on 6 July 2001
This book follows the decade or so that Francoise Gilot and Picasso were lovers, and covers their day-to-day lives, their discussions on art, their friends (Matisse, Gertrude Stein, Braque etc) and their children (Paloma and Claude). It's a wonderful biography, beautifully written and very evocative. You admire Francoise for sticking with Picasso for so long and are amazed at the genius that he was.
A great read whether or not you are interested in Picasso and his art.
Françoise first met Picasso in a restaurant in May 1943, when she was 21 and he was 61. He was immediately fascinated by her and she by him. She started visiting him, and he prepared to seduce her, but he expected resistance and was put off by the fact that she neither resisted nor egged him on. She was then studying literature and law at the Sorbonne, but she really wanted to devote all her time to painting. When she decided to give up the university, her violent father beat her up and she left home and stayed with her grandmother. (October 1943). After that she began to feel more than an interest in Picasso - she felt they had much in common and felt totally at ease with him.
Being in her own right an artist (good enough for Kahnweiler to put her under contract), she was very knowledgeable about paintings, and eventually about etchings, lithographs and about pottery also. She describes at length the objets trouvés which Picasso used as components of his sculptures. She records how Picasso explained to her what he was trying to do in his paintings and sculptures - and that may indeed help many readers to understand the mental processes and philosophies that lay behind the pictures. He also philosophized to justify his own selfishness and cruelty - he felt entitled to what he called his needs taking priority over everything, including the needs of others. Incapable of real love himself, he constantly complained about not being loved - though his studio was always thronged with admirers (whom he usually deliberately kept waiting for ages before he would receive them.) Of course he was a monster, and Françoise was perfectly aware of this; but she was still fascinated by him and thought she could cope with him and would not become a victim such as poor Dora Maar, his previous companion, had become by that time. But (against protests!) she allowed him to use her to humiliate Dora.
At times he told her that she did not mean all that much to him and that there was nothing permanent in their relationship. She knew that quite well and refused to feel victimized. She would simply not see him for weeks at a time. But then again he said he needed her and urged her to come and live with him. In 1946 she succumbed, merely leaving a note to her beloved grandmother. On two occasions when she was unhappy with Picasso, he suggested she should have a child - that would take her mind off her such thoughts. And on each occasion she followed his advice, giving birth first to their son Claude (1947) and then to their daughter Paloma (1949).
The book is brimful of anecdotes and of incidents in their every-day life - of Picasso’s uncontrollable rages, his self-pity, his selfishness, his sense of entitlement, his bullying, his contrariness and perversity, his jealous possessiveness, his superstitions; of the cruel tricks he played on art dealers. She quotes in inverted commas long passages of what Picasso said to her: not only his theories about art but also his torrents of abuse. They are probably correct in substance, but one does wonder: did she have such total recall? Did she keep a diary? To what extent did she reproduced his sayings reliably.
There are portraits of a plethora of dealers and artists who were in contact with Picasso: I thought those of Braque, of Giacometti and of Matisse are particularly vivid. (At this stage of their lives, in the late 1940s, the famous earlier rivalry between them had given way to as much friendship as Picasso was capable of.) Also excellent portraits of Marcel, Picasso’s characterful and devoted chauffeur, and of Sabartés, Picasso’s gloomy but equally devoted secretary.
Françoise tells us the back-stories of Picasso’s earlier women, and of course she would largely share their fate. Although he had urged her to have children, he became more distant after Paloma was born (just as he had been with Marie-Thérèse after she had given birth to his daughter Maia). He felt tied down to a stable family life, and told her she was no longer sexually attractive to him because she had become so thin. The difference this time was that Picasso said he still needed her (to help him in his work and to discuss his paintings with her), but in 1953 she decided to leave him rather than wait for him to leave her.
What are we to make of Françoise? It is astonishing to me that she had put up for so long with so much ill-treatment and verbal aggression from Picasso because she loved him. She even dedicates the book “to Pablo”, though this may be ironic. In relation to him she was both weak (in going along with him, often against her will) and strong (in apparently refusing to let him treat her like a doormat). The book is absorbing and extremely well-written (Carlton Lake, an American journalist, helped her to write it) - and although she says a good deal about her emotions throughout those years, she remains at the end something of an enigma to me.
