The artist Françoise Gilot was only 21 years old when she first met Pablo Picasso in 1943. One evening, in Paris, the two happened to be dining at the same restaurant. Picasso was there with his then partner Dora Maar and friends; Gilot with hers. At the end of the meal, Picasso walked over to Gilot’s table, offering a bowl of cherries and an invitation to visit his studio on Rue des Grands-Augustins. Picasso had already become an internationally famous artist, and Gilot observed that he no longer seemed like the “handsome animal” captured in Man Ray’s famous photographs from the 1920s and 1930s. Yet she was captivated. He was 61.
This, of course, is a well-known story, originally recounted in her 1964 memoir written with the American journalist Carlton Lake, “Life With Picasso,” which is being republished by New York Review of Books Classics this month. In it, Gilot describes a decade-long love affair with Picasso. She, too, was a serious painter, with ambitions to make a name for herself. Picasso eventually persuaded her to abandon her family and move in with him. At once, she became his student, partner, assistant, and then the mother of their two children, Claude and Paloma. The book focuses more on Picasso than her own progression as a painter and mother. Gilot was there to witness Picasso’s explorations with ceramics while living in Vallauris in the South of France, as well as his pioneering sculpture, lithography and assemblages. Gilot was also his subject, famously depicted in his 1946 painting “La Femme-Fleur,” inspired by a visit to Henri Matisse’s home. Teasingly, Matisse suggested to the competitive Picasso that if he were ever to paint Gilot, he would paint her hair green. In “La Femme-Fleur,” Gilot’s hair resembles leaves, her stemlike body sprouting abstract limbs and breasts.
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By the early 1950s, their relationship began to fray. “I think I loved Pablo as much as anyone can love someone else, but the thing he reproached me with later … was that I never trusted him. He may have been right, but it would have been hard for me to feel otherwise, since I came onstage with an unavoidably clear vision of three other actresses who had tried to play the same role, all of whom had fallen into the prompter’s box,” Gilot writes. She is alluding to Picasso’s previous wife Olga Khokhlova, as well as two other longtime mistresses: Dora Maar and Marie-Thérèse Walter. Of them all, Gilot was the only woman to ever walk away from Picasso.
Though Gilot’s book was a best seller, Picasso’s inner circle condemned it, most notably John Richardson, Picasso’s future biographer, who in 1965 wrote a scathing critique in the New York Review of Books, dismissively titled “Trompe l’Oeil”: “In Life with Picasso the artist’s complicated relations with family, mistresses, friends, colleagues, and dealers, not to speak of his private business arrangements and even his sexual habits, are unveiled to the public with such relish that one sometimes wonders why this book was serialized in the Atlantic Monthly and not in Confidential.” Indeed, Gilot included candid remarks by Picasso about his peers. About Marc Chagall: “I’m not crazy about those cocks and asses and flying violinists and all the folklore, but his canvases are really painted, not just thrown together.” Accounts of sexual dalliances were more sensational than they might be today. After the book’s publication, Picasso cut off the two children he had with Gilot. “We tried and tried and tried to see him,” Claude Picasso told Michael Kimmelman for this newspaper in 1996. “My father was locked away in his house. He didn’t answer the phone himself. So Paloma and I went separately, together, every year, two or three times, more. You have to realize, we didn’t live in the South of France, and his house was isolated. It wasn’t easy for a kid without a driver’s license to get there.”
Decades later, however, the book reads as surprisingly contemporary. Picasso is portrayed as both brilliant and tyrannical — possessive of Gilot but also careless with her desires and needs. As Picasso told Gilot, there are only two types of women: goddesses and doormats. The book does not diminish his art, but in its own way, it presents a man who could be remarkably self-absorbed and cruel to those closest to him. The myth of his genius must now contend with a frank depiction of his entitlement, immaturity and ego. Just last year, before his death, Richardson — who would become friends with Gilot — conceded that Gilot was more of an influence on Picasso than the other way around.
