, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, by Picasso, a painting he purchased due to its connection with a lady he knew and was obsessed with as well. The painting, which supposed a break with the previous art movements and gave birth to modern art, was controversial at the time (1906-1907, and was not fully appreciated until much later. Doucet feels that if he can get to understand the painting and why Picasso painted it, it will help him come to terms with what happened to the lady he was infatuated with. I couldn’t help but wonder if such obsession is not mirrored by the author’s obsession with the story and the reasons behind Doucet’s final project, but this is only speculation on my part.

The book is full of wonderful descriptions of art objects, of buildings, locations, and as I mentioned, includes plenty of factual information about events and people of that period, from a variety of sources, all identified at the end of the book by the authors. Each chapter opens with a quote that always bears a relation to the content, even though the connection is not always direct and straight-forward. This is a long book that seems to meander and swirl, slowing down to contemplate a particular moment or artwork and then moving on again; there is plenty of telling (although as I’ve said there are also many detailed descriptions that will delight art lovers and connoisseurs, and will make them feel as if they were there); there are events we go back to again and again, to study them from all possible angles (imitating, in a way, what the cubist art movement tried to do, deconstructing and putting the pieces together to gain a new understanding of what happened and why); there are plenty of secrets and mysteries, but none that fit in the standard mystery genre; and although the main character is complex and engaging at an intellectual level, I am not sure he is easy  to empathise with. Personally, I found him fascinating, and I was intrigued by his struggle for meaning and his moments of insight (sometimes he resists accepting what might be evident to others and is horrified when he realises how others might see him), but I am not sure he’s the kind of hero most readers will appreciate or feel at ease with.

This is a book for art lovers, especially lovers of the Paris art scene of the 1920s and 30s (a fascinating era and the place to be, for sure), who appreciate lengthy descriptions and are not looking for a straight-forward narrative, full of adventures and action, where all becomes clear and all secrets are eventually revealed. This is a novel about enjoying the intellectual journey and the process of research and the beauty is of the findings along the way, and although there is an ending (one that reminded me of Henry James’s The Beast in the Jungle, my favourite story by James), for me, this is by the by.  I recommend readers to keep reading after the ending, because the epilogue and the author’s notes and acknowledgements add plenty of value to the text, explaining the background to the project and providing also a bibliography for those who want to track back the information and keep on researching. The ARC version I had access to (in e-book format) contained a couple of images, but I do wonder if the paperback version will contain more images, or if the final version in e-book will perhaps contain links to the many artworks mentioned, as I think having access to images would enhance greatly the understanding and the enjoyment of the book. (I was familiar with many of the artists and some of their works, but not always with the ones mentioned. Not an easy read, not a book for everybody, but a festival for the senses and the minds of those interested in the topic and not afraid of going on a journey through a man’s obsession with art and love). If you love Picasso, Paris circa 1920s and 1920s, and enjoy rich descriptions and digging beyond the surfaces of human behaviour, you must read this novel.

Book description

In the early 1920s, immaculate gentleman, Jacques Doucet descends into the world of anarchist art, the occult and the dark turmoil of his past – involving the death of his beloved Madame R.
A disastrous journey leads the couturier and patron of the arts to confront the celebrated bohemians of the city, including Max Jacob, Andre Breton and Pablo Picasso. When troubled Doucet acquires the world’s most dangerous painting, it causes him to hack at the root of Picasso’s darkest secrets. Doucet showcases a fabulous art collection with such frenzied energy he destroys himself. Unwittingly in the process he discovers modern art’s incredible genesis.

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