Friday, May 22, 2020

Life with Picasso by Françoise Gilot

Life with Picasso by Francoise Gilot

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Pablo Picasso was a gifted artist, one of the lucky ones who was successful during his lifetime, allowing him to reap the rewards of fame and fortune while still alive and kicking. He was also a dick.

In Life with Picasso, Françoise Gilot, his former lover and mother to two of his children, employs a sharp intelligence and memory to recount experiences from her decade with the artist. She describes in detail his work habits and techniques for those who love particulars of the creative process. You'll also get a glimpse of many other artists and writers in post-World War II France whose lives intersected with Picasso and Gilot.

However, the most fascinating and disturbing parts of the book focus on Picasso's actions and feelings towards the women, children and friends in his life. He didn't give a damn about anyone, though some people served his purposes or amused him for a time.

An artist herself, Gilot was useful to Picasso as someone with whom he could hold intelligent discussions about his art and who could also serve as living, breathing inspiration and model for paintings (as many of his lovers were) – she stayed with him well past the point of reason in part because he said he needed her for his work. He appreciated her mind as well as her youth (she was 21 when they met, he was 61). However, it seems like he didn't appreciate her as a human being worthy of love, respect, or any kind of consideration. It wasn't personal; he felt that way about all women, and basically about all people in general.

Here's a sample of Picasso's thoughts on women in particular, and everyone in general:
“There’s nothing so similar to one poodle dog as another poodle dog and that goes for women, too.”  
“Nobody has any real importance for me. As far as I’m concerned, other people are like those little grains of dust floating in the sunlight. It takes only a push of the broom and out they go.” 
“Every time I change wives I should burn the last one. That way I’d be rid of them. They wouldn’t be around now to complicate my existence. Maybe that would bring back my youth, too. You kill the woman and you wipe out the past she represents.” 
"I’d rather see a woman die, any day, than see her happy with someone else."
Portrait of Francoise Gilot by Pablo Picasso
Painting of Francoise Gilot called "Seated Woman" by Pablo Picasso.
I took this photo a few years ago during a visit to the St. Louis Art Museum.
As for her part, why did it take Gilot so long to leave this asshole? He was often childish, unkind, unfaithful, and inconsiderate. What gives, you might ask?

As Gilot explained, it harkens back to events of her own childhood that shaped her personality. Her father was physically and emotionally abusive. She had been afraid of everything as a young girl, and her father couldn't tolerate it. He dedicated himself to forcing that out of her. "If he had made up his mind that I was to do something, I could protest for hours but in the end I had to do it. And as soon as I had accomplished one thing, he forced me to do something else, even harder," she wrote.

"As I was growing up, whenever anything frightened me in any degree, it fascinated me at the same time. I felt the need of going too far simply to prove to myself that I was capable of it. ... By the time I was eight, I was afraid of nothing; in fact, my nature had changed so that I sought out difficulty and danger."

This set her up perfectly to dedicate herself to withstanding whatever Picasso threw her way.

As she explained: "Later on, that psychology worked against me, too. As I was growing up, whenever anything frightened me in any degree, it fascinated me at the same time. I felt the need of going too far simply to prove to myself that I was capable of it. And when I met Pablo, I knew that here was something larger than life, something to match myself against. The prospect sometimes seemed overpowering, but fear itself can be a delicious sensation. And so I had the feeling that even though the struggle between us was so disproportionate that I ran the risk of a resounding failure, it was a challenge I could not turn down."

When she finally tore herself away from him, after a long time of him convincing her to stay or keeping her in his orbit, he exacted revenge by way of using his considerable influence in the art world to hinder her career. An art dealer she'd worked with for years terminated her contract after she'd had a child with her first husband. Years after her relationship with Picasso ended, she'd be told by an art dealer that they would like to buy or exhibit her work, but couldn't "for fear of losing Pablo’s good will."

The series Genius: Picasso starring Antonio Banderas aired on National Geographic in 2018. Banderas was wonderful in it, and it highlights both Picasso's talent and that being his wife or lover wasn't so great. Naturally it includes a depiction of the artist's relationship with Gilot.

As of this writing, Gilot is still alive at 98 years old, having outlived her famous lover by 47 years so far. Picasso may have become inextricably linked with her life in history's eyes, but he wasn't the only famous and talented man who wanted this intelligent, gifted woman in his life. In some ways Picasso himself is over-shadowed by the world-changing work of Gilot's second husband, Jonas Salk – the man who invented the polio vaccine. Gilot, recognized as an accomplished painter and writer, continues creating art in her apartment in New York.

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