In 1964, her book about a decade-long affair with the legendary artist was a succès de scandale. Now, it’s back in print.
The artist Françoise Gilot was only 21 years old when she first met Pablo Picasso in 1943. One evening, in Paris, the two happened to be dining at the same restaurant. Picasso was there with his then partner Dora Maar and friends; Gilot with hers. At the end of the meal, Picasso walked over to Gilot’s table, offering a bowl of cherries and an invitation to visit his studio on Rue des Grands-Augustins. Picasso had already become an internationally famous artist, and Gilot observed that he no longer seemed like the “handsome animal” captured in Man Ray’s famous photographs from the 1920s and 1930s. Yet she was captivated. He was 61.
This, of course, is a well-known story, originally recounted in her 1964 memoir written with the American journalist Carlton Lake, “Life With Picasso,” which is being republished by New York Review of Books Classics this month. In it, Gilot describes a decade-long love affair with Picasso. She, too, was a serious painter, with ambitions to make a name for herself. Picasso eventually persuaded her to abandon her family and move in with him. At once, she became his student, partner, assistant, and then the mother of their two children, Claude and Paloma. The book focuses more on Picasso than her own progression as a painter and mother. Gilot was there to witness Picasso’s explorations with ceramics while living in Vallauris in the South of France, as well as his pioneering sculpture, lithography and assemblages. Gilot was also his subject, famously depicted in his 1946 painting “La Femme-Fleur,” inspired by a visit to Henri Matisse’s home. Teasingly, Matisse suggested to the competitive Picasso that if he were ever to paint Gilot, he would paint her hair green. In “La Femme-Fleur,” Gilot’s hair resembles leaves, her stemlike body sprouting abstract limbs and breasts.
By the early 1950s, their relationship began to fray. “I think I loved Pablo as much as anyone can love someone else, but the thing he reproached me with later … was that I never trusted him. He may have been right, but it would have been hard for me to feel otherwise, since I came onstage with an unavoidably clear vision of three other actresses who had tried to play the same role, all of whom had fallen into the prompter’s box,” Gilot writes. She is alluding to Picasso’s previous wife Olga Khokhlova, as well as two other longtime mistresses: Dora Maar and Marie-Thérèse Walter. Of them all, Gilot was the only woman to ever walk away from Picasso.
Though Gilot’s book was a best seller, Picasso’s inner circle condemned it, most notably John Richardson, Picasso’s future biographer, who in 1965 wrote a scathing critique in the New York Review of Books, dismissively titled “Trompe l’Oeil”: “In Life with Picasso the artist’s complicated relations with family, mistresses, friends, colleagues, and dealers, not to speak of his private business arrangements and even his sexual habits, are unveiled to the public with such relish that one sometimes wonders why this book was serialized in the Atlantic Monthly and not in Confidential.” Indeed, Gilot included candid remarks by Picasso about his peers. About Marc Chagall: “I’m not crazy about those cocks and asses and flying violinists and all the folklore, but his canvases are really painted, not just thrown together.” Accounts of sexual dalliances were more sensational than they might be today. After the book’s publication, Picasso cut off the two children he had with Gilot. “We tried and tried and tried to see him,” Claude Picasso told Michael Kimmelman for this newspaper in 1996. “My father was locked away in his house. He didn’t answer the phone himself. So Paloma and I went separately, together, every year, two or three times, more. You have to realize, we didn’t live in the South of France, and his house was isolated. It wasn’t easy for a kid without a driver’s license to get there.”
Decades later, however, the book reads as surprisingly contemporary. Picasso is portrayed as both brilliant and tyrannical — possessive of Gilot but also careless with her desires and needs. As Picasso told Gilot, there are only two types of women: goddesses and doormats. The book does not diminish his art, but in its own way, it presents a man who could be remarkably self-absorbed and cruel to those closest to him. The myth of his genius must now contend with a frank depiction of his entitlement, immaturity and ego. Just last year, before his death, Richardson — who would become friends with Gilot — conceded that Gilot was more of an influence on Picasso than the other way around.
