A Very Honest Account of Life with Pablo Picasso
On Françoise Gilot's Classic Memoir of Time with a "Great Man"
Shortly after Life with Picasso first appeared on shelves in 1964, the painter in question sued the author of the book to prevent its continued publication. Forty-four other artists signed a letter offering their support to the man who gazed at women and saw a catching array of angles and lumps, in his crusade to suppress the gaze of another. “Françoise Gilot has committed an intolerable attack on individual liberty and private property,” the letter said. “Any man, above all a great man, should be able to refuse to allow the secrets of his personal life to be unveiled in public and sold for profit, especially if they are distorted by malice.” The argument is nonsense, but the aside—“above all a great man”—is at once hilarious, sad, and, above all, contains multitudes.
These great men took for granted that the past can be hoarded by great men, that memories have been indentured to their great vision, and that any relationships they have squandered can be reduced to one story, limned in paint or plaster and displayed in a museum after they are gone. But there are at least two stories in every relationship, two gazes that look upon the same past and notice different details and feel contrasting aches and affronts. Neither are wholly correct or wrong, simply irreducible ingredients in complicated histories. When it comes to great men, they often are the only ones given the chance to tell that story, so it comes as a surprise that other narratives exist at all.
In Life with Picasso, twentysomething French painter Françoise Gilot, who lived with and loved sixtysomething Spanish painter Pablo Picasso for a decade, tells one side of their story—and, more importantly, her side of her story. The book, co-written with the late art critic Carlton Lake, is being reissued by NYRB Classics more than 50 years after it first came out, and a truth often missed by the first crop of reviews seems worth noting now: any woman should be able to refuse to allow her life to be silenced, especially if the accusations are distorted by malice or presumption.
The book is a heptaptych drawn in words, its seven parts or panels offering lessons on art mixed with portraits of Picasso and his friends, family, and lovers. In Part III, Gilot shares one of many scenes of Picasso remarking on his art:
Sometimes Pablo would begin a canvas in the morning and in the evening he would say, “Oh, well, it’s done I suppose … My thought moves rapidly and since my hand obeys so fast, in a day’s work I can give myself the satisfaction of having said almost what I wanted to say before I was disturbed and had to abandon the thought. Then, being obliged to take up another thought the next day, I leave things as they are, as thoughts that came to me too quickly, which I left too quickly and which I really ought to go back to and do more work on. But I rarely get a chance to go back.”
“I paint the way some people write their autobiography,” he adds. “The paintings, finished or not, are the pages of my journal, and as such they are valid. The future will choose the pages it prefers. It’s not up to me to make the choice.”
This thought is a good way of summing up the structure of Gilot’s book. It is not a single portrait of life with Picasso, the memories built up like paint on a canvas worked over for years. On nearly every other page the reader is greeted by a new drop-capped letter, announcing the beginning of a new sketch of Picasso, a fresh view of his art and moods. (The art is ever changing—clay, bronze, lithographs, paint—while the moods, although rendered in new ways, always feel the same: nasty, brutish, and short.) Like a Cubist work, each sketch emphasizes different parts of Picasso and Paris and Europe at war, making his temper appear larger in some scenes, like bestowing two mouths upon him, while giving him air to discuss art with Gertrude Stein or Miró or Giacometti or goats in others, making his eyes appear like the only body part that matters. The last sentence of each sketch is often devastating, the slash of her signature on the drawing, making you think about her own skill before you are thrust into a new scene. If you go back to the beginning of the book after you finish and only read the last sentence of each section, it feels like stepping away from each sketch and seeing it whole for the first time.
That was one of my first insights into Pablo’s standard technique of using people like ninepins, of hitting one person with the ball in order to make another fall down.
I was incapable at the moment of writing anything of that kind on my own.
It was a metaphorical way of appropriating someone else’s substance, and in that way, I believe, he hoped to prolong his own life.
That was Pablo’s version of it, at any rate.
In these sketches, Picasso feels static. We learn more about him as Gilot spends more time with him, but his essential personality and artistry, obvious from the couple’s first meeting, remains unchanged, if rendered in increasing detail. The changes occur on the margins, as the person watching Picasso dispense lectures about paint and people and women realizes she wants more of life than what she apportioned herself as a young woman. Picasso remarks throughout the book, in a sort of Chekhov’s dump, that his relationships with women have an expiration date, determined by a cocktail of factors including boredom, unrequested skinniness, and the vagaries of artistic temperament. Gilot introduces each of the women who preceded her, and watches with disinterest as they are let go, only to rise up into the atmosphere to revolve around Picasso at a greater remove until the end of time. It is satisfying to watch the dumping go off at the end, wielded by the woman we have watched watching over three hundred pages. She has been making her own art the entire time, but now it will be done in her own orbit.
