Françoise Gilot wasn’t impressed when she first saw Guernica, aged 15, at the 1937 World’s Fair in Paris. She appreciated the painting as a political act, but ‘was not so crazy, aesthetically or technically, about Picasso’. Six years later, she spotted him across the tables of Le Catalan, a restaurant on the Left Bank, and was equally underwhelmed. Surrounded by friends and his lover Dora Maar, Picasso was 61 and greying. He possessed a certain magnetism, it was true, but he looked nothing like the ‘handsome animal’ in the Man Ray photographs Gilot had seen in Cahiers d’art: ‘dark hair, bright flashing eyes, very squarely built’. Picasso came over to Gilot’s table, where she was dining with her friend Geneviève Aliquot and the actor Alain Cuny, bringing a bowl of cherries. Cuny made the introductions and the two women, painters themselves, invited Picasso to their joint exhibition at a small gallery behind place de la Concorde. In turn, Picasso suggested they visit his studio the following day. Then he went back to his table, taking the cherries with him.
Gilot and Aliquot waited a few days before visiting 7 rue des Grands-Augustins. They were greeted by Jaime Sabartés, Picasso’s secretary, who, after questioning them, allowed them inside. Picasso seemed pleased, peeling away from the crowd of acolytes who had gathered there, as they did every morning, to give the two women a tour. He showed them several of his sculptures and a few paintings, but was most excited about the sink in his engraving studio, which although it was wartime, still had hot water. ‘You could come here and have a hot bath any time you liked,’ Picasso said.
They went back to the studio more than once in the weeks that followed, not to bathe but to see more of his work, which was banned from public view because of the German occupation. After Aliquot left Paris for her home in Montpellier, Gilot continued to visit on her own and it became obvious to her that Picasso was finding excuses for them to be alone together: special paper and paint he had to find for her; an objet he thought she might like to see. ‘He was trying to discover to what degree I might be receptive to his attentions,’ Gilot writes in her memoir, Life with Picasso. She gave little away: when Picasso suddenly kissed her on the mouth he expected her to protest, but she didn’t and kissed him back, and when he led her up into the eaves of his studio to show her ‘an enormous phallus’ some workmen had painted on a neighbour’s wall she pretended she couldn’t make it out. Picasso thought Gilot was ‘a kind of somnambulist, walking on the edge of the roof without realising it, living in a dream or a spell’ – he liked it. He decided that she should visit him in the afternoons, when everyone else had left the studio, so he could teach her engraving. For the first lesson, Gilot arrived in a ‘black velvet dress with a high white lace collar’, her auburn hair crimped in the style of a Velázquez Infanta. When Picasso complained that this wasn’t suitable workwear, she said she was just trying to look beautiful: surely he didn’t mean for them to do any actual engraving. ‘Good god! What nerve!’ Picasso responded. ‘Couldn’t you at least pretend to be taken in, the way women generally do? If you don’t fall in with my subterfuges, how are we ever going to get together?’
They did, however, get together and Life with Picasso is Gilot’s account of their decade-long relationship. First published in 1964 and written with the American critic and curator Carlton Lake, the book is based on conversations he and Gilot had over the course of several years, beginning in 1955. The end result, which Lake cross-referenced with Gilot’s journals and the letters from Picasso she had kept, follows a roughly chronological order, though it loops and repeats as conversations tend to do. It’s a thorough picture of Picasso’s life in the postwar period, at the moment he became a monument: there are those he counted as friends (Gertrude Stein, Jean-Paul Sartre) and those he had little time for (André Gide, Jean Cocteau); there’s his wrangling with dealers and gallerists; there’s his involvement with the Communist Party, which he joined in 1944, because one ‘goes to the fountain’; there’s his wit and acid tongue; there’s his sidestepping of ‘all stereotyped formulas in his human relations just as completely as in his art’ – which made him a thrilling lover and painter, but a monstrous partner and father. More telling, though, is what we learn about Gilot, who came from a rich Parisian family and entered Picasso’s life with the intensity of a ‘little Rimbaud’. She was restless, spirited and determined not to become another of Picasso’s ‘grains of dust’, those women she watched ‘floating in the sunlight’ all around him, waiting to be pushed out of his life with the swish of a broom. She was, by any normal measure, successful in this, leaving Picasso of her own accord in 1953 – the only one of his lovers ever to do so. She turned out to be a grain of dust gifted with ‘autonomous movement’, but she was a grain of dust all the same.