On a recent morning, I met with Gilot, 97, and her daughter Aurelia Engel (Gilot married twice after leaving Picasso; first to Engel’s father, Luc Simon, then to Jonas Salk) in her Upper West Side apartment, where she still paints. We discussed her memoir as well as her larger career. A show of Gilot’s monotypes will go on view at the Mac-Gryder Gallery in New Orleans on Aug. 3. The monotypes, which Gilot paints on a flat surface, pressing the image onto paper, are otherworldly and beautiful. Gilot’s use of color is magnificent, and the layered paint adds an airy, less deliberate effect. Some of the monotypes reference myths. Others are pure abstractions. Understandably, Gilot seems more engaged discussing her work than her life with Picasso. What follows is an edited and condensed version of our conversation.
Thessaly La Force: What was the original reception of the book when it first published in 1964?
Françoise Gilot: Well, I don’t remember. It was so long ago.
TLF: Do you have any thoughts on it today, looking at it after so many decades?
FG: No, I am living in the present, not in the past. Or in the future, I don’t know. I live day by day, and what is happening that day, the next day, is important to me — so I don’t care. I’m not somebody who cares very much about “this happened on such a day,” all that.
TLF: Of course.
FG: Also, painting is not something that — let’s say, if you are doing mathematics, you might be interested by the numbers, but in painting, you are not. In painting, you are interested by the relationship of colors to one another, or shapes, things like that, not at all a story of any kind.
TLF: Do you feel with painting there’s not so much a sense of narrative, or it’s more about, as you say, color or form?
FG: Painting is about painting.
TLF: But I’m not a painter.
FG: I know, but that’s very important. Because, so many people think you have to have a story going on. Sometimes, you can, but it’s not necessary.
TLF: Are you painting every day?
FG: Maybe I’m drawing, or maybe I’m looking outside, or I don’t know what.
TLF: How do you fill your days?
FG: Today, for me, painting is as natural as breathing. I usually breathe. I don’t stop breathing. It’s very easy. It’s not something out of a mysterious domain. For me, or for any painter, it’s something that happens every day. The ability to work with your hands, to tell about your feelings, that’s what it is. That’s the way it goes.
FG: It’s like writing a poem or something like that. It’s the same thing.
FG: It’s more like a poem than like historian prose.
TLF: How long does it take you to finish a painting?
FG: As long as a day, as long as a month or a year.
TLF: It depends?
FG: It depends completely. For each one, it’s a different thing. I may finish it tonight or not finish it for six months. It doesn’t matter. That has nothing to do, as we say, with the price of fish. Image
TLF: When do you know you’ve finished with a painting?
FG: It’s visible to any eye, including mine.
Françoise Gilot’s “The Constructor” (1944). Credit...Courtesy of the artist
TLF: Well, your memoir is being republished this month, and I wanted to talk to you a little bit about the story I’ve heard about you and the biographer John Richardson becoming friends, because he famously first wrote a scathing review of your book when it came out.
FG: Yes, so, he did not know me. He had never met me, and then he judged me according to things he had heard. Then, when he met me, we became very good friends. What can I say? Many people thought that by being against me, they would be pleasing to Picasso. That’s why they did it. When they saw that it had no reaction from him, then they abandoned that idea.
TLF: Wow. Interesting. I loved it. I think it’s beautifully written and beautifully told —
FG: On top of it all, I am not saying anything that is disagreeable. Quite the contrary. They knew I’m the person who knew him the best, and they knew my book would be better than the others. They had to try to hit it first.
FG: And they did.
TLF: The book is so much more about Picasso than it is you. You’re not very present in the book.
FG: Well, I am the eye that is looking at a spectacle. I am not talking about the eye, I am thinking about what it is I’m seeing.
TLF: I understand that was a choice you made because you wanted to focus on Picasso. But I would have read more about your life, too.
FG: I could write a book like that, but that would be with a different title. I’m quite capable of writing all those things. I’ve been writing poetry. I wrote other things. But, if I write about Picasso, it has to be about Picasso.
TLF: Were you afraid of the reaction readers might have as you were working on it?
FG: I’m never afraid of anything. That’s not my style. If I would be afraid, then I would not do it. But, I am not afraid. Why should I be afraid? Afraid of what?