On a recent morning, I met with Gilot, 97, and her daughter Aurelia Engel (Gilot married twice after leaving Picasso; first to Engel’s father, Luc Simon, then to Jonas Salk) in her Upper West Side apartment, where she still paints. We discussed her memoir as well as her larger career. A show of Gilot’s monotypes will go on view at the Mac-Gryder Gallery in New Orleans on Aug. 3. The monotypes, which Gilot paints on a flat surface, pressing the image onto paper, are otherworldly and beautiful. Gilot’s use of color is magnificent, and the layered paint adds an airy, less deliberate effect. Some of the monotypes reference myths. Others are pure abstractions. Understandably, Gilot seems more engaged discussing her work than her life with Picasso. What follows is an edited and condensed version of our conversation.
Thessaly La Force: What was the original reception of the book when it first published in 1964?
Françoise Gilot: Well, I don’t remember. It was so long ago.
TLF: Do you have any thoughts on it today, looking at it after so many decades?
FG: No, I am living in the present, not in the past. Or in the future, I don’t know. I live day by day, and what is happening that day, the next day, is important to me — so I don’t care. I’m not somebody who cares very much about “this happened on such a day,” all that.
TLF: Of course.
FG: Also, painting is not something that — let’s say, if you are doing mathematics, you might be interested by the numbers, but in painting, you are not. In painting, you are interested by the relationship of colors to one another, or shapes, things like that, not at all a story of any kind.
TLF: Do you feel with painting there’s not so much a sense of narrative, or it’s more about, as you say, color or form?
FG: Painting is about painting.
TLF: But I’m not a painter.
FG: I know, but that’s very important. Because, so many people think you have to have a story going on. Sometimes, you can, but it’s not necessary.
TLF: Are you painting every day?
FG: Maybe I’m drawing, or maybe I’m looking outside, or I don’t know what.
TLF: How do you fill your days?
FG: Today, for me, painting is as natural as breathing. I usually breathe. I don’t stop breathing. It’s very easy. It’s not something out of a mysterious domain. For me, or for any painter, it’s something that happens every day. The ability to work with your hands, to tell about your feelings, that’s what it is. That’s the way it goes.
FG: It’s like writing a poem or something like that. It’s the same thing.
FG: It’s more like a poem than like historian prose.
TLF: How long does it take you to finish a painting?
FG: As long as a day, as long as a month or a year.
TLF: It depends?
FG: It depends completely. For each one, it’s a different thing. I may finish it tonight or not finish it for six months. It doesn’t matter. That has nothing to do, as we say, with the price of fish.
TLF: When do you know you’ve finished with a painting?
FG: It’s visible to any eye, including mine.
TLF: Well, your memoir is being republished this month, and I wanted to talk to you a little bit about the story I’ve heard about you and the biographer John Richardson becoming friends, because he famously first wrote a scathing review of your book when it came out.
FG: Yes, so, he did not know me. He had never met me, and then he judged me according to things he had heard. Then, when he met me, we became very good friends. What can I say? Many people thought that by being against me, they would be pleasing to Picasso. That’s why they did it. When they saw that it had no reaction from him, then they abandoned that idea.
TLF: Wow. Interesting. I loved it. I think it’s beautifully written and beautifully told —
FG: On top of it all, I am not saying anything that is disagreeable. Quite the contrary. They knew I’m the person who knew him the best, and they knew my book would be better than the others. They had to try to hit it first.
FG: And they did.
TLF: The book is so much more about Picasso than it is you. You’re not very present in the book.
FG: Well, I am the eye that is looking at a spectacle. I am not talking about the eye, I am thinking about what it is I’m seeing.
TLF: I understand that was a choice you made because you wanted to focus on Picasso. But I would have read more about your life, too.
FG: I could write a book like that, but that would be with a different title. I’m quite capable of writing all those things. I’ve been writing poetry. I wrote other things. But, if I write about Picasso, it has to be about Picasso.
TLF: Were you afraid of the reaction readers might have as you were working on it?
FG: I’m never afraid of anything. That’s not my style. If I would be afraid, then I would not do it. But, I am not afraid. Why should I be afraid? Afraid of what?
TLF: I don’t know. Some people are afraid.
FG: Afraid of fear itself.
FG: But that is stupid. You can say anything you want about me, but I am not stupid.
TLF: I don’t think anyone would say that. Some of the most amazing moments you described were the conversations you had with Picasso about painting and his peers such as Braque, Matisse and Chagall.
