Francoise Gilot was the only woman who had a serious relationship with Picasso who emerged largely intact. First wife Olga, the ex-ballerina, went crazy and, Gilot says in her tell-all book about Life With Picasso, just reissued by The New York Review of Books, used to trail after her in the street yelling at her. (Picasso may have abandoned his women but they all were at one point collected in the south of France within literal shouting distance of each other.) Marie-Therese, she of the sensuous, coiled paintings, and Jacqueline, wife 2, the guardian widow, both committed suicide. Dora Maar, perhaps the most talented in her own right, became a reclusive spiritualist. It says everything that the women are so famous that they are all referred to by their first names, brand markers of distinct artistic periods in his oeuvre. (Biographer John Richardson ferreted out some minor flings who in fact left Picasso. I cannot wait for this next posthumous volume which will include the sections on Maar, Gilot and Jaqueline Roque.)
Gilot was Picasso’s most infamous outlier. She managed to hold onto some dignity from the outset. After months of visits to his studio, she made an appointment with him to have ‘an engraving lesson’. She appeared in a black velvet dress with a high white lace collar, her dark red hair done up in a coiffure which she had copied from a painting of the Infanta by Velasquez. She then allowed him to seduce her. As she reclined buck naked on the bed, they had an intellectual conversation about love and trust. He said they must go slow since love and passion were fleeting. “As soon as the hourglass is turned the sand will begin to run out and once it starts it cannot stop until it is all gone,” she reports Picasso having said. “Everything exists in limited quantity—especially happiness,” he continued, “ you must be extremely careful not to make the slightest excessive demand that might prevent it [love] from developing to the greatest extent over the longest period.
Gilot quickly displaced Dora. She was much younger than Picasso, but this only partially accounts for her ability to spring back from their volatile life together. She was not afraid of him. When after their initial passion and the birth of the two children, Claude and Paloma, Francoise understood that it was Picasso’s way or La Croisette and that did not please her very independent sensibilities and ambitions for her own career as an artist.
At the 92nd street Y she appeared tonight, petite in a purple coat, her short hair clipped to the side like a gamine, as strong and lucid as ever. “ At that time I was very amusing, “ she says “I was not weak…I was vaccinated. Otherwise I would have never tried to get close to him. I don’t think he had any idea that people like me could exist.”
Gilot’s book is being reissued in odd synergy with a retrospective of Dora Maar’s work which has just opened at the Pompidou. Her art work after she met Picasso bears his imprimatur as does Maar’s, and in that regard they both suffer by comparison. But Gilot’s book is an eye-opener (co-written with Carlton Lake) and her memory, even if colored by how negatively she felt about him after she left him, appears prodigious and insightful even after all these years. It’s a compelling look at genius, at how to get a powerful, talented man into your bed, and more importantly, how to get him out. Neither Dora nor Francoise wanted to be remembered first for their relationship with Picasso. Alas, that is the one thing they could not achieve.
These still images of Francoise, Claude, Paloma and Picasso are from film extracts currently showing at the Musee Picasso, Paris, part of a new exhibition on his Mediterranean years.