TLF: I don’t know. Some people are afraid.
FG: Afraid of fear itself.
FG: But that is stupid. You can say anything you want about me, but I am not stupid.
TLF: I don’t think anyone would say that. Some of the most amazing moments you described were the conversations you had with Picasso about painting and his peers such as Braque, Matisse and Chagall.
FG: Well, we were living together for — I don’t know how many years — at least 10 years. We knew each other, not only through what we did but through what we talked about together, et cetera. It’s a long relationship. It’s a very important type of thing.
Françoise Gilot’s “Horse Abstraction” (1945). Credit...Courtesy of the artist
TLF: How did your own paintings evolve over that time period?
FG: Well, like anybody, like any painter, the art evolves by the type of experience he or she has. That’s what happens. You experience life. Today, we see that it has a little bit of sun. Well, we can think about the sun, or, on the contrary, think about the rain, because we don’t have the rain. I don’t know. What I’m writing about sometimes can have nothing to do with a plan. I may not plan it at all. It’s spontaneous. I think it’s important that you be spontaneous.
TLF: In so many ways Picasso seems like a brilliant person but also very selfish. Do you think in order to be an artist —
FG: First of all, the reaction that was negative was from the circle around Picasso. They thought my book would be better, so they had to condemn it beforehand.
FG: Of course, because I knew everything much better than they ever would. I knew in advance that I would have to fight for it, because people would not like me. It would not be to everybody’s taste.
FG: That can be. Sometimes people like you. Sometimes people don’t. But you are not going to fashion yourself according to other people’s wishes, whether they are negative or positive, you know? You have to be true to yourself and true to the truth. That’s the only two things that are important. I don’t think I have to be true to what the public in general thinks, because, then, why should I say something they already have made up their mind about?
TLF: Right, right.
FG: No, I am going to say many times: They only think, they don’t know.
TLF: Some people would say that’s very brave. Do you think one has to be — in order to be a genius, in order to be a great artist — do you have to behave in the way Picasso did?
FG: Well, he was selfish, but more so, 10 times. Because, he thought he was 100 times better than any other. That’s why he was 100 times more egoist.
TLF: Can you be a good artist and not be selfish?
FG: No. Well, “selfish” is the wrong word, first of all. Because an artist should have a big ego. It’s the normal thing.
FG: Because what he has to deliver is his own personality as well as the relationship of his personality to the world at large. An artist cannot answer to the question of people about I don’t know what. He answers about his own questioning of the truth.
TLF: Do you think it’s harder for women artists than it is for men?
FG: I don’t see any difference that sex would bring into that. Why should it be different to be a woman or a man? We can probably pay attention to different things than a man would. That would allow the truth about certain things to be known better, because a woman has reflected upon it and thought of what was a real solution to that problem.
TLF: But, I wonder if men are allowed to be —
FG: Why should we be allowed to be anything? We are not allowed to anything. That’s the first point.
FG: We don’t have to be allowed, because to be allowed would mean that you are just doing exactly what you are told, which is not creativity at all. A painter, a writer, whether it’s a man or a woman, is someone who says what he or she has to say about a given subject matter. If they are not able to do that, then they should stay home.
TLF: My other favorite section of the book was the last chapter, which is about your decision to leave Picasso.
FG: You think I remember what I wrote in the last chapter or even the first one? No, because I don’t spend my time looking at my own past. For me, I write it. When I write, I try to be as truthful as possible. Then, if I am done, I am finished. Why should I look twice?
TLF: I agree. But, there’s something he says to you when you are parting ways, where he says essentially that you’re indebted to him. That life will never be as good without him. Do you want to say something for the record in response to that? You seem to have lived a great life after him.
FG: No. I knew. We have only one life. You have to act your own deeds and your own life, either as a positive or a negative. It’s what it is.
TLF: In the book, André Gide says you are the kind of person who may have a lot of remorse but will never have regrets. Do you think that’s true?
FG: Well, why should I have regret? Regret is something you have not done. When I went away, I was through with that. That’s why I didn’t stay. I didn’t stay just in order to stay put.