Many thought the relationship was doomed from the start. Sabartés warned Picasso that Gilot owned too many clothes; Gilot’s grandmother warned her that Picasso was too old. But for Gilot, age wasn’t a factor: Picasso was ‘vigorous’ and more youthful than many of her friends – anyway, she could no longer breathe ‘outside his presence’. The sex was tempestuous: at times Picasso was giving, even ‘childlike’, at others ‘hard and brutal’. ‘There was the attraction and then, to counterbalance it, the disturbance this attraction stirred up.’ Picasso would beg Gilot to move into his attic, hidden away from the rest of the world, then scold her when she turned up at the studio: ‘I don’t know why I told you to come. It would be more fun to go to a brothel.’
There was also the problem of Dora Maar, whom Picasso continued to see for lunch or dinner at the Lipp or the Flore. (It was said that Maar never made plans with anyone until dinnertime, by which point she would know whether or not Picasso wanted to see her that night.) They had begun a relationship in 1936 after Picasso saw her at Les Deux Magots, one hand bloodied and splayed on the table, the other driving a knife between her fingers. With her dark hair and stark eyebrows, her fingernails filed to sharp points, Maar cast a shadow over Gilot, who was fair and bright-eyed and fond of gingham dresses.
Maar also showed what it was to be undone by Picasso. In 1945, aware that she was being replaced, she suffered a breakdown. She was found by two policemen walking alone by the Seine one night; she claimed someone had broken into her apartment to steal her Maltese dog. When Paul Éluard and Picasso tried to calm her down, Maar condemned Picasso for his moral weakness and grabbed the two men ‘by the arms and tried to force them to their knees’ to repent their sins. Sabartés ran out to fetch a doctor – Jacques Lacan – and Maar was taken to his clinic for three weeks of electroshock therapy and analysis. Picasso blamed the Surrealists: their ‘wild ideas’ promoted ‘anti-rationalism and the derangement of the senses’. You only had to look at Artaud, who had gone mad, and René Crevel, who committed suicide, to know that Surrealism wasn’t for everyone. When Gilot told Picasso he had to take some of the blame, he said she was acting out of a ‘pseudo-humanitarianism’ she must have picked up ‘from that whining, weepy phony, Jean-Jacques Rousseau’.
The relationship changed them both. Picasso became interested in lithographs again and by 1945 had sketched several portraits of Gilot, with her thick, wavy hair and long, straight nose. She, too, was painting and drawing more than ever before. He never criticised her efforts, though he offered advice in the form of aphorisms: an artist should limit themselves to a single tool or brush so that every part of a piece ‘takes on the same proportion’; the elements and colours of a painting should ‘struggle with one another’; if you have to make reference to objects they should be ones that ‘belong to everybody’ – a casserole dish rather than a Louis XV chair. Picasso showed her that adding sugar to black gouache brings a ‘more pictorial effect’ to a lithograph and that a candle was better than an electric heater at warming a copper etching plate, which was apparently the way Goya ‘obtained those marvellous blacks’ in The Disasters of War. When it came to judgments on art history, Picasso was less forgiving: Gris painted like a ‘grammarian’, Delacroix was a ‘really good bastard’, Caravaggio was too ‘decadent’ and Fernand Léger remained ‘a bit outside the domain of great painting’. Bonnard’s work expressed a ‘potpourri of indecision’ and though Chagall’s ‘feeling for light’ was refined, Picasso wasn’t ‘crazy about those cocks and asses and flying violinists’.
