In Pablo Picasso’s Studio During the Nazi Occupation of Paris

Françoise Gilot Recalls Her Life with the Artist

I went to a little village called Fontès, near Montpellier, which was then in the Free Zone—not occupied by the Germans—to spend my vacation with Geneviève. While I was there, I passed through one of those crises young people sometimes experience in the process of growing up. Picasso wasn’t the cause of it; it had been coming on for some time before I met him. It was a kind of mental stocktaking brought on by the conflict between the life I had led up until then and the vision I had of the kind of life I should be leading.

Ever since early childhood I had suffered from insomnia and had used my nights more for reading than for sleeping. And since I was a rapid reader, I had managed to work my way through a considerable number of books. My father had encouraged this bent in me. He was, by training, an agronomical engineer, and had built up several manufacturing businesses in chemicals. But he was also a man with a passionate interest in literature and his large library was never closed to me. By the time I was twelve he had read me enormous chunks of the works of Joinville, Villon, Rabelais, Poe, and Baudelaire, and by the age of fourteen, all of Jarry. By the time I was seventeen I was rather proud of my attainments and fond of imagining that I knew what life was all about, even though whatever I did know came out of books.

My physical appearance did not seem extraordinary to me; on the other hand, I did not consider it a handicap. I felt afraid of nothing, objective and detached in all my judgments and serenely free from the various illusions inexperience confers on youth. In short, I saw myself a seasoned philosopher disguised as a young girl.

My father tried to wake me up by telling me, “You’re floating on air. You’d better put on some lead-soled shoes and get down to earth. Otherwise you’re in for a rude awakening.” That awakening came when I decided to become a painter. For the first time I got a sense of my own limitations. In my studies, even in areas that didn’t interest me at all, such as mathematics and law, I had no trouble handling whatever problems came up. But when I took up painting, and no matter how single-mindedly I gave myself over to it, I gradually came to realize there were things I could not bring off. I had difficulties of all kinds, conceptual as well as technical. For a long time I felt I was up against a wall. Then suddenly it occurred to me that, at bottom, a good part of my difficulty came from my lack of the experience of living. I had an intellectual grasp of many things, but as far as first-hand experience went, I was pretty close to being a total ignoramus.

I had started to paint at the age of seventeen. For the past two years I had been working under the guidance of a Hungarian painter named Rozsda. At the same time, I was studying for my licence in literature at the Sorbonne (roughly the equivalent of an A.B. degree in an American or English university) and for a law degree, as well. My father would not have allowed me to drop out of the university and devote all my time to painting, but I used to cut my morning classes and go to Rozsda’s studio to paint.

Rozsda had come to Paris from Budapest in 1938. He was Jewish on his mother’s side. Under Occupation law, he should have worn a yellow Star of David. Not wearing one, he had greater freedom of movement but at a very considerable risk. In addition to that, since Hungary was a German satellite, Rozsda should have been doing military service for the Nazis. That made him not only an undeclared Jew but, in their eyes, a deserter as well. He was, then, doubly liable for early shipment to the gas chamber. He was in danger of being picked up from day to day. My father, who could be as hard as nails when his will was frustrated, could also be very generous when he wanted to be. When I told him about Rozsda’s situation he helped him to get papers that would take him safely back to Budapest.

When he left, in February 1943, I saw him off at the Gare de l’Est. I was sad to see him go because he had been a good friend to me. I was unhappy, also, to think that the progress I had been making in my painting might be threatened. I told him I didn’t know what I was going to do about that, nor whom I could work with. The train started up. He hopped aboard and called out, “Don’t worry about that. In three months’ time, you may know Picasso.” He was right, almost to the day.

My problems with painting weren’t my only source of frustration. During the two or three years leading up to my meeting with Picasso, most of my male friends were men about ten years older than I. Many of them were active in the Resistance in one way or another and I think they all looked upon me as a child. For that reason, perhaps, they let me alone. Then, too, although I had never been taken in by the theological fairy tales the Dominican sisters had done their best to sell me as truth during my years at boarding school, nevertheless I think that a bit of the general atmosphere had stayed with me in the form of inhibitions. I wasn’t convinced that I should believe in their tall tales and yet I wasn’t positive that I should not.

