This summer, Françoise Gilot’s best-selling 20th century memoir returns to print thanks to New York Review of Books (NYRB) Classics, the publishing house that reprints lost books, guiding readers to look backward — not only forward — for their best reads. There are many NYRB Classics I’ve enjoyed, including this one, for its history and insider look at Pablo Picasso’s daily life and work.
When first published in 1964, Life With Picasso received wide swings in opinion from its reviewers. On the one hand, they praised Gilot’s warmth and objectivity. On the other hand, they expressed outrage at what they said was an unfair focus on Picasso’s bad behavior. Gilot lived with the famous artist for 10 years as his mistress and the mother of his children, Claude and Paloma.
New York Times art critic Aline Saarinen in her 1964 review implied Gilot was foolish not to realize “the price of living with genius is high”. Worse, she drew Gilot as a woman who wrote the memoir out of bitterness, failing in relationships and art in her post-Picasso years. (“If she were free and fulfilled, would she have felt compelled…to write this book?”) And yet, Saarinen hedged her negativity, writing, “she is without bile” and “a superb witness to Picasso as an artist and to his views on art.” Such equivocation suggests Francoise Gilot, with Carlton Lake, wrote a good memoir, but shame on a woman who exposes domestic truth that could sully the glory of a great man.
Their time together 1943-1953
Gilot met Picasso when she was 21 years old in a Parisian café during the Nazi Occupation in 1943. Picasso, 40 years her senior, invited the young painter and a friend to visit his studio at 7 Rue des Grands-Augustins. Their arrival a few days later began Gilot’s connection to Picasso as friend and artistic confidante. She painted throughout the morning at her grandmother’s house and then bicycled to Picasso’s studio, where Gilot spent the rest of the day watching Picasso work, sharing insights and discussing technique, such as the evolution of cubism and other artistic movements. They were of a singular mind, which drew them together. Gilot admired Picasso and was able to shrug off his unpredictable moods, “one day brilliant sunshine, the next day thunder and lightning.”
Three years later, Gilot moved in with Picasso. From here on, the memoir heavily leans on descriptions of Picasso’s work in painting, lithograph, sculpture and pottery, with detailed accounts of technique, decisions, choices and insights gained and lost. Gilot also recorded interactions with the famous people who came in and out of their lives, artists (Matisse, Braque), authors (André Gide, Hemingway) and others of note (Gertrude Stein, Charlie Chaplin). The pressure of fame is evident, with sycophants arriving at Picasso’s studio every morning for an audience, wanting a piece of the famous artist, and Picasso wondering if anyone loved him. He consistently provoked, resisted, contradicted and hurtfully teased everyone in his inner circle, testing the sincerity of their attachment to him and being, in general, a difficult genius. From the memoir:
The only time I ever saw [Picasso] in a sustained good mood — apart from the period between 1943 and 1946 before I went to live with him — was when I was carrying Claude. It was the only time he was cheerful, relaxed, and happy, with no problems.
Gilot’s life with Picasso followed his routine and needs, working on her own paintings in whatever spare hours she could grab. She stayed up past midnight until Picasso finished his day’s work, and then got out of bed a few hours later to put the house in order, take care of the children and manage the studio. The memoir doesn’t abound with complaint about what we can see is burden and blind expectation. “There is no bile,” as the New York Times reviewer wrote in 1964, even though Gilot experienced health-threatening exhaustion, but Picasso’s inverted attention eventually wore her down to feeling a “terrible sense of desperation at not being able to go on.”
Why the fuss?
One wonders what the unpleasantness was about in 1964, when McGraw-Hill published Life With Picasso. The memoir clearly demonstrates Gilot loved and respected Picasso in all his complicated humanness. She maintains an evenness without scathing criticism, or taking enraged offense, even when there are moments I wished she had. In their early relationship, Gilot felt oppressed by the presence of Picasso’s former lovers, Dora Maar and Marie-Thérèse. She decided to leave and in the ensuing argument that stopped her, Picasso’s solution for her to feel better was to have a child. He said to her:
You are developed only on the intellectual level. Everywhere else you’re retarded. You won’t know what it means to be a woman until you have a child.
Gilot reveals little of her interior world, except in the beginning of the book, when she first met Picasso (Parts I and II), and the end when she left him (Part VII). In these sections, she expresses more openly her independence and what she could and would not accept from the relationship, and why. As for leaving Picasso in 1953, Gilot wrote, “He lived in a self-enclosed world,” and she was to be an “unresisting saint.”
John Richardson in his New York Review of Books 1964 review reproached Gilot for her “evident lack of scruple” in exposing the great artist’s life “with such relish that one sometimes wonders why this book was serialized in the Atlantic Monthly and not in Confidential.” Gilot’s ghost writer Carlton Lake responded to Richardson in a published response that included this:
[Gilot] has set forth ten crucial years of her life in the pattern of ‘I was there; this is what happened to me.’ Reviewers by the scores have saluted her for her effort. But Mr. Richardson—volunteer spokesman for the Inner Circle—intones: ‘This breach of confidence is the more unconscionable, as Picasso loathes any public divulgence of his private views…’
But this is Françoise Gilot’s story, not Picasso’s, not Mr. Richardson’s, and I think we have to let her tell it as she sees it.
Picasso was still alive when Life With Picasso was published. According to the book’s introduction in the new NYRB Classics edition, he attempted three lawsuits to prevent its publication and lost. Also, his friends and fellow artists signed a petition demanding the book be banned. Picasso cut off his relationship with Gilot, Claude and Paloma.
Nine years later, in a New York Times article, Gilot alluded to holding back on what she could’ve written in her memoir. Picasso died on April 8, 1973, without a will. Everything in his estate went to his second wife and widow, Jacqueline, and to Picasso’s legitimate son, Paulo, from his first marriage. Claude and Paloma filed a court claim against their father’s estate that left them nothing. From The New York Times:
It was learned that, in supporting the claims of her son and daughter, Miss Gilot was prepared to describe in court—in more revealing detail than is contained in her book “Life With Picasso,” published in 1964—alleged indignities that she said compelled her to leave Picasso.
Why instead didn’t Picasso write a memoir that told his side of the story? Why not an autobiography where he could control the information about his life, artwork and technique? His harsh reaction to Gilot publishing a memoir validates her experiences described in this exceptional memoir — life with a controlling, complex genius and insecure manipulator who happened to be the greatest artist of his time.
Gilot gave much of herself to Picasso and his work during their years together. He could have at least allowed her this publication success without such bitter dispute. As for those critics who scolded Gilot, I agree with Carlton Lake, responding that Life With Picasso is Françoise Gilot’s story to tell. Hers alone.