FG: Well, we were living together for — I don’t know how many years — at least 10 years. We knew each other, not only through what we did but through what we talked about together, et cetera. It’s a long relationship. It’s a very important type of thing.
TLF: How did your own paintings evolve over that time period?
FG: Well, like anybody, like any painter, the art evolves by the type of experience he or she has. That’s what happens. You experience life. Today, we see that it has a little bit of sun. Well, we can think about the sun, or, on the contrary, think about the rain, because we don’t have the rain. I don’t know. What I’m writing about sometimes can have nothing to do with a plan. I may not plan it at all. It’s spontaneous. I think it’s important that you be spontaneous.
TLF: In so many ways Picasso seems like a brilliant person but also very selfish. Do you think in order to be an artist —
FG: First of all, the reaction that was negative was from the circle around Picasso. They thought my book would be better, so they had to condemn it beforehand.
FG: Of course, because I knew everything much better than they ever would. I knew in advance that I would have to fight for it, because people would not like me. It would not be to everybody’s taste.
FG: That can be. Sometimes people like you. Sometimes people don’t. But you are not going to fashion yourself according to other people’s wishes, whether they are negative or positive, you know? You have to be true to yourself and true to the truth. That’s the only two things that are important. I don’t think I have to be true to what the public in general thinks, because, then, why should I say something they already have made up their mind about?
TLF: Right, right.
FG: No, I am going to say many times: They only think, they don’t know.
TLF: Some people would say that’s very brave. Do you think one has to be — in order to be a genius, in order to be a great artist — do you have to behave in the way Picasso did?
FG: Well, he was selfish, but more so, 10 times. Because, he thought he was 100 times better than any other. That’s why he was 100 times more egoist.
TLF: Can you be a good artist and not be selfish?
FG: No. Well, “selfish” is the wrong word, first of all. Because an artist should have a big ego. It’s the normal thing.
FG: Because what he has to deliver is his own personality as well as the relationship of his personality to the world at large. An artist cannot answer to the question of people about I don’t know what. He answers about his own questioning of the truth.
TLF: Do you think it’s harder for women artists than it is for men?
FG: I don’t see any difference that sex would bring into that. Why should it be different to be a woman or a man? We can probably pay attention to different things than a man would. That would allow the truth about certain things to be known better, because a woman has reflected upon it and thought of what was a real solution to that problem.
TLF: But, I wonder if men are allowed to be —
FG: Why should we be allowed to be anything? We are not allowed to anything. That’s the first point.
FG: We don’t have to be allowed, because to be allowed would mean that you are just doing exactly what you are told, which is not creativity at all. A painter, a writer, whether it’s a man or a woman, is someone who says what he or she has to say about a given subject matter. If they are not able to do that, then they should stay home.
TLF: My other favorite section of the book was the last chapter, which is about your decision to leave Picasso.
FG: You think I remember what I wrote in the last chapter or even the first one? No, because I don’t spend my time looking at my own past. For me, I write it. When I write, I try to be as truthful as possible. Then, if I am done, I am finished. Why should I look twice?
TLF: I agree. But, there’s something he says to you when you are parting ways, where he says essentially that you’re indebted to him. That life will never be as good without him. Do you want to say something for the record in response to that? You seem to have lived a great life after him.
FG: No. I knew. We have only one life. You have to act your own deeds and your own life, either as a positive or a negative. It’s what it is.
TLF: In the book, André Gide says you are the kind of person who may have a lot of remorse but will never have regrets. Do you think that’s true?
FG: Well, why should I have regret? Regret is something you have not done. When I went away, I was through with that. That’s why I didn’t stay. I didn’t stay just in order to stay put.
TLF: Yes, of course. That’s why I love the book.
FG: I think it’s very important in life to have no regrets. “Regrets” meaning not having done this or that. Well, it’s much better to have done this or that, and, therefore, it had a result. That is the objective in real life, and then you cope with it as well as you can.
TLF: You’re much older than I am, so you would know.
FG: The most important thing in life is to be true to yourself. You can be true to others, if you have time.
Thessaly La Force is the features director of T Magazine.
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