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The impact of Francoise Gilot's honesty as an artist, writer, art director and mother

French painter Francoise Gilot, who recently passed away, outgrew the shadow casted by Bluebeard and shall now be remembered for her defiant spirit and the ability to surge ahead.

by Georgina MaddoxPublished on : Jun 09, 2023

Françoise Gilot (November 26, 1921 – June 6, 2023) was an accomplished French artist, she was a painter, water colourist and ceramist. However, her early career and life were eclipsed by the older and seemingly more accomplished Pablo Picasso, who she eventually walked out on. As Gilot passed away in New York on June 6, due to heart and lung failure, one looks at the one woman who actually resisted being taken over by the modern art painter who is notorious for having many lovers and two wives.

It was almost a decade after their relationship in 1953, that Gilot—40 years younger than Pablo Picasso—picked up her life, and continued to paint and exhibit her work and write books. In fact, her books have had a profound impact on feminist art and literature. Gilot put it in plain words when she wrote that Pablo Picasso had a “Bluebeard complex,” in her memoir, Life with Picasso. Gilot recently passed away at 101, leaving behind a strong legacy with her art and writing. She mothered two children with Picasso, Claude and Paloma, both disinherited by the artist. Gilot’s work displayed a lot more compassion for the subjects of her painting than her male counterparts, Picasso and even Braque. Her painting of her daughter that she had with Picasso, Paloma Picasso, was a favoured painting subject. One such painting recently sold at Sotheby’s for USD 1.3 million in London.

Paloma à la Guitare: 1965, Oil and Acrylic on canvas, Françoise Gilot. The painting set a record, selling for $1.3 million at Sotheby's London|Françoise Gilot | STIRworld
Paloma à la Guitare: 1965, Oil and Acrylic on canvas, Françoise Gilot. The painting set a record, selling for $1.3 million at Sotheby's London Image: John Phillips, Courtesy of Getty Images For Sotheby's

Her memoir stands as detailed testimony not only of her time with the tumultuous artist but as a reflection of her own journey. In her memoir she wrote, “…he [Picasso] preferred to have life go on and to have all those women who had shared his life at one moment or another still letting out little peeps and cries of joy or pain and making a few gestures like disjointed dolls, just to prove there was some life left in them, that it hung by a thread, and that he held the other end of the thread. From time to time they would provide a humorous or dramatic or sometimes tragic side to things, and that was all grist to his mill…”.

The memoir that she began with the help of journalist Carlton Lake (1961), drew mixed responses. Fans of Picasso burnt copies of her book, while others referred to it to underline the point of how abusive Picasso really was to the women in his life. He loved his women but on his terms, and was often cruel to them. Gilot achieved an unusual status among his lovers; we are told that of the four relationships discussed in her 1964 memoir, Gilot was the only one who left on her own terms. Picasso ended the other relationships—with Dora Maar, Marie-Thérèse Walter, and Olga Khokhlova—often acrimoniously, after having, in Gilot’s recollection, pitted the women against one another.

Françoise Gilot  and Pablo Picasso share a fun moment ,1951, Photograph<br>
  | Françoise Gilot | STIRworld
Françoise Gilot and Pablo Picasso share a fun moment, 1951, Photograph Image: Courtesy of Getty Images and the Bettmann archive

Tracing out Picasso’s various liaisons is a tale in and of itself and one would attempt such an exercise only to understand what Gilot was driving at by calling him Bluebeard. One must spend a little time untangling Picasso’s web of women, to understand the full import of what was written about him and his muses. It has been said that Picasso’s activity was marked by the bursting muscular energy to such an extent that the artist even embraced a Minotaur, an ancient half-human half-animal, as an embodiment of his own personality. His big love was Olga Khoklova and they had a fairly monogamous relationship till she died of cancer in 1955.

Picasso was involved with Dora Maar (1907–1997), who was a French photographer, painter, and poet who studied at the École des Beaux-Arts and was influenced by Surrealism. She met Picasso in 1935 and became his muse and inspiration for about seven years. She took pictures of him working in his studio and also documented him creating his famous anti-war painting, Guernica (1937). Prior to this, he was involved with Marie-Thérèse who became his muse and the mother of his first daughter, Maya. He often pitted Maar against Thérèse and this brought out a very abusive side of the painter, where he was often violent. 

A recent incident at the Picasso Museum in Barcelona saw a silent demonstration by art students, who dressed in black-and-white t-shirts printed with statements "Picasso, women abuser" and "Picasso, the shadow of Dora Maar." Perhaps it is an aspect of our times where feminist ideology gains more leverage to call out several misogynistic practices that several artists, across the globe, indulge and have indulged in. While that phenomenon itself may remain a troubled area with several controversies arising in its wake, one thing is for sure—the passivity of women as ‘objects of affection’, is definitely under question, especially so in the art world that has the oldest history of representing the female form in art as something to be gazed upon with desire, longing or even hate and suspicion. 

On the Way, 2004, oil on canvas, Françoise Gilot (exhibition in Hong Kong, November 2021) | Françoise Gilot |STIRworld
On the Way, 2004, oil on canvas, Françoise Gilot (exhibition in Hong Kong, November 2021) Image: Courtesy of Wiki Art

Gilot, however, moved on beyond the barriers of the daunting shadow of Picasso, despite being derided by him before she left. In 1970, she married Jonas Salk, an American medical researcher who developed the first safe polio vaccine. As a result, Gilot lived between Paris and California and painted several works of art and had exhibitions in various galleries though it was not until she turned 100 that her work hit the million mark at the Sotheby’s auction house. Gilot’s work has been shown in more than a dozen museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Centre Pompidou in Paris, her paintings fetched increasingly higher prices well into her later years.

The remains of the Minotaur in a Harlequin costume,1936 (Paris),  Gouache and India ink on paper, Pablo Picasso |Françoise Gilot | STIRworld
The remains of the Minotaur in a Harlequin costume,1936 (Paris), Gouache and India ink on paper, Pablo Picasso Image: Succession Picasso 2012

Her 1964 memoir published with Carlton Lake was frank and did not beat around the bush in calling Picasso out on his shortcomings. It became an international bestseller and was the primary reason that Picasso broke contact with Gilot and their children Claude and Paloma. It was also referenced in the film Surviving Picasso, where her character was played by Natascha McElhone while Antony Hopkins played Picasso. The film and the book both capture how Gilot survived being harassed by Picasso and even physically abused by him and harassed often on the street, by both Olga and Dora Maar.   

In 1973, Gilot was appointed as the art director of the scholarly journal Virginia Woolf Quarterly. In 1976, she joined the board of the Department of Fine Arts at the University of Southern California, where she taught summer courses and took on organisational responsibilities until 1983. After all, her show of courage and having a meaningful and significant life after her break up with Picasso has been a source of inspiration to many women. 



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