TLF: Yes, of course. That’s why I love the book.
FG: I think it’s very important in life to have no regrets. “Regrets” meaning not having done this or that. Well, it’s much better to have done this or that, and, therefore, it had a result. That is the objective in real life, and then you cope with it as well as you can.
TLF: You’re much older than I am, so you would know.
FG: The most important thing in life is to be true to yourself. You can be true to others, if you have time.
Thessaly La Force is the features director of T Magazine.
As the collector Étienne Moreau-Nélaton put it, Corot, "like the Romantics, was enthusiastic about the masterpieces of Gothic architecture. This led him to Chartres." This work was painted during the Revolution of 1830, when Corot had to flee Paris. An odd composition One of Corot's first masterpieces, Chartres Cathedral was painted in 1830, a few months after the artist's return from Italy. Still suffused with the light of that country, this work, with its clear tones and visual objectivity, is perfectly laid out and soundly structured. Corot's concern with the architecture is clear, but he has chosen an odd composition, with the mound and the stacked stones in the foreground. Partly taken from life, the painting was considerably reworked forty-two years later by Corot, who enlarged it when it was being relined and added the small figure at bottom left.
Out of proportion The viewer is immediately struck by the composition of the painting. The "vacant lot" with its three trees, slabs of stone, and houses is in marked contrast with the sheer size of the cathedral and its spires. If we block out the spires, the building fits with the overall scale, but otherwise everything seems out of proportion. This was the criticism Corot himself made in 1872, his attempt at a solution being the addition of the child seated on a block of stone in the foreground.
ABOUT THIS ARTWORK The painting of Classical ruins had reached the zenith of its popularity when Hubert Robert, the leading French practitioner of this specialty, was commissioned in 1787 to paint a suite of four canvases for a wealthy financier’s château at Méréville, near Paris. The Fountains and its companion pieces were set into the paneled walls of a salon in the château, creating an alternate space that played off of the elegant, Neoclassical decor of the room. Robert has studied in Rome from 1754 to 1765 and there had gleaned his artistic vocabulary. Like the other three large paintings from the group painted for Méréville, all in the Art Institute, The Fountains exploits Robert’s typical vocabulary of fictive niches, arches, coffered vaults, colonnades, majestic stairwells, and Roman statuary to create a fantasy of expansive space. The four paintings are inhabited by tiny figures in the foreground; these serve only to set the scale and animate the scene, for the ruins themselves are the true subject of the pictures. In his use of ruins, Robert embodied the notion of the relationship of mankind and the built environment to nature that was expressed by the French philosopher and encyclopedist Denis Diderot: “Everything vanishes, everything dies, only time endures.”
The eighteenth-century fascination with volcanoes, and Vesuvius in particular, deepened in the nineteenth century, fuelled by the eruptions of Vesuvius in 1794, 1807, 1819, and 1822. Turner was alert to both the intellectual and aesthetic possibilities that the evolving discipline of geology offered; he cultivated friendships with pioneering geologists, including John MacCulloch and Charles Stokes, and his sketchbooks contain detailed records of geological phenomena. During the second decade of the nineteenth century Turner, a keen proponent of the Sublime, had his own burst of volcanic activity. In 1815 he exhibited his canvas “The Eruption of the Souffrier Mountains, in the Island of St Vincent” (Butlin and Joll, 1984, no. 132); two years later the print publisher W. B. Cooke commissioned Turner to make companion watercolors of Vesuvius, showing the volcano in eruption and repose (Wilton, “Turner”, 1979, nos. 698–99). This watercolor, the third of the group and the most spectacular, would also have been made around the same time as Cooke's drawings, if the inscription on the back, which is not in Turner's hand, is correct. Turner did not visit Italy until 1819, and he may have based the Vesuvius drawings on the work of another draftsman, most likely James Hakewill, whose sketches Turner used for a group of watercolors commissioned as designs for Hakewill’s publication “Picturesque Tour of Italy”. Although the Center’s Vesuvius drawing was neither exhibited nor engraved, its extremely high degree of finish suggests that Turner had made it for a specific purpose, perhaps as a commission. Although Turner's patron Walter Fawkes owned the watercolor, it was not included in Fawkes’s exhibition of his collection at his London house in 1819, which featured his outstanding holdings of Turner’s work. The work was probably acquired by Fawkes (and possibly even made) sometime later. -- Gillian Forrester, 2007-01
Edvard Munch’s 1910 version of “The Scream” has been under the microscope to examine how its colors have faded, providing lessons about other paintings of the period.Credit...Sidsel de Jong/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
The art world is increasingly turning to scientific analysis of pigments to find out how time has changed some famous paintings.
