Life with Picasso

This 46 year old book should be on any art enthusiasts list.
Life with Picasso, a memoir written by Francoise Gilot, is not in itself a complete bio of Gilot’s life, but true to the title it is the story of the 9 years she lived with Pablo Picasso.  As we delve into her perspective, we find the story mainly about the man who created Cubism, a post-war Communist and famous artist of the time in exile in France.  Gilot paints a sublime picture of Picasso; an angel herself it seems, throwing herself into the fires of the devil.  At times Picasso is very caring and passionate for her: she models for him often, he teaches her the finer details of art and painting in return for her considerable devotion and unquestioning behavior (she is so young, 21 to his 61 when they meet) but gives her relatively little else of himself in return.  At some points he treats her with open disdain and insult, always placating later that, of course she should know, he has a temper, he doesn’t mean it.  This happens so much that my dear friend Lisa, who recommended this book to me would ask:  Don’t you want to bash him on the head yet?  To which I whole-heartedly answered, Yes!

Francoise puts up with way more than an average “wife” would in any day or time, including the wife and past lovers of Picasso’s who somehow leak back into his life often, never really leaving.  His wife, Olga, even takes to following them around – at one alarming point she actually physically assaults Francoise, to which Picasso laughs.  Any woman would be sure to end something here, but such was Gilot’s love and understanding of this peculiar artist.  She was able to put up with his temper, his seemingly OCD compulsions (one time it took her three hours to get him to decide to get up for a trip they had planned, he not being able to decide if they should go …or not), and his possible Bi-Polar illness, all aside from the fact that he was a plain out self-centered bastard,  but a charismatic one which we see clearly portrayed when Francoise describes the many people who flock around him as well as the ones who avoid him.

There came a point I like dearly in which Francoise, a talented painter herself, who not only bears Picasso two children and relinquishes all else of herself there, but also surges forward in her own art work.  She is offered a show of her own by Picasso’s art dealer.  She immediately said she would have to discuss it with Picasso.  My instinctive fear was that Picasso would say something like this to her: “No, you are not good enough, not ready!  Who do you think you are? Me?”  But instead he was overjoyed and he supported her fully.  I suddenly thought he wasn’t so bad after all, a real Renaissance man.

But alas, a self-centered prick is always just that.  Rarely do the spots change, beautiful and talented and intelligent though he may be.  (Yes, I think Picasso was beautiful – something about his eyes.  And Francoise too…alarming in her natural beauty…)

But here in essence is my favorite excerpt.  It is a hint of the way Picasso was, but is more about Francoise herself and the children, who we read little about.  For a number of reasons this part brought me to tears.

Between and around my various jobs, I managed to find time to paint on my own.  When I went to live in the Rue Des Grands-Augustins, I had stopped painting for about three years and spent whatever free time I had drawing.  It had seemed to me that if I were to go on painting, it would be impossible to work next to Pablo without reflecting his presence.  I felt, though, that if I concentrated on the structural qualities in my drawing, I would be more likely to make progress in line with my own natural development, and that if I was being influenced by Pablo’s work, I would become aware of it more easily since fewer elements were involved than there would be in painting.  In 1948 I began working in gouache and in 1949 I went back to oil painting.

It would not have been feasible for me to work at Pablo’s atelier, even though he had ample room.  Working at home I was more subject to interruptions but I could keep an eye on other things — the children, for example.  Paloma rarely bothered me.  She was, as Pablo often pointed out, an ideal girl-child.  She slept almost around the clock, ate everything she was supposed to and behaved like a model for her kind.

“She’ll be a perfect woman,” Pablo said.  “Passive and submissive.  That’s the way all girls should be.  They ought to stay asleep just like that until they’re twenty-one.”  He spent many hours sketching and painting her as she slept.  She was so passive, in fact, that she rarely talked to either one of us.  And yet during some of her waking periods, we used to hear her chattering endlessly to Claude.  Afterward Claude would speak to us for both of them.  She seemed to want to remain a baby.  She would bring us flowers and present them, in baby talk, long after she was talking normally to Claude.  She was never rebellious, but she never obeyed.  Claude, on the other hand, argued about everything.  After one drawn-out session with him, Pablo told him, “You’re the son of the woman who says ‘no.’  There’s no doubt about that.”

It must have been lonely for them much of the time; they almost never saw their father, and their mother barricaded herself behind her studio door whenever she could see a spare hour or two before her.

Once as I was working at a painting that had been giving me a great deal of trouble, I heard a small, timid knock at the door.

“Yes,” I called out and kept on working. I heard Claude’s voice, softly, from the other side of the door.

“Mama, I love you.”

I wanted to go out, but I couldn’t put down my brushes, not just then.  “I love you, too, my darling,” I said, and kept at my work.

A few minutes passed.  Then I heard him again, “Mama, I like your painting.”

“Thank you, darling,” I said.  “You’re an angel.”

In another minute, he spoke out again.  “Mama, what you do is very nice.  It’s got fantasy in it but it’s not fantastic.”

That stayed my hand, but I said nothing.  He must have felt me hesitate.  He spoke up, louder now.  “It’s better than Papa’s,”  he said.

I went to the door and let him in.

-from Life with Picasso, page 256-257.


3 Responses to “Life with Picasso”

  1. Lisa Chapman Says:

    This is such a terrific post Jenn, so well crafted and written – I loved reading it! I’m so glad you enjoyed the book, except for Picasso’s ticking you off that is. =)

    Love, Lis


  2. tnkhubchandani Says:

    Name of Picasso gets respect everywhere whether it is an article or painting.


  3. Ms Gilot has given an interview about her life with Picasso appearing as an exclusive in Australia. (See “GoodWeekend’) July 23 issue. By Janet Hawley. Worth a read, if you care to learn more about the master and his lovers and children.


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