The Entwined Lives of Françoise Gilot and Pablo Picasso

The Entwined Lives of Françoise Gilot and Pablo Picasso

Fire and Brimstone

The entwined lives of Françoise Gilot and Pablo Picasso.


Early on in their relationship, the painter and writer Françoise Gilot almost left Pablo Picasso. It was 1946, and the pair had gone from Paris to the South of France for the summer. It sounds romantic and likely would have been, if Picasso hadn’t insisted that they stay in the house he had given to the photographer Dora Maar, his partner before Gilot. Maar wasn’t around, but soon after they arrived, Picasso began receiving devoted daily letters from yet another former lover, Marie-Thérèse Walter, which he would read aloud every morning. As if that weren’t enough, the place was overrun with scorpions. Suddenly, Gilot found herself stuck in a “hostile environment,” as she writes in her memoir, Life With Picasso, which was originally published in 1964 and recently rereleased by New York Review Books.

Over the previous three years, Gilot and Picasso—who were 21 and 61, respectively, when they met—had a drawn-out courtship and then spent a short period living together in Picasso’s Paris studio. The relationship hadn’t been entirely smooth, but it had been magnetic and intimate. Gilot had met Maar in Paris, but Southern France was where Gilot realized for the first time how much Picasso’s former partners remained a part of his life. Later in the book, she calls this a “heavy load of his far-from-dead past, which was beginning to seem like an albatross around my neck.”

So, in a decision that seemed half logical and half panicked, Gilot did the only thing she could think of. She fled. One day while Picasso was out for a drive, she left the house and decided to hitchhike to Marseille; she hadn’t been at it long before Picasso came by and picked her up. After reprimanding and trying to comfort her, he offered up his grand solution for Gilot’s problems: She should have a baby. “It was just as though he had told me that I ought to learn how to sole shoes,” she writes; in other words, “a very practical thing to know but not at all urgent just at the moment.” Picasso, however, was insistent. “You are developed only on the intellectual level. Everywhere else you’re retarded,” he said. “You won’t know what it means to be a woman until you have a child.”

Gilot was skeptical, but she was also in love, so she heeded Picasso’s advice and became pregnant shortly thereafter. She would stay with him for another seven years and have a second baby after another difficult run-in with one of his exes, the ballet dancer Olga Khokhlova. Gilot was fifth in a line of long-term partners (in addition to many more lovers and girlfriends) who not only inspired but also supported Picasso through the ups and downs of both his temper and his career. He left the first four of them and died while married to the sixth. Gilot, who in the summer of 1953 took her children and left, was the only one to walk away.

Many writers have devoted books to Picasso, from memoirs to academic tomes to biographies; the art historian John Richardson alone penned four volumes chronicling his 91 years of life. In fact, books about Picasso have become their own kind of cottage industry, which helps fuel his reputation as one of the world’s greatest artists. The appearance of each one seems to quietly bolster a long-standing premise: that here is a man continually worth discussing—and forgiving—because he was a genius who can never be fully understood.

Life With Picasso, which Gilot cowrote with the journalist and art critic Carlton Lake, was an unusual entry in the genre when it appeared in 1964. The closest analogue was Picasso et Ses Amis, a memoir by Fernande Olivier, the artist’s first partner, which was published in French in 1933 and coincidentally released in English the same year as Life With Picasso. Like Olivier’s, Gilot’s book is neither scholarly nor reverential but rather a tell-all of the couple’s time together, from their first meeting—by chance at a restaurant in Paris in May 1943, during the German occupation—to the bitter aftermath of their breakup. It’s intimate and gossipy as well as clear-eyed and insightful. It takes the larger-than-life figure of Picasso and repaints him as a brilliant but insecure artist and a loving but tyrannical man. It is an excruciatingly honest book.

No doubt for that reason, Picasso did not want to see it published. According to the introduction to the new edition, he initiated three lawsuits in an attempt to stop it, while some 40 French artists and intellectuals signed a petition to ban the book. (He tried to prevent Olivier’s memoir from being published, too.) After it came out, Richardson skewered Life With Picasso in the New York Review of Books, calling it “wretched” and accusing its author of “indiscretion masquerading as candor” and a “chip-on-shoulder malice which permeates—and ultimately invalidates—much of this book.” (Richardson later reversed course and became friends with Gilot; a favorable blurb by him appears on the back cover of the new edition.) Picasso, for his part, took out his fury on his two children with Gilot. After the book came out, he never saw them again.

