The art of Francoise Gilot

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TateShots: Françoise Gilot – Studio Visit

Red and Gold, 1978. Oil on canvas

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Francoise Gilot

I employ the word “muse” on this blog always with complimentary intent. I myself am a muse to artists, and I revel in that role, as you all know. I even made sure to incorporate it in my blog title. But the word “muse” alone is woefully inadequate to describe Francoise Gilot, Picasso’s companion for ten years, and the mother of two of his children, Paloma and Claude.

Of all the biographies I’ve had to research for this blog, none has absorbed me, impressed me, and inspired me more than Francoise Gilot’s. I have come to admire her immensely. Fascinating, beautiful, intelligent, and accomplished, Francoise is a woman who stands fully on her own. Her “attachment” to Picasso need not define her life, her vision, or her place in history. While I am certainly no expert on Picasso’s psychology (nor would I want to be!), I will go out on a limb and editorialize for a moment. I believe the biggest blunder of Picasso’s personal life was his failure to hold onto Francoise Gilot. He attracted a woman of great depth, ambition, intellect, and artistic talent, and blew it in the end with his abuse, disrespect, and mistreatment. Major fuck up.

You are probably all familiar with Robert Capa’s famous photograph of Picasso and Francoise cavorting on the beach. What a great shot. Francoise is radiant, and I love that Picasso is holding the umbrella for her. That’s right, Pablo. Treat her like a lady!

Born in the Paris suburbs in 1921, Francoise knew at the age of five that she wanted to be an artist. While her mother and grandmother were supportive of her aspiration, her autocratic father, Emile, was not. His own dreams for Francoise included law school and a prestigious career in the mainstream. She dutifully attended classes and exhibited solid academic ability. She earned a degree in philosophy from the University of Paris and a degree in English Literature from the British Institute. But Francoise doggedly held onto her artistic pursuits throughout her youth, and had to do it all covertly so as not to anger her father. She learned etching and drypoint. She sought out art classes and instructors to give her guidance and support. She set up an art studio in her grandmother’s attic. She appeased her demanding, despotic father by attending law school, all the while knowing that her passion for art would not, and could not, be quelled.

In 1940, Francoise joined other students in Paris for a rally at the Arc De Triomphe to honor the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and commemorate the armistice of World War 1 – a brazen, impudent act since Paris, at that time, was already under German Occupation. Needless to say, the German soldiers didn’t take kindly to the students’ activism. They harassed them, a melee ensued, and many were arrested. Francoise found her name placed on the “watch list” and was considered a hostage. She was “trapped” in Paris for months, and had to report daily to the local police station.

Picasso’s drawing, Portrait of Francoise, from 1946:

When Francoise finally announced to her father that she intended to devote herself completely to her art, Emile Gilot became livid. He cut her off from the family, and their relationship was irreparably damaged. Resilient, resourceful, and determined, Francoise moved in with her sympathetic grandmother, and supported herself by giving horseback riding lessons in the Bois du Bologne.

In 1943, Francoise was in Paris for an exhibit of her art at the Madeleine Decre Gallery. She and her good friend Genevieve were sitting in a cafe when they spotted Picasso at a nearby table. Although he was with his then companion Dora Maar, that didn’t stop Picasso from approaching the young women with a bowl of cherries and asking his friend for an introduction. The friend obliged, and presented Genevieve as the “pretty one” and Francoise as the “intelligent one”.

Francoise had invited Picasso to her art exhibit and, to her amazement, he came. He then reciprocated by inviting her to his studio. After a courtship dance of studio visits, walks through Paris, afternoons at the museums, and drawing sessions, a May-December romance started to develop between the 61 year old artistic giant and the independent 21 year old free spirit. But Francoise did not jump impulsively into a relationship with Picasso. She likely had some trepidations. So Picasso had to chase her – a predatory role-play he no doubt enjoyed.

Another photo of Picasso and Francoise. Although he is positioned in the background, ostensibly like a subordinate, he seems to be eyeballing her, like the control freak he was:

Picasso and Gilot’s circle of friends included some very prominent figures of the 20th century cultural scene. Among them were George Braque, Marc Chagall, Jean Cocteau, and Picasso’s longtime good friends, Gertrude Stein and Henri Matisse, both of whom were very fond of Francoise.

Picasso and Francoise in Antibes:

They were happy for a time, their greatest source of joy undoubtedly their two boisterous children. They both drew inspiration from the kids and created art which featured the children’s spirits, curiosity, and playfulness around the home.

A charming Picasso family portrait:

But the good times wouldn’t last. Francoise became increasingly frustrated with Picasso’s domineering ways, oppressive temperament, and infidelity. He was jealous of her friendships, as they represented time and attention taken away from him. Once, in an angry rage, he burned a cigarette out in Francoise’s face.

The breakup was inevitable, and ugly. Francoise left with the two children. Upon hearing that their home had been ransacked by Picasso, Francoise returned to discover that Picasso had indeed emptied the place and taken many of her belongings; her book collection, drawings he had given her, letters and correspondence from Matisse. But the final vindictive blow came when Picasso used his considerable influence to have Francoise dropped from her gallery.

So by the still young age of 31, Francoise Gilot had already endured more than her share of totalitarian forces, from every which way; her personal relationships and a wartorn Europe. All trying to keep her down, manipulate her, and break her will. But they failed. Throughout it all, Francoise evolved as an artist, fed her passion, raised her children, and kept her sanity! Amid war, controlling men, and a tumultuous European 20th century.

A 1956 trip to Tunisia inspired this painting by Gilot, Entering the Souk. It depicts a busy marketplace:

Figure drawing by Francoise, The Pink Veil:

You guys didn’t think Monet had the exclusive rights to paint waterlilies, did you? Here they are a la Gilot:

I am so pleased that unlike many of Picasso’s female companions (or most of the other muses I discuss here) Francoise Gilot did not live a “post-Picasso” life of misery and loneliness, or meet with a tragic demise. What a relief! She continued to evolve as an artist, worked tirelessly, exploring new themes, and mastering diverse media. In 1970, Francoise met and married Dr. Jonas Salk, discoverer of the polio vaccine. The marriage was solid, extremely happy, and lasted 25 years until his death from congestive heart failure.

Francoise Gilot is alive and well, living in New York, still working, exhibiting, lecturing, writing, and as vital as ever. Her legacy is breathtaking; painter, illustrator, lithographer, author, and, perhaps most challenging, mother. Any woman who could survive and withstand both the Nazis and Pablo Picasso is officially my hero.

The website which served as an invaluable resource for me in composing this post was the Francoise Gilot Archives. There you can find detailed biographical information on Francoise and incredible images of her life and art. It’s an overall excellent site, and I highly recommend it. The extraordinary life of an extraordinary woman.

Also, YouTube has an hour long interview with Francoise on the Charlie Rose Show. Unfortunately the sound quality is terrible. I watched it, but it was disappointing for that reason. If you’re willing to give it a shot clickYouTube-FrancoiseGilot

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