The Entwined Lives of Françoise Gilot and Pablo Picasso

Understanding Picasso’s art, Gilot’s memoir shows, is inseparable from understanding both his genius and monstrousness.

Early on in their relationship, the painter and writer Françoise Gilot almost left Pablo Picasso. It was 1946, and the pair had gone from Paris to the South of France for the summer. It sounds romantic and likely would have been, if Picasso hadn’t insisted that they stay in the house he had given to the photographer Dora Maar, his partner before Gilot. Maar wasn’t around, but soon after they arrived, Picasso began receiving devoted daily letters from yet another former lover, Marie-Thérèse Walter, which he would read aloud every morning. As if that weren’t enough, the place was overrun with scorpions. Suddenly, Gilot found herself stuck in a “hostile environment,” as she writes in her memoir, Life With Picasso, which was originally published in 1964 and recently rereleased by New York Review Books

Over the previous three years, Gilot and Picasso—who were 21 and 61, respectively, when they met—had a drawn-out courtship and then spent a short period living together in Picasso’s Paris studio. The relationship hadn’t been entirely smooth, but it had been magnetic and intimate. Gilot had met Maar in Paris, but Southern France was where Gilot realized for the first time how much Picasso’s former partners remained a part of his life. Later in the book, she calls this a “heavy load of his far-from-dead past, which was beginning to seem like an albatross around my neck.”

So, in a decision that seemed half logical and half panicked, Gilot did the only thing she could think of. She fled. One day while Picasso was out for a drive, she left the house and decided to hitchhike to Marseille; she hadn’t been at it long before Picasso came by and picked her up. After reprimanding and trying to comfort her, he offered up his grand solution for Gilot’s problems: She should have a baby. “It was just as though he had told me that I ought to learn how to sole shoes,” she writes; in other words, “a very practical thing to know but not at all urgent just at the moment.” Picasso, however, was insistent. “You are developed only on the intellectual level. Everywhere else you’re retarded,” he said. “You won’t know what it means to be a woman until you have a child.”

Gilot was skeptical, but she was also in love, so she heeded Picasso’s advice and became pregnant shortly thereafter. She would stay with him for another seven years and have a second baby after another difficult run-in with one of his exes, the ballet dancer Olga Khokhlova. Gilot was fifth in a line of long-term partners (in addition to many more lovers and girlfriends) who not only inspired but also supported Picasso through the ups and downs of both his temper and his career. He left the first four of them and died while married to the sixth. Gilot, who in the summer of 1953 took her children and left, was the only one to walk away.

Many writers have devoted books to Picasso, from memoirs to academic tomes to biographies; the art historian John Richardson alone penned four volumes chronicling his 91 years of life. In fact, books about Picasso have become their own kind of cottage industry, which helps fuel his reputation as one of the world’s greatest artists. The appearance of each one seems to quietly bolster a long-standing premise: that here is a man continually worth discussing—and forgiving—because he was a genius who can never be fully understood.

Life With Picasso, which Gilot cowrote with the journalist and art critic Carlton Lake, was an unusual entry in the genre when it appeared in 1964. The closest analogue was Picasso et Ses Amis, a memoir by Fernande Olivier, the artist’s first partner, which was published in French in 1933 and coincidentally released in English the same year as Life With Picasso. Like Olivier’s, Gilot’s book is neither scholarly nor reverential but rather a tell-all of the couple’s time together, from their first meeting—by chance at a restaurant in Paris in May 1943, during the German occupation—to the bitter aftermath of their breakup. It’s intimate and gossipy as well as clear-eyed and insightful. It takes the larger-than-life figure of Picasso and repaints him as a brilliant but insecure artist and a loving but tyrannical man. It is an excruciatingly honest book.

Gilot was skeptical, but she was also in love, so she heeded Picasso’s advice and became pregnant shortly thereafter. She would stay with him for another seven years and have a second baby after another difficult run-in with one of his exes, the ballet dancer Olga Khokhlova. Gilot was fifth in a line of long-term partners (in addition to many more lovers and girlfriends) who not only inspired but also supported Picasso through the ups and downs of both his temper and his career. He left the first four of them and died while married to the sixth. Gilot, who in the summer of 1953 took her children and left, was the only one to walk away.

Many writers have devoted books to Picasso, from memoirs to academic tomes to biographies; the art historian John Richardson alone penned four volumes chronicling his 91 years of life. In fact, books about Picasso have become their own kind of cottage industry, which helps fuel his reputation as one of the world’s greatest artists. The appearance of each one seems to quietly bolster a long-standing premise: that here is a man continually worth discussing—and forgiving—because he was a genius who can never be fully understood.

Life With Picasso, which Gilot cowrote with the journalist and art critic Carlton Lake, was an unusual entry in the genre when it appeared in 1964. The closest analogue was Picasso et Ses Amis, a memoir by Fernande Olivier, the artist’s first partner, which was published in French in 1933 and coincidentally released in English the same year as Life With Picasso. Like Olivier’s, Gilot’s book is neither scholarly nor reverential but rather a tell-all of the couple’s time together, from their first meeting—by chance at a restaurant in Paris in May 1943, during the German occupation—to the bitter aftermath of their breakup. It’s intimate and gossipy as well as clear-eyed and insightful. It takes the larger-than-life figure of Picasso and repaints him as a brilliant but insecure artist and a loving but tyrannical man. It is an excruciatingly honest book [ . . . ]

Continue at THE NATION: The Entwined Lives of Françoise Gilot and Pablo Picasso | The Nation

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