'Life With Picasso' Stands As An Invaluable Work Of Art History

Jun 6, 2019
Originally published on June 6, 2019 10:44 am

When the French painter and writer Françoise Gilot was 21, she met an older artist at a Paris restaurant. He invited her to visit his studio, and they quickly fell in love.

She defied her bourgeois family by moving in with him, and they remained together for 10 years. They raised two children, and she slowed her own career to be his muse, manager and support system. But this became untenable, and she left him, becoming a highly successful painter in her own right. As for the older artist — well, he was Pablo Picasso.

A decade after she and Picasso split, Gilot wrote a memoir of their time together, Life with Picasso, newly reissued by NYRB Classics. When it first came out, Picasso launched three lawsuits trying to block its publication — and 40 French intellectuals signed a manifesto asking that it be banned. The novelist Lisa Alther writes in her introduction to the new edition that these intellectuals "evidently found it acceptable for Picasso to have used Gilot's likeness in hundreds of his artworks — but scandalous if she portrayed him in hers." Thankfully, the challenges to Life with Picasso failed. Today, it stands as both an invaluable work of art history and a revealing precursor to the literature of #MeToo.

I have to admit to a certain temptation to read Life with Picasso exclusively as the latter. In Gilot's telling, which is without fail warm and empathic, Picasso emerges as domineering, sexist, and borderline abusive. Multiple times in the narrative, he prevents Gilot from seeking medical care. He tells her frequently that "there are only two kinds of women — goddesses and doormats." But Gilot is neither. She is never a victim or an ingénue. In Life with Picasso, she is a highly intelligent young artist to whom her former lover's artwork is as intellectually exciting as their relationship was destructive.

Several of the best novels that have thus far emerged from the #MeToo movement, or been linked to it, have placed serious emphasis on their female protagonists' intelligence or creativity as a source of agency, self-respect and liberation. Lisa Halliday's Asymmetry and Susan Choi's Trust Exercise excel on that front. Even the hapless protagonist of Erin Somers' Stay Up with Hugo Best out-talks the late-night host with whom she becomes entangled. Life with Picasso prefigures these books. Throughout the memoir, Gilot takes control through her artistic intelligence. She describes Picasso's methods and compares him to his contemporaries, filtering their work through her own exacting critical eye.

Gilot is exceptionally good at describing art. Often, she breaks an artwork into its essentials, as with a Picasso portrait that "had its planes brought over from the profile onto the front view, in blue and the black-gray-white gamut with ochre that is one of Pablo's typical combinations." But periodically she moves into full lyricism, as when she visits Giacometti's studio:

"One gets the feeling of life or movement because of the exceptional acuity of Giacometti's sense of proportion. He makes us feel that his people are in motion, not by imitating any kind of gesture, but by the proportion himself and by the elongation of the material."

At no point does she mention what Picasso thought of Giacometti's work. It's Gilot's ideas that matter.

That said, Gilot does spend significant time describing Picasso's artistic methods and ideas. This seems not like subordination, but like study. It also underscores the extent to which her attraction to him relied on his art. "At the time I went to live with Pablo," she writes, "I had felt that he was a person to whom I could, and should, devote myself entirely, but from whom I should expect to receive nothing beyond what he had given the world by means of his art. I consented to make my life with him on those terms." From a contemporary perspective, this consent seems compromised, given how much older and more powerful Picasso was than Gilot. Soon enough, Gilot, too, starts to notice its flaws.

Only at the memoir's start does Picasso treat Gilot at all well. Once he persuades her to have children, their relationship rapidly falls apart. Picasso becomes distant and cruel. He cheats on Gilot and isolates her from Paris, and from her family. He pressures her to submit fully to his will; watching their newborn daughter Paloma sleep, he comments, "She'll be a perfect woman... Passive and submissive. That's the way all girls should be."

At this point, the narrative takes on a familiar shape. Picasso uses all his influence to prevent Gilot from leaving him and from speaking publicly about his treatment of her. Gilot does both. She maintains clear respect for her former lover as both man and artist, but it is difficult to read Life with Picasso and not come away both disappointed in Picasso and deeply respectful of Gilot's intelligence, writing talent and will.

At the end of Life with Picasso, as Picasso tries to prevent Gilot from leaving, he sneers, "You imagine people will be interested in you? ... Even if you think people like you, it will only be a kind of curiosity they will have about a person whose life has touched mine." Reading Life with Picasso exclusively as art history or feminist history would fulfill Picasso's cruel prophecy. The book's intellectual heft is in its art criticism, even as its emotional arc lies in Picasso and Gilot's unequal romance. Only by appreciating both can readers accord Gilot the respect she deserves.

Lily Meyer is a writer and translator living in Washington, D.C.

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