“The Scream” is fading. And tiny samples of paint from the 1910 version of Edvard Munch’s famous image of angst have been under the X-ray, the laser beam and even a high-powered electron microscope, as scientists have used cutting-edge technology to try to figure out why portions of the canvas that were a brilliant orangeish-yellow are now an ivory white.
Since 2012, scientists based in New York and experts at the Munch Museum in Oslo have been working on this canvas — which was stolen in 2004 and recovered two years later — to tell a story of color. But the research also provides insight into Munch and how he worked, laying out a map for conservators to prevent further change, and helping viewers and art historians understand how one of the world’s most widely recognized paintings might have originally looked.
The art world is increasingly turning to labs to understand how paintings from the late 19th and early 20th centuries are behaving. Vincent van Gogh’s chrome yellows, some of which have started to brown, and his purples, some of which have turned blue, have been widely studied. But less is known about Munch’s palette, and scientists, using updated technologies and tools like transmission electron microscopes, are breaking new ground.
Jennifer Mass, the president of the Scientific Analysis of Fine Art lab in Harlem, whose team is on “The Scream” research, explained the science recently in her lab. She pointed to a photograph of what looked like a set of stalagmites: It was the surface of “The Scream” seen under a microscope.
“This is really, really not what you want to be seeing,” she said. Nanocrystals are growing on the painting, held by the Munch Museum — stark evidence of the degradation near the central figure’s mouth, in the sky and in the water.
Details of the fading of Munch’s “The Scream,” from the Munch Museum, show the variation. Top right, a detail of the painting as it is today. Below right, a digital reconstruction of how it might have looked like. (The rectangles on the painting indicate areas with faded color.)Credit...Munch Museum
Conservators and researchers at the Munch Museum contacted Dr. Mass, who has been working as a fine art scientist since she was a postdoctoral fellow at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1995. She is also a professor at the Bard Graduate Center and has partnered with many major institutions in research.
Eva Storevik Tveit, paintings conservator at the Munch Museum, said the museum had sought out Dr. Mass because of her expertise in cadmium yellow, which she had studied in Matisse’s work, and because of the high-quality scientific tools the lab has at its disposal. (One of Dr. Mass’s colleagues, Adam Finnefrock, once took tiny samples of Cézanne’s emerald green pigments to a particle accelerator at Stanford University.) And the museum, which moves to a new building later this year, needs to figure out how to best display the painting, balancing conservation concerns with viewing experience.
Munch’s materials have now been more fully analyzed, and the research, due out this spring, fleshes out a more complete story about the painting. Dr. Mass’s team was able to narrow down Munch’s paint choices using his paint tubes, some 1,400 of which are held by the Munch Museum. Over time, with exposure, the yellow cadmium sulfide has oxidized into two white chemical compounds, cadmium sulfate and cadmium carbonate.
The analysis, Dr. Mass said, has implications for Impressionist through Expressionist paintings made between the 1880s and the 1920s painted with cadmium yellow, 20 percent of which she estimates are experiencing similar phenomena.
Dr. Mass and her team work with museums, private clients, auction houses, art fairs and artists on everything from large-scale contemporary outdoor sculpture in the Hamptons to ancient Roman sculpture. They are a part of a niche in the art world — boutique labs that operate outside of large institutions, though often in tandem with them — something that’s become more common as the demand for scientific research has increased. Perhaps best known was James Martin’s Orion Analytical, which was purchased by Sotheby’s and became the first in-house lab of its kind at a major auction house.