I think this was more than an intellectual crisis. It was almost a rebirth, and when I had made my decision, I felt as naked as the day I was born.

Between the ages of seventeen and twenty I had been very much in love with a boy my own age. He was going through the same growing pains that I was having. Every time I felt it would be all right to give myself to him, he would feel inhibited, and when he felt more adventurous, I would have doubts. Then he fell ill with pleurisy, and during that time my parents tried to break up our friendship. While he was away convalescing, I decided I had to get beyond that barrier called virginity. When he returned, I must have been so aggressive that I frightened him out of his wits. He told me he didn’t really love me and that I might as well leave him out of my plans.

Instead of realizing that I had a lifetime before me, I felt that time was running short. I dramatized this first rejection to a degree that made me think, Well, after that, what else matters? Rozsda, my teacher, had gone. The boy I wanted had thrown me over. I had nothing more to lose. It was just at that time that I met Picasso. And after our brief skirmishes of May and June, when I left for the Midi to spend the summer with Geneviève I was still stirred up by everything that had taken place before I met him. In my eyes the villains were my parents, and my conclusion was: They’ve ruined my life so far. From now on I’ll take over.

The first step, it seemed to me, was to face up to my father and tell him I had decided to be a painter and in order to give myself over completely to that, I would need to stop my other studies. Knowing how strong-willed he was, I realized that announcement would probably lead to a break between us. But I sensed that by accepting the consequences, I would find myself on the other side of the wall that now separated me from everything I wanted.

Until then I had been cushioned by a kind of cocoon that my milieu formed around me. I had the impression that the noises of life had been reaching me so muted that all connection with reality was strained out. But I knew that an artist draws from his direct experience of life whatever quality of vision he brings to his work and that I had to break out of the cocoon. I think this was more than an intellectual crisis. It was almost a rebirth, and when I had made my decision, I felt as naked as the day I was born.

In October I wrote my father a letter in which I tried to explain all this. His answer was to send my mother, who, like me, had always been completely under his domination, to bring me back to Paris at once. When we reached home he was waiting for us, seething with anger. My attitude was scandalous, he said, and I must be out of my mind. If I persisted, he would know I was seriously ill and he would have me committed, he threatened. He gave me a half hour to change my mind and went out to do an errand. I knew I had to act quickly. I left the house saying nothing to my mother and ran to my grandmother’s house, which was not far from ours. My grandmother was out. I decided to wait for her to return. In a few minutes my father and mother arrived. By now my mother, too, must have been convinced I was out of my mind. Until now I had always obeyed, even though it was painful. Suddenly, at twenty-one, I was as inflexible as my father.

When I saw them coming, I ran up to the top floor. Knowing the mood my father was in, I was certain he would try to drag me out of the house and take me back home; he might have a harder time of it, I thought, if I was as far away from the front door as possible. He followed me upstairs. I had never seen him in such a rage. He had always been a violent man and was in the habit of having everyone—at home, among the rest of the family, in his factories, in the world at large—obey him immediately. He asked me if I would return home. I told him no. I said I had made up my mind that if he wouldn’t agree to my terms, I would leave home. I told him I would never ask him for another thing but from now on I intended to live my life as I saw fit.

He began to beat me—my head, shoulders, face, and back—with all his might. He was so much bigger and stronger than I, I knew I could never hold out against him if he continued like that. I sat down on the stairway and managed to slip my legs between the balusters. I put my arms through them and joined my hands together; in that way he couldn’t hit my face any more. My face was bleeding badly and the blood was running down the white balusters onto my knees. I could feel one eye swelling. He tried to pull me away but I held on tight.

At that point I heard the front door open, below us, and my grandmother walked in. She came upstairs as quickly as she could. She asked my father what was going on. He told her that whatever she saw, I had done to myself. I told her this was not true. She said she was in no position to make up her mind about that but it was obvious that I was in very bad shape and she was putting me to bed and calling a doctor at once. “We’ll see about the rest tomorrow,” she said.