He had nothing but praise for Matisse, whose ‘good lungs’ made colours breathe. The two men had become close friends and Gilot was taken to meet Matisse at his house in Vence in February 1946. On Picasso’s orders, she wore her mauve blouse and ‘willow-green’ slacks – two colours Matisse liked very much. It worked: Matisse took an immediate liking to Gilot, whose eyebrows reminded him of ‘circumflex accents’, and he declared that he would like to make a portrait of her with green hair. This rattled Picasso, who was so proprietary he once suggested Gilot wear a scarf covering her face in public, and as soon as they returned to Paris he began work on La Femme-fleur, which would become his first large-scale portrait of her. He decided that she should be standing rather than seated, as she wasn’t at all ‘the passive type’. He made her oval face squat and round ‘like a little blue moon’ and her breasts became big asymmetric circles balanced on either side of her torso, a stem. He painted her hair as a green, swooping bun that sat on the side of her head like a leaf. ‘We’re all animals, more or less,’ Picasso explained, but she belonged to the plant kingdom.
That spring, Picasso threatened to throw Gilot off the Pont Neuf. They had been walking across the bridge, arguing about Gilot’s reluctance to move into his apartment, when he pushed her into one of the semi-circular bastions and bent her over the parapet. She told him to go ahead: the weather was warm and she was a strong swimmer. For a long time she had found fear ‘delicious’: her father, an indomitable man who had four sisters and ‘his fill of women’, had insisted she be brought up like a boy, and forced her to climb and swim even though she was terrified of heights and of water. And that is the reason, Gilot thinks, she stayed with Picasso, even after the scene on the bridge: here was someone to ‘match [herself] against’, who promised her the ‘difficulty and danger’ she sought. But folded into this hypothesis is another: Gilot’s father was difficult and dangerous, ‘very generous’ and ‘very violent’. When she turned 21 and told him she was leaving law school to become a painter, he beat her and banished her from the family home. Now estranged from her parents and living with her grandmother, Picasso offered something she recognised.
Gilot moved in with Picasso in May 1946. Soon after they left to spend the summer at Maar’s house in Ménerbes. Gilot had protested – it ‘seemed a strange thing to be doing’ and unpleasant for all involved – but Picasso reasoned that he had bought the house for Maar and so should enjoy it as he pleased. They relaxed in the mornings before lunching at the local bistro, surrounded by stone-cutters from the nearby quarry. (Picasso always enjoyed the company of workers, who – unlike most people – he felt had something to teach him.) But for Gilot it wasn’t much of a holiday: when she wasn’t avoiding the scorpions that invaded the house, which Picasso – a Scorpio – rather liked, she had to listen to him reading aloud the letters that arrived daily from Marie-Thérèse Walter, another of Picasso’s former mistresses, the pink cloud of candyfloss who appears in many of his most voluptuous portraits. She had a ‘privileged body on which the light fell to perfection’ and continued to write to Picasso ‘in the most affectionate vein’, addressing him ‘with great tenderness’ and bringing news of their daughter, Maya. This correspondence made Gilot realise that Maar was far from the only entanglement in Picasso’s life: she had entered a world bound by a past that had begun before she was even born. She packed up her things and decided to leave, but had only made it as far as the main road when Picasso caught up with her and persuaded her to stay. ‘You mustn’t listen to your head for things like that. You’ll talk yourself out of the deepest things in life. What you need is a child.’
In May 1947, Gilot gave birth to a boy called Claude. Until the last week of the pregnancy the only doctor she had seen was Lacan: Picasso believed ‘you should use people for things that lay outside their area of specialisation’ so he treated Lacan as his GP. Lacan prescribed ‘very little, saying, as a rule, that everything was fine’, but even he was a little surprised to find out that Gilot hadn’t been seeing an obstetrician. Once Claude was born, Picasso started to worry – worry that turned to paranoia. All the doors inside the house had to be left open so he could hear the baby breathing at night. He would wake Gilot up six times a night, convinced that the baby was dead. Every time she had to get out of bed to confirm that Claude was still alive.