Anyone with even a remote interest in art, or the art world of post-war Paris, should read this honest, dignified memoir.
Francoise Gilot was Picasso`s companion, lover, muse, helpmeet, sounding-board, and much else, for the best part of ten years from 1943, when she was a mere 21 and Picasso a still vigorous 61. Their time together, which produced two children, Claude & Paloma (both now in their sixties) is documented with quiet, judicious directness by this articulate woman, a fine artist in her own right - check out her website, she`s still with us in her ninetieth year.
Some deluded souls will read Life With Picasso as a one-time lover`s revenge on an impossible tyrant, whose possessiveness drove every woman to distraction and Gilot to eventually leave him, much to the great man`s infuriation. But this is nothing of the kind, however justified that description of PP might be. The bulk of this book recounts a partnership of mutual love & companionship, much humour (not that Picasso was exactly a laugh a minute, at least not intentionally) and sharing of ideas, not to mention ideals. Besides, however petulantly Picasso behaves, however unjustifiable his demands on those around him, he had willed himself to become the semi-mythical beast `Pablo Picasso` long before Gilot came on the scene. One took him or...or left him.
What also gives the book its status as one of the best memoirs of its era is the parade of legendary painters, sculptors, writers, philosophers, et al, who crop up regularly in its pages, usually preventing Picasso from doing what he loved best to do: work. Matisse, Braque, Sartre, Cocteau, Paul Eluard, Malraux and many others have walk-on parts in the drama played out chez Picasso, whether in Paris or further south. There is also a telling interlude when a nervous Francoise is introduced to the formidable Scylla & Charybdis of Parisian cultural life, Gertrude Stein and her baleful `straight man` Alice B Toklas. Stein evidently thought the world of herself, even if she did also manage to think the world of Picasso, Hemingway and other deserving courtiers at the same time. Toklas creeps about like a morose leech, giving both Francoise and the reader the willies, to put it bluntly. In one of the voluble Picasso`s rare moments of tactful, if artful, silence, he bemusedly looks on as Stein `interviews` the shy young Gilot, playing with her as a cat might with a mouse.
Gilot proves time and again in this book that she was never anybody`s mouse, however accommodating she may have appeared to others.
The recalled discussions between the author and PP on art and artists are priceless. It`s interesting that when she finally leaves Picasso, what he most misses is her intelligent comradeship, her unselfish forthrightness. (This is not to suggest that Picasso did not see every woman as selfish, especially if they should be mad and misguided enough, in his eyes, to want a life of their own.)
This essential memoir is both a credible portrait of a unique creative artist, and a discreet, though never mealy-mouthed, series of autobiographical vignettes from a fascinating life in its own right. One finishes Life With Picasso with a better understanding of its eponymous subject, as well as respect, admiration, and gratitude to its author.
on 4 August 2012
I was never a fan of biographical books, but after having read "Life" by Keith Richard and having found it quite interesting, I decided to give it another try. I selected this one because some weeks earlier I read an interview with Gilot, who claimed her career as a painter was greatly damaged by her personal relation with Picasso.
Her memoir of the years she spent with the famous Pablo is quite vivid and interesting even after all these years. We can really understand and symphatise with the young, inexperienced girl who fell for the much older, famous man. However, contrary to what I imagined, the life Gilot lead was not particularly luxurious. Of course, Picasso was rich and famous and they had an easier life than most during and after the war, but what I found interesting, is the description of the spartan conditions of their lives.
Besides that, the portrait of Picasso seems dispassionate enough to be sincere. Certainly not a flattering one, but it rings very true. A misoginist, past his most creative years, living slightly in the past, work-obsessed, dictatorial little man who destroyed all but one of the women who fell for him.
The artistic value of most of Picasso work is indisputable, however he produced an awful lot of material using all sorts of media and part of it is definitely not good. Mass production leads to disregarding details. I find particularly sad and ugly the stuff he produced at the enf of his life. The decline of the ogre... Luckily for her, Gilot escaped and lead what sound as an interesting and most rewarding life.