Fifty-five years later, this furor seems almost laughable. Although his popularity hasn’t dimmed, it has generally become known that Picasso was calculating, cruel, and misogynistic. After his death in 1973, the bodies of his loved ones piled up, as two of his former partners and one of his grandsons killed themselves. Other people wrote books about the misery he had inflicted, including his granddaughter Marina Picasso and Arianna Huffington, whose biography of the artist was turned into the movie Surviving Picasso. His dictum about there being “only two kinds of women—goddesses and doormats,” which Gilot repeats in her memoir, is a well-known quote rather than an upsetting revelation.

If the defenses of Picasso’s genius were abundant in 1964, the depictions of him as a monster are no longer in short supply. And the predominance of those polarities is, in fact, what makes Life With Picasso such a fascinating read: Gilot manages to portray him as both. In her telling, Picasso is neither beyond praise nor reproach. He mistreats her and teaches her, breaks artistic ground even as he remains retrograde in his personal life. Gilot’s Picasso—as well as the pair’s relationship—is complicated and painfully human.

By the time she met Picasso, Gilot had determined that she was going to be an artist. “I was twenty-one and I felt already that painting was my whole life,” she writes. But her domineering father didn’t approve, and in a harrowing confrontation at her grandmother’s house, he tried to beat her into submission. It’s against this backdrop that she meets Picasso, who, in addition to being 40 years her senior, is already famous, though not quite the superstar he would soon become. She understands him to be a like-minded soul and someone who speaks her language, “a friend whose nature was not very far from my own.”

Picasso encourages Gilot’s art from the start, visiting an exhibition of her paintings and telling her to “keep on working—hard—every day.” At the same time, he develops a romantic interest in her, kissing her and testing her reaction. As she visits his studio more frequently, art and romance become further intertwined. Picasso teaches her about printmaking, and the two debate the merits of nonfigurative painting, all while falling in love. The first time Gilot undresses for him, Picasso seems to be studying her more with the eye of an artist than a potential lover. “You know, it’s incredible the degree to which I had prefigured your form,” he tells her from across the room. Yet by the end of that encounter, which Gilot describes as wonderfully gentle, she no longer sees him as just an abstraction, “the great painter that everyone knew about and admired”; in that moment, he becomes a real person.

However, as their relationship gathers steam, there are warning signs. Picasso is moody; he whines that he needs Gilot and therefore she must come and live with him; he forces her into several excruciating meetings with Maar in order to prove that he and the photographer are no longer together; he even grabs and pushes Gilot into the parapet of a bridge at one point, threatening to throw her into the Seine. She sees these red flags and tries to keep her distance at times, but Picasso becomes, for her, “a challenge I could not turn down.” A friend warns her that the relationship is headed for catastrophe. “I told her she was probably right but I felt it was the kind of catastrophe I didn’t want to avoid,” Gilot confesses. She moves in with him.

As Life With Picasso progresses, a curious thing happens: Its author disappears. Not literally, of course, but as a character, Gilot fades into the background. The story becomes a series of vignettes about the workings of Picasso’s world—his relationships with other artists, art dealers, and other women; his artistic processes; his deep insecurities; his strange habits and beliefs. Gilot enters the picture only in relation to him. She remains our guide but a stoic one, as we lose sight of her inner life and hear less and less about her own artwork; she even stops painting for three years after moving in with him. Writing as though she’s on guard against being accorded the status of victim, she shares few feelings about the particulars of her new life, which include getting a depressed Picasso out of bed every morning and being forced to manage his paperwork “much against [her] will.”

When she’s pregnant with their first child, Picasso—who sees the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan rather than a traditional physician—forbids her to visit a doctor because of his superstitions. About this she simply writes, “Pablo was against the idea because he felt that if one looked after such things too carefully, it might bring bad luck.” And then, casually, “About a week before the baby was to be born I was beginning to be quite excited and I decided it was time to do something,” by which she means finally seeing an obstetrician.

Yet along the way, even as the romance begins to deteriorate, there is intellectual sustenance that keeps things afloat. The book details long, passionate conversations about the creation and meaning of art between Picasso, Gilot, and a host of others, notably Matisse. She witnesses Picasso’s breakthroughs in ceramics and sculpture and entertains his theories. He does most of the talking but is portrayed as a visionary. He calls painting “a dramatic action in the course of which reality finds itself split apart”; explains that in his sculptures, he “achieve[s] reality through the use of metaphor”; and proclaims, “The right to free expression is something one seizes, not something one is given.”