Claude’s arrival also brought the return of Olga, Picasso’s wife. They had married in 1918 and had a son, Paulo, in 1921. The marriage was never happy and they separated in 1935, after Olga learned of Walter’s pregnancy. She had remained in contact with Picasso, writing a stream of vituperative letters, floating around France in his wake and terrorising his mistresses. When she heard about Claude, Olga transferred ‘the obsessive hatred she had been bearing Dora Maar’ to Gilot and soon this ‘unfortunate creature’ was following the family around the Midi, scratching and pinching Gilot in the street, and howling that her husband had been stolen away. Gilot begged him to move away from the Côte d’Azur, and out of Olga’s reach. But Picasso was reluctant: ‘If I had to move every time women started fighting over me, I wouldn’t have had the time for much else in my life.’
Endless amounts have been written about how these conflicts and contrasts manifest in his work – over and over two women appear in his paintings, one dark and the other fair, one asleep and the other awake – but Gilot is specially attuned to the choreography of it all. Instead of cutting things off with any one woman, she writes, Picasso kept them all just offstage ‘letting out little peeps and cries of joy or pain’, beckoning them from the wings whenever he needed inspiration or entertainment. He told her that one of his ‘choicest memories’ was a fight that took place when Walter arrived at his studio while Maar was there. Walter asked Maar to leave, arguing that she had a daughter by Picasso so had precedence, but Maar thought she should stay: what difference did a baby make? Picasso kept on painting throughout. ‘I decided I had no interest in making a decision. I was satisfied with things as they were. I told them they’d have to fight it out themselves. So they began to wrestle.’
In May 1948, Picasso and Gilot bought a ‘rather ugly little villa’ known as La Galloise, in Vallauris, where they took up permanent residence. The family lived simply with only the barest of furnishings: for Picasso, a roof was something to work under. Gilot had the walls whitewashed and Olga scared off by the local police commissioner, yet still she felt blue. Picasso suggested another baby – ‘Having a child brings new problems and they take the focus off the old ones’ – and their daughter was born in Paris in 1949. Picasso missed the birth – he was tied up at the World Peace Conference on Communist Party business – but decided that she should be named Paloma, Spanish for ‘dove’.
Picasso doted on Paloma, who was sweet and docile, but was less keen on Claude, who had – he was sure – inherited his mother’s wilfulness. They hired a cook and a gardener, but it was mostly left to Gilot to care for the children. She would wash and feed and dress them before coaxing Picasso – not a morning person – out of bed with a ‘café au lait and two pieces of salt-free dried toast’. With Sabartés in Paris, she sorted Picasso’s mail, handled his finances and persuaded him to donate ten canvases to the Musée d’Art Moderne. Before appointments with Kahnweiler or his other dealers, she helped him prepare for the negotiations. When he needed a copy of a painting made so he could work on a variant, she traced it out, sometimes overnight, and when he fired his chauffeur, Marcel, he suggested she take on that role too – never mind the fact she couldn’t drive. Her workload was heaviest in winter – there were fires to be built at La Galloise and in every room at Picasso’s new studio on the rue du Fournas – and in the summers he liked her to go about naked, so as to fix the unsightly tan lines left by her bikini. How else did she expect him to put nudes in his paintings now that he never got to see any?
‘Picasso finds himself in women,’ John Berger wrote. In Gilot he found something else: balance, a degree of harmony. He started new experiments, first with ceramics at the Madoura pottery and then with sculpture, which he took to assembling out of the children’s toys or junk he’d collected on his afternoon walks in the hills around the house. There was a lot of painting too: Claude in an embroidered suede coat that he had brought back from Poland; Paloma with plump cheeks clutching a doll he had made for her; a grisaille of Gilot drawing, the children at her feet. For her part, Gilot stopped fretting that everything she produced would end up looking like a Picasso and turned to new kinds of oil painting. She went through a white period, painting Paloma with deep purple-black lines asleep in a tented crib, and then there was a series of kitchen still lives: steaming potatoes in a colander waiting to be mashed, a blue coffee pot on a red hearth.
