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The one that got away

Contributor • 8 min read
The one that got away
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SINGAPORE (Dec 13): In Life with Picasso, Françoise Gilot writes about her decade-long relationship with the legendary Spanish artist Pablo Ruiz Picasso, one of the most prolific artists of the 20th century and the grandmaster of Cubism. Written together with Carlton Lake, an art critic and curator, it was first published in 1964. At the time, it was deemed a scandalous memoir and was denounced by the art community that supported Picasso.

The artist himself desperately tried to stop the publication of the book as it provided intimate details about his personal life. Gilot had also penned Picasso’s private thoughts on his fellow artists — those whom he admired and scorned. To Picasso, it was an exposé filled with controversial narratives written by a woman whom he thought was seeking revenge — for he had allowed no one else to be so close to him.

I had read the first publication two decades ago to understand his psychologically charged portraits, for many of the women in his life became the subject matter of his paintings. Gilot in her book expounds on his works. I was also intrigued by the beautiful Gilot, an intelligent and progressive woman of her time who studied at both Cambridge University and the Sorbonne. Despite the huge age gap between them and her privileged background, she chose to live with Picasso — first as his lover, muse and assistant and finally as the mother of their children, Claude and Paloma.

The second release by New York Review of Books Classics has an introduction by the writer Lisa Alther, who views the story of Gilot and Picasso as literature before the #MeToo era. She focuses on Gilot, whom she thinks was too young to know the ways of the world when life was bleak during World War II, and was seduced and manipulated by the egotistical Picasso. Alther asserts that Gilot was as much a contributor to Picasso’s art as he was to hers during the time they were together, something the art world had refused to acknowledge then.

Gilot starts the book by describing her serendipitous encounter with Picasso in 1943, at a Left Bank restaurant not far from where he lived in Paris. Their tables were next to one another and Picasso could not resist flirting with Gilot and her friend. She was 21, a budding artist, and he a celebrated painter at 61.

But Picasso was not only renowned for his creative work — his intriguing relationships with women had also made him infamous. His then companion was Dora Maar, a famed photographer who had become his latest muse. But there were others, and he was still married to Olga Khokhlova, the Russian ballerina, when Gilot met him. Picasso lived a precarious life, one that seemed justified due to his acclaimed status.

When told that Gilot and her friend were aspiring painters, he cynically remarked: “Girls who look like that can’t be painters.” He proceeded to invite Gilot to study his work at his studio, a privilege no young artist could refuse. Captivated, Gilot was determined to learn more from Picasso, despite sensing that his interest in her was for something more.

Born into a rich family, Gilot was introduced to the joys of art and study through her parents — her authoritarian industrialist father and her gifted ceramicist mother. At 17, after completing her studies in literature and philosophy, she was encouraged by her father to pursue a degree in law, but the start of the war ended her formal education. She then turned to painting as a career, and by 21, her art was selling.

After meeting Picasso, Gilot regularly returned to his studio to be with him. Fascinated by her beauty and intellect, Picasso opened up his world to her, familiarising her with his thinking and tribe. The milieu included Jean Cocteau, Man Ray, Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre, Henri Matisse, Georges Braque and Gertrude Stein. Very quickly, Picasso and Gilot established an intellectually stimulating connection, for Gilot was unlike the other women in his life.

With each new woman, there was a source of renewal for Picasso’s art. Did he use them to stimulate his creativity? One can only wonder. Apart from Khokhlova, his first wife and mother to his son Paulo, and Maar, the surrealist photographer with a penchant for knives and depression, Picasso’s women included Marie-Thérèse Walter, his mistress, muse and mother to his daughter Maya.

Very early on, Gilot was made aware of these relationships, but she could not resist his overtures even though she had prophesied a destructive end for herself. He was to her, “the great painter that everyone knew and admired, a very intelligent witty man”. They spent six months getting to know each other before they became lovers.

Although she recognised they had conflicting temperaments, she explains how this mental disturbance fuelled their mutual attraction. Not long after,
she left her family to live with him. Outraged, her father cut all ties with her. Fortunately, her grandmother stayed close and provided emotional support.

In her book, Gilot writes about the development of their relationship alongside his art. She is a worthy art critic and writer, explaining in detail the workings
behind his creations — paintings, lithographs, sculptures, ceramics and more. The critique also included the works of other artists such as Eugène Delacroix,
Alberto Giacometti and Matisse, whom she came to know through her association with Picasso.

Gilot includes anecdotes of their travels to the south of France, Picasso’s political associations and the discussions they had as a couple about life and love. Gilot
was certainly no doormat. Nor was she just an apprentice working for her master. Picasso depended on her to help him with his artistic creations and endeavours.

Throughout the period, Gilot maintained her independence by continuing her own artistic endeavours, although this slowed down when she became a mother.
Picasso was particularly kind during her pregnancies, a period she speaks fondly about in her memoirs. There is even some loving chatter about the children, whom she admits had a good relationship with Picasso in their early years.

But with children came domesticity and a more structured life, one that Picasso found suffocating. With the stabilisation of their relationship, he gradually
withdrew from her, and their love for each other rapidly fell apart; she had become a maternal figure. It was this metamorphosis that marked the end of their physical relationship.

Picasso’s absence from home and his philandering brought much anguish to Gilot, who finally accepted that permanence was not in his character, and that the age gap between them was too huge. The relationship had run its course. Picasso had become extremely controlling and sadistic with age.

Whenever she spoke about separation, he told her she was nothing without him. “Your job is to remain at my side, to devote yourself to me and the children,” he said to her. To be passive and submissive was how Picasso perceived women should be.

Despite her loneliness, Gilot persevered with their union for the sake of the children until it was no longer tenable. When he refused her the medical care
that she urgently needed, Gilot found the strength to leave him, taking their children with her to live in Paris. Not long after, Picasso’s last muse, Jacqueline Roque, moved in to live with him.

Gilot was the only woman to walk away from Picasso. Financially independent, thanks to the art she sold and her family wealth, she was able to start a new life on her own terms. The others remained obsessed by him and two committed suicide.

When the book was published in 1964, Picasso was enraged. He never forgave Gilot and made things difficult for her as an artist. He refused to see Claude and Paloma ever again. Gilot went on to marry Luc Simon, a contemporary of hers, and later, Jonas Salk, the polio vaccine pioneer, to whom she remained married till his death. At 98 years old, she remains a remarkable painter in her own right and continues to exhibit around the world.

Life with Picasso is a fascinating read about Gilot’s love affair with the icon and an invaluable historical account of the gifted artist and the bohemian community of that era. Through her, we see the man for who he truly was — a difficult and troubled genius with an erratic temperament that would waiver between love, hate, kindness and cruelty.

Gilot’s writing is warm, witty and without malice. She acknowledges Picasso’s greatness and expresses eternal gratitude to him despite everything that he was. In writing this story, she has emerged from under his shadow to become the woman and painter that she was meant to be.

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