Even if his ego sometimes gets in the way—over the course of one discussion, he compares himself to Hegel, Shakespeare, and Jesus—Picasso comes across as a wise mentor and devoted artist, someone who has dedicated his existence to his work. Alongside him, Gilot holds her own as an insightful observer and critic, writing about her milieu with equal parts poetry and precision, as when she describes the Swiss sculptor Alberto Giacometti’s work as “almost something static in the process of becoming dynamic through its intention.”

Gilot applies her powers of observation to the most devastating effect when she analyzes Picasso’s relationships with women. In one brutally honest passage, she writes:

He had a kind of Bluebeard complex that made him want to cut off the heads of all the women he had collected in his little private museum. But he didn’t cut the heads off entirely. He preferred to have life go on and to have all those women who had shared his life at one moment or another still letting out little peeps and cries of joy or pain and making a few gestures like disjointed dolls, just to prove there was some life left in them, that it hung by a thread, and that he held the other end of the thread.

In this way, Life With Picasso almost becomes two books—one about the escapades of Picasso the artist in the 1940s and ’50s and another about the love and turmoil between him and Gilot. Of course, the latter wins out, as she gradually regains her sense of self and reemerges as the protagonist of her own life. This is prompted in part by her grandmother’s death, which leaves Gilot with a “heightened sense of individual solitude.” Around the same time, after she notices that Picasso has pulled away emotionally, he begins cheating on her and then denies it when she confronts him. She comes to realize that he’s incapable of being a true emotional partner, so she must leave. He responds with fire-and-brimstone-style threats:

You imagine people will be interested in you?… They won’t ever, really, just for yourself. Even if you think people like you, it will only be a kind of curiosity they will have about a person whose life has touched mine so intimately. And you’ll be left with only the taste of ashes in your mouth. For you, reality is finished; it ends right here. If you attempt to take a step outside my reality—which has become yours, inasmuch as I found you when you were young and unformed and I burned everything around you—you’re headed straight for the desert. And if you go, that’s exactly what I wish for you.

Some two years after Gilot departs, Picasso moves out of their home in southern France and disposes without warning of almost everything she hadn’t gone back for yet—her artwork and books, letters from friends (including Matisse), and gifts from Picasso himself. He tells dealers not to work with her. He continues, to the best of his ability, to burn everything around her. Nonetheless, she ends on a note of gratitude, thanking him for forcing her to “discover myself and thus to survive.” As ever, she doesn’t dwell on her losses or delve into her anger or pain. In a sense, she doesn’t need to, because the book she’s written is the ultimate payback. She got her revenge by telling the truth.

When I learned about Picasso in my art history classes, I did not learn about Gilot, who went on to have a long life (she’s still with us, at 97) and career in art—or about his other partners: Olivier, the model who was Picasso’s companion while he was inventing Cubism; Khokhlova, who became his first wife; Walter, who was only 17 when she and Picasso, then 45, began having an affair; Maar, the photographer, painter, and poet; and Jacqueline Roque, Picasso’s final partner and the person he painted more pictures of than anyone else. If they were mentioned, it was as muses, the inspiration (or fodder) for the master’s brilliant artwork, not as creators, collaborators, and independent people in their own right.

That has begun to change. In recent years, art museums and galleries have mounted shows that spotlight these women, and not solely in relation to Picasso. It’s a welcome step, though a carefully considered and cautious one. The female lovers are allowed to enter the institution through the domain of the special or temporary exhibition, while the male genius remains cemented in the foundation.

What’s more, even as we work to round out the story of 20th century art, there’s a part of it that is still stubbornly being elided: the realities of Picasso’s use and abuse of women. Textbooks and institutional wall labels avoid the topic; his extensive Wikipedia page barely mentions it. Some argue that Picasso’s behavior isn’t relevant to his artistic accomplishments. But one need only glance at his work to see this isn’t true. His personal life fed his professional life, supplying him with models and inspiration. Making art represented many things to him—both lofty ideals about the disruption of reality and, it seems, a form of control. “Painting women’s portraits was one way Picasso thought he seduced them,” Gilot told The New York Times Magazine in 1996. “I felt entirely free and independent of his portraits. I did not define myself by them, put myself inside them. And that is the reason I am still around.” It may also be the reason Gilot was able to see her ex as more than just a monster.

For almost a century, Picasso’s very real achievements have served to obscure his abuse of women. What would happen if, rather than using his genius to excuse or justify that abuse, we started to give both equal weight? We could reconceive them as akin to color and line—two elements of the same picture.

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