My grandmother was seventy-five at the time. After the death of my grandfather four years before, she had had a nervous breakdown. She had spent nearly three years in a rest home and had been back in her own home, well again, for about a year. She was my mother’s mother. She had her own fortune and was not dependent on my father. As it happened, though, her money was managed by a lawyer who was a friend of my father’s and a bit under his thumb. My father took advantage of this situation to include her in his threats. “I’ll have you both committed,” he said. “You’re both crazy. Furthermore, you may discover, both of you, that money won’t be quite so easy to come by from now on. We’ll see how you like that.”

My grandmother stood right up to him. “Go ahead,” she told him. “And by all means try to have us put away. I’d like to see you get away with that. From now on, Françoise will stay with me if she wants to. As a matter of fact, just to help you along, she’ll undergo psychiatric examination voluntarily.”

French law requires that two independent psychiatrists concur in a judgment of insanity before anyone can be committed to an institution. The first man my father had examine me could find nothing wrong beyond the fact that my metabolism was more than 30 per cent below normal and that led him only to the conclusion that I was very fatigued. After that fiasco my father found a woman psychiatrist. Whether she was actually convinced by his story that I was crazy or had been instructed to see that I left her in that state, I don’t know, but for two hours she quizzed, harangued, and threatened me. Nothing came of that, either. I went the rounds of a few others that my father had lined up to examine me, including a cousin of his, and with each consultation I felt calmer and more sure of my ground. Finally the ordeal came to an end.

*

Now that I was living with my grandmother, I had money problems, since my father had always been the source of my money. The only clothes I had were the ones I was wearing the day I ran to my grandmother’s. It was impossible, of course, to get anything out of my father’s house.

His house was just outside the entrance to the Bois de Boulogne and I had always done a great deal of horseback riding in the Bois. I went to see my old riding master and told him I needed a job. He put me to work giving lessons to beginners. Some days I had to go to Maisons-Laffitte, a racing and riding center about twelve miles outside Paris. That kept me pretty busy.

It was November before I had a chance to visit Picasso again. One thing stood out very clearly: the ease with which I could communicate with him. With my father there had been no communication for years. Even my relations with the one boy my own age I thought I loved were often difficult and complicated, almost negative. Now suddenly with someone who was three times as old as I was, there was from the start an ease of understanding that made it possible to talk of anything. It seemed miraculous.

I had the impression I was rejoining a friend whose nature was not very far from my own.

Seeing him after an absence of four or five months and across the filter of my summer’s experiences, I had the impression I was rejoining a friend whose nature was not very far from my own. Often during my adolescence I had felt like a solitary traveler crossing a desert. In spite of my intellectual smugness, socially I was timid and I was often silent even among my friends. Now I was completely at ease with someone I hardly knew. In theory we had nothing in common, Picasso and I, but in fact we had a great deal in common. When I told him, one morning, in a flash of warmth quite unlike the “English reserve” I had shown before, how much at ease I felt with him, he grabbed my arm and burst out excitedly, “But that’s exactly the way I feel. When I was young, even before I was your age, I never found anybody that seemed like me. I felt I was living in complete solitude, and I never talked to anybody about what I really thought. I took refuge entirely in my painting. As I went along through life, gradually I met people with whom I could exchange a little bit and then a little bit more. And I had that same feeling with you—of speaking the same language. From the very first moment I knew we could communicate.”

I told him that made me feel better. I said that before the vacation I had felt a bit guilty about coming to see him so often and that I didn’t want to disturb him by coming too often now.

“Let’s understand each other right now on that point,” he said. “In any case, whether you come or not, I’m disturbed by somebody. When I was young, nobody knew me and nobody disturbed me. I could work all day long. Maybe if you had come then, even without saying a word, you might have disturbed me. But now there are so many who do disturb me, if it’s not you it will be someone else. And frankly”—here his face, which had been very serious, broke into a grin—“there are others who bore me more than you do.”

So the mornings I had no riding lessons to give—perhaps two or three days a week—I spent at the Rue des Grands-Augustins. Most of the people I saw there were people who came nearly every day. If Picasso felt like showing them some paintings, they would look at them. If he didn’t they would just sit around, not saying very much, and then at lunchtime go their separate ways. They weren’t just hangers-on; they were people who were somehow connected with Picasso’s life. Christian Zervos, for instance, the publisher of Cahiers d’Art, was compiling his catalog of Picasso’s work and often brought his photographer to take pictures of recent drawings and paintings.

