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The Life of Pablo Picasso

Françoise Gilot's classic memoir sheds light on the famous painter.

Life With Picasso by Françoise Gilot and Carlton Lake, out now from New York Review of Books, tells the story of Gilot’s love affair with Pablo Picasso and the life they shared when the painter was at the peak of his popularity.

Less famous than Picasso’s other wives, including the painter Dora Maar, Gilot was often underestimated by history. This memoir corrects that wrong. It’s a remarkably fluid and engaging book, doubly so because Gilot, French by birth, wrote in English. And her voice, sure and strong, presents a subtle edge against Picasso’s inconstancy. Art critic Carlton Lake, another sure hand, co-wrote the text and helped to ensure that the stories unfolded chronologically.

The memoir was originally published in 1964 to scandal. The reprint still feels explosive, as Gilot documents the caprices and triumphs of modernism. The book was a smash hit in the 1960s for just cause. In voice, Gilot evokes parts of Simone de Beauvoir’s writing, America Day by Day, The Prime of Life and the content resembles some of the era’s great catalogs, Jean Cocteau’s Journals or Everybody’s Autobiography by Gertrude Stein.

As we learn, Gilot began a romantic relationship with Picasso in 1944 when she was twenty one and he was sixty one. She was a student and an aspiring painter. And despite the obvious dynamic this difference in status and age created, their affair began in modest, almost strikingly formal terms. Gilot describes her interest in the painter as well as Picasso’s consternation at his own success in courtship. He was tentative, often seeking out excuses to pull Gilot aside for a conversation. Through the book Gilot describes a series of decisions she seeks to own, leading to a ten year domestic partnership with the world-famous Picasso that produced two children, lasting friendships, and a new world of thinking for the author. Gilot tells the story of this affair in a measured and humorous tone. So much so, that it’s peculiar the book caused a scandal on its initial release. The Picasso estate sought to block its publication. It’s our luck that they were unsuccessful.

Looking back, it’s astonishing to see the incredible celebrity of Picasso. He was treated like a national treasure in a way that was unmatched. After World War II, American GI’s began making pilgrimages to his home. They waited outside his office, sleeping on the floor of his studio to give him gifts. Hemingway dropped off a box of grenades. The painter’s celebrity provides some of the memoir’s funniest and most bizarre anecdotes. He kept an entourage around him, including Jaime Sabartés, Marcel Duchamp, a dour monk-like secretary, a jocular chauffeur over-fond of pastis, a pair of maids that wore Spanish black, and a housekeeper that tended close attention to rabbits. The motley crew worked hard to keep other friends and acolytes at bay through strategic diversions, relenting only to let Picasso fuel his feud with Braque, or tease his confidant and dealer Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler.

Gilot describes Picasso’s changeable petulance as something like an overbearing manic depressive child. He’s an art monster in the classic sense. His pettiness makes for entertaining and frustrating reading. When visiting fellow painters and sculptors the painter is unscrupulous, going as far as to steal. Much of his brilliance, we learn, stems from a deep nastiness. in his stealing. And much of the brilliance that shines through, comes from that nastiness.

One fascinating aspects of this memoir is the outsider’s view that Gilot brings to mid-century surrealism and the celebrity of modern artists. She gives a refreshing and evenhanded account of some of the personalities that brought high Modernism into the mainstream. She visits with Gertrude Stein, commenting in slightly outmoded language about her distaste for Alice B. Toklas, “I might have gone back if I hadn’t been so terrorized by Miss Stein’s little acolyte.”

Picasso was close with a number of painters and poets, including Paul Éluard, from whom he couldn’t be more different: “Paul and Pablo were at opposite poles in their personalities. Pablo basically aggressive and changeable, and Paul a very harmonious being. I could see from the start that Paul was the kind of person who, without demanding anything of anyone, obtained the best from everyone.”

Picasso was heavily influenced by the thinking and politics of his friends, including Éluard, Louis Aragaon, and André Breton. The rupture in surrealism after World War II that sent Aragon towards Stalinism and Breton towards the disavowal of organized political parties also affected Picasso. Though not a doctrinaire himself, he did formally support the French Communist Party, even in its slide towards rule by decree.

Gilot captures Éluard’s charisma. He always made Picasso laugh. He was a good listener. Aragon could be more competitive. Following the breakup of surrealism, Picasso and Breton couldn’t reconcile their politics.

Jean Cocteau was a frequent visitor. Picasso helped him design costumes for outrageous campy plays. For one production Cocteau staged a vibrant fantasia with bright white togas of Ancient Greece, and stark death-like black columns along the stage. The play’s lead, the object of his affection, Jeannot, would be dressed in a fifteen foot purple cape. When Cocteau asked him to design a scepter he relented, but made it overly long to prevent Jeannot from tripping down the stairs, he suggested with a grin.

The anecdotes are often very funny. Some artists knew how to get a rise out of Picasso. Braque invites him to visit over the noon hour, but never offers him any of the lamb roasting in the kitchen. There’s the calculated subversion of Joan Miró: “Miró, too, was expected to justify his presence in the group in some manner. So what did he do? He went around declaiming politely, ‘Down with the Mediterranean.'” At the peak of the first surrealist movement, the artists and poets provoked one another to scandalize the public. Robert Desnos greeted a priest with “Bonjour Madame;” Michel Leiris instigated the gendarme. 

Gilot was close with many of the great modernists. But none more so than Henri Matisse. Her conversations with Matisse and Picasso make up some of the best parts of the memoir. Matisse instilled an early modern ethic around arts practice at once affirming and denying the idea of the avant garde. About his practice he said, “I didn’t expect to recover from my second operation but since I did, I consider that I’m living on borrowed time. Every day that dawns is a gift to me.” And later, “When we arrive on the scene, the movement of painting for a moment contains us, swallows us up, and we add, perhaps, a little link to the chain. Then the movement continues on past us and we are outside it and we don’t understand it any longer.”

Matisse hints at an that his practice was inherently built on the kind of social network that Gilot and Picasso built in their years together. In one exchange, Picasso described the simple way that Matisse used color to suggest other colors, eventually working around “the color,” in a theory of negativism. Picasso called this “good lungs,” in that such minimalism opened up his canvases. Gilot perfectly illustrates the idea. Its this kind of conversation, the thinking out loud about art, and the expansion of Picasso and Gilot’s own artistic practice that makes the text so exciting. When the poet Pierre Reverdy sought out Picasso to illustrate the text of his long poem, “The Song of the Dead,” Picasso and Gilot sought inspiration in illuminated texts, ultimately settling on an etching process that involved sugar, hot water, varnish, acid, a tube of black gouache and two tubes of gamboge. The result was iconic and striking. It came to define a pillar of the mid-century aesthetic. Perhaps most famously in Picasso’s Dove of Peace, which has been adopted by anti-war movements for the last 70 years,

As both witness of and participant in the life of Picasso, Gilot captures a mind in constant conversation, as well as the essence of her partnership with the famous painter. Gilot’s precise descriptions of her experience and observations continue to fascinate.

NONFICTION – MEMOIR
Life with Picasso
By Françoise Gilot and Carlton Lake
NYRB Classics
Published June 19, 2019

Françoise Gilot is a French painter, art critic, and author. In 1973 she was appointed art director of the scholarly journal Virginia Woolf Quarterly.

Carlton Lake was the Paris art critic for The Christian Science Monitor. He also contributed to The New Yorker and The Atlantic Monthly.

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