The first reviews of Life with Picasso, which appeared at the same time as articles detailing the painter’s suit against Gilot, feel similar in tone to one of the great genres of the current age: the impressionistic travel guides of the itinerant and implicitly objective fact checker. The reviewers’ main charge was that Picasso’s winding soliloquies, as recorded by Gilot and Lake, felt manufactured, their length outmatched by the known bounds of memory. “It is fairly obvious,” Charles Van Deusen from the Sun writes, “from passages such as these why Picasso today must feel that the sweet young thing he took up with a decade ago has suddenly turned mysteriously into a kind of recording angel.” The great men writers producing page-long block quotes in other nonfiction books and magazines rarely came in for such scrutiny.
In an interview with Cosmopolitan in 1965, Gilot defended the quotes while also acknowledging that they were conglomerates, nuggets of wisdom fused together in order to make her sketches come alive:
I am a painter myself, and my mind was like wax. I have a bright memory, and my mind focused on him especially about painting because I knew it was so important. We had dialogues nearly every evening for ten years. As a painter, he turned more than once to the topics he cared for. Of course, for the necessity of the book, I had to group some of the statements together. It is a synthesis of things he said, but it is all true.
Quibbles over the length of the quotes attributed to Picasso in the book ignore how the quotes work as physical objects, sculptures of sorts. Their length feels like a point. The monologues cascade over Gilot in waves. They repeat themselves. The reader is twice told that Picasso believed that all women were either doormats or goddesses and we can only imagine how many more times he repeated the line in Gilot’s presence. The long quotes feel more truthful, in a way, in conveying how it must have felt for Gilot to endure them than if she had instead transposed shorter snippets of Picasso’s thoughts.
Other criticisms of the book continue in the same vein. Gilot is reprimanded for being unwilling to deal with the violence and grumpiness of genius, as everyone knows that allowances must be made for brilliance. (No one seems willing to make allowances for Gilot’s intelligence.) She is faulted for not devoting enough time to Picasso’s politics, as if his actions in domestic life were not also political. She is called a nameless “woman friend.” She is sued for revealing too much of a life, as if she didn’t own half of the story. And, as an extension of that, she is seen as a mere extra, a collector of anecdotes of Picasso, instead of a person whose action of watching and seeing and painting and doing emotional labor is the main thrust of the plot of a book that is called Life with Picasso, not Life of.
Picasso did not win the suit against Life with Picasso. The court concluded, in its own sort of book review, that “this work, far from defaming the great painter, reveals him as a man of astonishing interior richness, and an extremely attractive figure.”
Gilot’s own gloss on what this period of her life means is less useful than her descriptions of her life. Today, her lens often feels outdated—a reminder that lives can rhyme but that reactions to one’s circumstances are never so neat as to be universal for all ages or times or people—even if her story is valuable as a snapshot of a woman’s life as remembered by her. She describes Picasso as an “hysterical woman” with feminine hands. In more recent years, she has noted that she has always thought herself, her strong self, to be more like a man in spirit than a woman. “Why should you think it was so impressive to be a woman,” she recounted her younger self thinking in the book About Women, “when obviously women got the short end of the stick?”
She quotes Henri Matisse in Life with Picasso, who says of Jackson Pollack and a younger generation of painters, “I can’t judge him either. It’s completely over my head … it becomes all the more difficult for one to understand a kind of painting whose point of departure lies beyond one’s own point of arrival.
It’s something that’s based on completely different foundations. 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.
Like so many of the questioned quotes in Gilot’s book, Matisse’s observation seems to work transposed onto the book, which is itself an angle replanted from its original soil into a new context and century. Picasso, who told Gilot she’d never outlive him, is gone, if alive in his thousands of works. Ownership of stories and the qualifications of those self-appointed to ascertain their veracity is still a topic of debate. Women’s art still rarely commands the prices of the art of men, and the artists themselves must be announced as women artists, although the men artists remains adjectiveless. This little link in the chain lives on, although what the younger generation sees in it might be incomprehensible not only to those who wrote it down, but also those who witnessed its arrival.“The more he stormed, the harder I laughed.”
At the same time, there are lessons that hold. Early in the book, Gilot’s friend Geneviève gets angry at Picasso and his predictable presumptiveness. “How can you put up with a monster like that?” Gilot responds that “if she had laughed at him she might have had an easier time of it.” Geneviève says that, unlike Gilot, she doesn’t have that kind of laugh. The verbs in the book are instructive. Gilot watches. She suggests and sees. She often remains silent. She laughs at great men.
I laughed in Pablo’s face. He grew very red all over again and started dancing around me. “Petit monster! Serpent! Vipère!” He shouted. I kept laughing.
I could only laugh at his complete misunderstanding of a woman with whom he had lived so many years.
The more he stormed, the harder I laughed. I suppose I was almost hysterical, but I felt as though I were witnessing the scene as a spectator. Finally he stopped. He looked disgusted. “Who ever heard of anyone laughing under such conditions.”
What better conditions to laugh under? Later, after she is older, better at seeing, the kind of painter to describe a flame as moving like a person breathing, the verbs change. She leaves. “He had taught me a great deal,” Gilot writes. “But I had given him a great deal throughout these years—at least as much as he had given me.”