Then there was “Baron” Jean Mollet, who had been secretary to the poet Guillaume Apollinaire when Apollinaire was the official spokesman for the Cubist movement. Apollinaire had been dead for twenty-five years but the “Baron” was still a more or less permanent fixture in Picasso’s studio.

Another man who came a great deal at that time was André Dubois, who later on became Prefect of Police and after that went to the magazine Match. At that time he worked in the Ministry of the Interior and since the Germans were finding little ways of bothering Picasso and might well have bothered him a great deal more, André Dubois came almost every day to see that everything was all right. Jean-Paul Sartre came frequently, and Simone de Beauvoir, and the poet Pierre Reverdy. Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir talked mostly to each other. When Sartre talked with Picasso, it was off in a corner, as a rule, and he looked so mysterious and confidential I felt he must be talking about the Resistance and some of its clandestine publications. Whenever Sartre had anything to say in my presence, it was never about painting in general or Picasso’s painting in particular and I found him usually so didactic that I formed the habit of talking with others, such as the poet Jacques Prévert. At a time when most people weren’t joking much, Prévert generally managed to find something funny. Picasso had had a sculpture of his own hand cast in bronze. One day Prévert amused himself and the rest of us by sticking the bronze hand into his sleeve and shaking hands with the others, then walking away and leaving the bronze hand in theirs.

One morning that winter I went to the Rue des Grands-Augustins with several paintings I had just finished and wanted to show to Picasso. I noticed that a number of the regulars I often saw in the painting studio upstairs were in the long room on the lower floor where Sabartés worked. Sabartés looked very conspiratorial. He signaled to me to follow him. When we were out of the room he whispered, “He said I could take you upstairs, but he’s not seeing anyone else today. You’re going to see someone who’ll give you a shock.”

When we reached the painting studio I saw Picasso talking with a thin, dark, intense man who, I must admit, did give me a shock. It was André Malraux. More than anyone else at that time, Malraux was the idol of our generation. We had all devoured his books—The Conquerors, Man’s Fate, Man’s Hope—and been excited not only by them but by the exploits of Malraux himself, in China, in Indo-China, in Spain, and now as one of the leaders of the Corrèze maquis in the Resistance.

Picasso introduced me to Malraux and asked me to show my paintings to both of them. Feeling very timid, I did. I referred to something in one of them as having arisen from the memory of a trip I had made to Les Baux the previous summer. That reminded Picasso that he and Malraux had met there on Christmas day about five years before. “There’s an other-worldly atmosphere you feel as you stand there looking down on the Val d’Enfer that makes me think of Dante,” Picasso said.

“It should,” Malraux replied. “During Dante’s exile from Florence, he went there in his wanderings through France and wrote that setting into L’Inferno.”

After Malraux had gone, Picasso said, “I hope you appreciate the gift I just made you.” I asked him what gift. “Letting you talk to Malraux,” he said. “After all, no one should have seen him here. It’s too dangerous. He just slipped in from the maquis.” I told him I didn’t know whether I was grateful for it or not. Until then I had been happy with the romantic legend. But seeing him now for the first time, his face twitching with a nervous tic, I had been disillusioned.

At the other end of the spectrum, politically and otherwise, there was Jean Cocteau. One day that winter he came with his friend the actor Jean Marais—“Jeannot,” as he called him—to tell Picasso that Marais had the role of Pyrrhus in a production of Racine’s Andromaque. “Our little Jeannot is going to have a huge success,” Cocteau assured us. Jeannot had even designed the settings and costumes, and Cocteau described them in detail, laying great stress on the dramatic contrast between the white costumes and the black columns of the palace. And if Pablo could only imagine how regal Jeannot looked in his magnificent purple cape, over fifteen feet long, as he threw himself headlong, in one powerful scene, down the staircase! There was only one problem: Jeannot needed a scepter. Couldn’t Pablo design him one?

Picasso thought for a moment, then said, “You know the little street market over in the Rue de Buci?” Cocteau and Marais looked puzzled but said yes, they did.