By 1951, Picasso was ‘chafing under so much domesticity’. ‘He seemed, at times, to look on the children as weapons I had forged to be used against him,’ Gilot writes, ‘and he began to withdraw from me.’ Their discussions, once so exuberant and lasting long into the night, were now mostly about money matters. Picasso began going off without her: to bullfights in Nîmes or Arles, to Paris for long weekends. In May, he spent two weeks on the coast with Éluard and his second wife, Dominique, a woman ‘as solid as the rock of Gibraltar’ and ‘just the kind Pablo liked’. Gilot sensed that ‘Paul wasn’t the real reason for his trip.’ Picasso denied everything but her suspicions were confirmed by a friend: he had been spotted by journalists embarking on a ‘new adventure’ in St Tropez. Gilot felt as though she’d ‘fallen from the sixth floor’. Picasso turned seventy in October 1951. Until then, she had seen him ‘as a unique phenomenon’, single-mindedly focusing his prodigious energy on his work in the studio rather than expending it, as others did, on the day-to-day business of living. But now he was suddenly eager to live, which meant running into the arms of the young. He found two new models: Sylvette David, a young woman with a blonde ponytail, and Paule de Lazerme, a black-haired ‘queen bee’. A different Gilot emerged too, stick thin, like ‘a Romanesque Christ’, embittered by what Picasso had turned her into:
I had known from the start that what principally appealed to him in me was the intellectual side and my forthright, almost tomboy, way of acting – my very lack, in a sense, of what is called ‘femininity’. And yet he had insisted that I have children because I wasn’t enough of a woman … He had directed his metamorphosis in my nature, and now that he had achieved it, he wanted no part of it.
In 1952 Gilot had her first solo exhibition in Paris and started to think about leaving him. Matsie Hadjilazaros, the lover of Picasso’s nephew, encouraged her: ‘You imagine that you’re necessary to him or that he will be very unhappy if you leave him, but I’m sure that if you do, within three months he will have fitted another face into your role.’ When Gilot told Picasso her plans he told her that ‘no woman leaves a man like me.’ She would be ruined without him, was headed ‘straight for the desert’. She should stop thinking of her own happiness and try to be more like a Roman mother, ‘without feelings’. They stayed together over the winter, during which time Picasso painted her fighting a big brown dog and wrote many letters to Sabartés which he left about the house for her to read: ‘I am not what I was. I am not loved.’ Gilot painted herself deep in thought, Paloma at her feet, Claude writing ‘liberté’ on a blackboard. She spent the spring of 1953 in Paris with Kostas Axelos, a philosopher who was translating Heidegger. He told her to leave Picasso and she told herself she loved him. In September, she bought three train tickets to Paris and enrolled the children at the École Alsacienne. Sure that she wasn’t really leaving for good, Picasso refused to say goodbye – though he did come out of the house as their taxi pulled away, letting out a single word: ‘Merde!’ Within a month, the journalists camped out on Gilot’s doorstep passed on the news that Jacqueline Roque, a blue-eyed shop assistant from the Madoura pottery, had moved into La Galloise.
When Life with Picasso was first published, many reviewers felt it was exaggerated. Gilot was implausibly virtuous; Picasso’s monologues were implausibly long. It was wrong of Gilot to write about their sex life (even though it was evidently fine for Picasso to paint about it). There was too much tittle-tattle and not enough discussion of Picasso’s work or politics. He had brought Gilot fame and shaped her personality; in return she had impugned his generosity and disrespected his pottery by calling the clay he used ‘cheap’. In 1965 more than forty artists, including Miró and Félix Labisse, signed an open letter demanding that the book be banned. Picasso cut off all contact with Claude and Paloma, and took Gilot and Lake’s publisher, Calmann-Lévy, to court for presenting him as ‘sadistic, cruel, proud and double dealing’. But the book was found not to be defamatory: on the contrary, it revealed Picasso to be a man of ‘astonishing interior richness’ and contributed to his glory better than any official biography would have done. The court added that it would be difficult, impossible even, for Gilot to write about her life without some mention of Picasso. In any case, these memories – whether true or not – belonged to her.