Other such companies include Geneva Fine Art Analysis, based in Geneva’s Free Port, and the London-based Art Analysis & Research. Often they are called in by collectors or potential buyers who are interested in questions of authenticity. “There’s been a real explosion in the field,” Nicholas Eastaugh, founder and chief scientist at Art Analysis & Research, said. “There are a lot more people coming in with new approaches, new ideas, and new insights.”
Whether for conservation or authentication, the work often reveals something about an art object that the naked eye can’t see — how old a painting really is, whether it contains drawings underneath its surface, or what factors in the environment might be causing it to deteriorate. This last question is particularly important when it comes to artists working in the same period as Munch, as research is just starting to illuminate the era.
“There tends to be an interest in the bigger-name artists, for obvious reasons,” Dr. Eastaugh said. “But actually these are problems that will affect all artists of that period if they are using these materials.” He said that more research would be helpful in showing “more general patterns” in the pigment degradation mechanism.
Van Gogh’s “The Bedroom” (1889). Researchers have learned that many of van Gogh’s blues were originally purples. Credit...Vincent van Gogh Foundation; Van Gogh Museum
A digital reconstruction of “The Bedroom” (1889).Credit...Vincent van Gogh Foundation; Van Gogh Museum
The colors of the late 19th century and early 20th century are fading especially rapidly because of changes that took place in paintmaking. Paints had been made by hand-grinding minerals extracted from the ground or using dyes made from plants and insects. The industrial revolution brought about the production of synthetic pigments like cadmium or chrome yellows, which artists would mix with oil and fillers. Artists began experimenting with these synthetic pigments, which were sometimes haphazardly prepared and untested for the purposes of longevity but were exceptionally bright — enabling the brilliant palettes of Fauvism, Post-Impressionism and modernism.
At that moment, many artists were abandoning traditional painting techniques, said Lena Stringari, deputy director and chief conservator of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and Foundation, who has studied color change and pigments in van Gogh’s work. “Many artists were working in plein-air, and they were experimenting with various paints and color theories,” she said. “There was this explosion of color with the rejection of the academy.”
That made the new pigments popular, Dr. Mass said, but they were unpredictable. “We can’t say, ‘Oh it’s a tree, so we know that the foliage would be green,’” she explained, “because in the case of Matisse or Munch, that’s not necessarily true, so we need to turn to science.”
Recapturing these hues is impossible, but science can get us closer. Koen Janssens, a professor in the department of chemistry at the University of Antwerp who has studied the pigments of van Gogh, Matisse and others, said, “The idea is to try, in a sort of virtual way, to reverse time.” Conservators wouldn’t apply new pigments to a canvas — but digital reconstructions can gesture at the past. Dr. Mass predicts a shift toward augmented reality in reconstructions, so that you might hold up your phone to a painting and see its former color layered on the canvas.
It hasn’t always been a totally easy marriage between physics, organic chemistry and the art world, said Kilian Anheuser, head scientist at Geneva Fine Art Analysis. “Until very recently, the art historian expert reigned supreme, and it was really the art historians who insisted on having the last word,” he said. “And then in recent years we’ve had quite a number of forgery scandals where things have come to light through scientific investigation, and this has turned the tables a bit.”
Ronald Varney, an independent fine art adviser, said: “There’s probably a bit of resistance to the world of science in the art market. This is still a business that depends enormously on the expertise of individuals rather than machines.”
The study of degradation may be increasingly important to buyers, he added, as “condition is something that’s ferociously important now.”
Research has certainly altered the way art historians see some of van Gogh’s works. The Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and the Metropolitan Museum have mounted exhibitions in recent years highlighting his disappearing hues. Teio Meedendorp, an art historian and senior researcher at the Van Gogh Museum, said: “It’s something we’ve really only realized in the last 10 years. Research that has focused specifically on the technical aspects has changed the way we think.”
Interestingly, van Gogh, among other artists, was aware of the pitfalls of the new pigments. “I’ve just checked — all the colours that Impressionism has made fashionable are unstable,” van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo, in 1888, “all the more reason boldly to use them too raw, time will only soften them too much.”
In a later letter, he wrote, “The paintings fade like flowers.”