“All right,” Picasso said. “You go over there and bring me back a broomstick.” They looked a bit disconcerted by that but in the end they went out and returned with one. Picasso took it. “Come back in two days,” he said. “I’ll work something out.”

After they had gone he took an iron poker, heated it in his big stove and burned a primitive-looking abstract decoration along its full length. I asked him if it wasn’t rather long. “That will keep Jeannot from getting all tangled up in his magnificent fifteen-foot purple cape,” he said. “He can lean on it, too.”

When it came time for the opening, Picasso didn’t want to go—not even to see Jeannot brandishing the scepter he had made for him—so he gave his invitation to me. As one might have expected, the women were covered modestly—and drably—from chin to floor. The men, however, frisked about like little rats de l’Opéra, in very short tunics that showed off their legs and bottoms to the fullest advantage.

The most amusing thing about the play was the black columns of the palace. Whenever Pyrrhus leaned against one of them, the cheap water paint smutted his hand. Then, when he went over to clutch Andromaque for one of his dramatic moments, he left the print of it on her flowing white gown. It wasn’t long before she looked less Grecian than avant-garde. The audience howled. Soon they were whistling, hissing, and booing. I think the play closed after three nights.

Another one of the studio regulars was the photographer Brassaï, who came often to photograph Picasso’s sculpture. Picasso delighted in teasing him and would generally greet him with, “What are you going to break on me today?” Brassaï was accident-prone, and a simple remark like that was enough to start him off. At that time Picasso was working on the sculpture of the pregnant cat with its tail sticking out stiffly behind. One morning as Brassaï was setting up his tripod, Picasso said to him, “For heaven’s sake don’t go near that tail; you’ll make it fall off.” Brassaï obligingly drew away from the cat, pulled his tripod around, made another movement to the side and, of course, knocked off the cat’s tail. As soon as he could disengage himself from the sculpture, he began to pull his tripod toward him. Picasso said, “You’d be better off to stop pulling at that tripod and pull in your eyes”—not a very kind remark, because Brassaï suffered from a condition—thyroid, perhaps—that made his eyes bulge out of his head. But I could see from the start that no one ever got angry at Picasso’s jibes. Brassaï began to laugh so hard—whether because he thought it was funny or because he thought he had to—that he got his legs mixed up with his tripod and fell over backwards into a big basin of water that Picasso kept in the studio for Kasbek, his Afghan hound. As Brassaï fell, he splashed water over everybody. That was enough to put Picasso in a good mood for the rest of the morning.

“If no one came to see me in the morning, I’d have nothing to start working on in the afternoon,” he told me later. “These contacts are a way of recharging my battery, even if what takes place has no apparent connection with my work. It’s like the flare of a match. It lights up my whole day.”

But not all of Picasso’s visitors were welcome ones. The Germans, of course, had forbidden anyone to exhibit his painting. In their eyes, he was a “degenerate” artist and, worse still, an enemy of the Franco government. They were always looking for pretexts to make more trouble for him. Every week or two a group of uniformed Germans would come and with an ominous air ask, “This is where Monsieur Lipchitz lives, isn’t it?”

“Monsieur Picasso isn’t a Jew, by any chance?”

“No,” Sabartés would say. “This is Monsieur Picasso.”

“Oh, no. We know it’s Monsieur Lipchitz’s apartment.”

“But, no,” Sabartés would insist. “This is Monsieur Picasso.”

“Monsieur Picasso isn’t a Jew, by any chance?”

“Of course not,” said Sabartés. And since one’s Aryan or non-Aryan status was established on the basis of one’s grandparents’ baptismal certificates, no one could say Picasso was Jewish. But they used to come, anyway, and say they were looking for the sculptor Lipchitz, knowing very well that he was in America at that moment, and that he had never lived there in the first place. But they would pretend they had to satisfy themselves that he wasn’t there, so they’d say, “We want to be sure. We’re coming in to search for papers.” Three or four of them would come in, with an extremely polite officer who spoke French. The disorder everywhere was an invitation to them and they would look around and behind everything.

Picasso had had a brush with the Germans before I knew him and he told me about it one day with considerable satisfaction. One of the first things the Germans did in 1940, right after the armistice, was to inventory the contents of all safe-deposit vaults in banks. The property of Jews was confiscated. That of the others was set down in the record to be available if needed. Foreign stocks and bonds, gold, jewelry, and valuable works of art were what interested the Germans most.

As soon as the inventorying started, most people who were away from Paris rushed back in order to be present when their boxes or vaults were opened. Everyone realized that at the start, before the “technicians” arrived from Germany, things would be handled somewhat haphazardly by the occupying soldiers and they might, therefore, have more of a chance of protecting their valuables. That was what my family did and, as I learned later, Picasso too. And in taking care of his own vaults, Picasso had looked after Matisse’s as well.

Matisse had had a very serious abdominal operation and had gone to live in the south of France. His paintings were stored in a vault at the main office of the B.N.C.I.—the Banque Nationale pour le Commerce et l’Industrie—adjacent to Picasso’s vaults. When Picasso’s vaults were opened, he made it a point to be there. There were three large rooms full of paintings down in the basement: two for him and one for Matisse. The manager of the bank was a friend of both of them. Because Picasso was Spanish it would have been difficult for the Germans to touch his property if his papers had been in order, but since he was persona non grata with the Franco regime, his situation was precarious. And since both he and Matisse were classified by the Nazis as “degenerate” artists, there was all the more reason to be apprehensive. The inspectors were two German soldiers, very well disciplined but not very bright, he told me. He got them so confused, he said, rushing them from one room into the next, pulling out canvases, inspecting them, shoving them back in again, leading the soldiers around corners, making wrong turns, that in the end they were all at sea. And since they were not at all familiar with his work or with Matisse’s either, they didn’t know what they were looking at, no matter which room they were in. He wound up by inventorying only one-third of his paintings, and when it came to Matisse’s, he said, “Oh, we’ve seen these.” Not knowing one painting from another, they asked him what all those things were worth. He told them 8,000 francs—about $1,600 in today’s money—for all his paintings and the same for Matisse’s. They took his word for it. None of his things or Matisse’s were taken away. It must not have seemed worth the trouble.

“Germans always have a respect for authority,” he said, “whatever form it may take. The fact that I was somebody everyone had heard of and I came there myself and gave them exact details of sizes, values, and dates—all that impressed them very much. And they couldn’t imagine anyone telling them a story that might cost him very dear if he had been found out.”

There was a Kafkaesque uncertainty surrounding some of the people who drifted in and out of Picasso’s studio at that time.

There was a Kafkaesque uncertainty surrounding some of the people who drifted in and out of Picasso’s studio at that time: a rather mystifying art historian, for one, and a photographer who came from time to time on some vague mission. Picasso thought they were spies but there was no way of proving they were and no basis on which to refuse to let them in. What he feared most was that one day one of these dubious Germans—the photographer, for example, who came more often than any of the others—would plant some incriminating papers so that the next time the Gestapo came to search, they would find something.

It took a good deal of courage for him to stay there during the war, since his paintings had been denounced by Hitler and since the Occupation authorities took such a dim view of intellectuals. Many artists and writers—Léger, André Breton, Max Ernst, André Masson, Zadkine, and others—had gone off to America before the Germans arrived. It must have seemed wiser to many not to run the risk of staying. One day I asked Picasso why he had.

“Oh, I’m not looking for risks to take,” he said, “but in a sort of passive way I don’t care to yield to either force or terror. I want to stay here because I’m here. The only kind of force that could make me leave would be the desire to leave. Staying on isn’t really a manifestation of courage; it’s just a form of inertia. I suppose it’s simply that I prefer to be here. So I’ll stay, whatever the cost.”

Françoise Gilot and Carlton Lake
Françoise Gilot and Carlton Lake
Françoise Gilot is a French painter, critic, and writer. In 1943, Gilot met Pablo Picasso, and shortly after began a relationship that lasted ten years. Gilot published the bestselling Life with Picasso eleven years after their separation. In 1970, she married Jonas Salk, who pioneered the polio vaccine, and they remained married until his death in 1995. Gilot lives in Paris and New York, works on behalf of the Salk Institute in California, and continues to exhibit her work internationally. Carlton Lake (1915–2006) was an art critic and collector, and the Paris art critic for The Christian Science Monitor.





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