Life with Picasso
by Françoise Gilot and Carlton Lake (1964)
NYRB Classics (2019)
344 pp

When she was just over twenty years old, Françoise Gilot met the famous painter Pablo Picasso in the early 1940s, while the German military still occupied France. It was likely similar to many such meetings, with no expectations on either side for any prolonged correspondence, let alone the relationship that would come. Over the next decade, Gilot and Picasso would remain together and have two children, Claude and Paloma. This book, written about a decade after they had separated for good, is an account of that time together, and what a surprisingly captivating account it is!

In case anyone cares, I never had any ideas about Picasso’s personal life, nor was I ever really tempted to find out. This is not a book I would have picked up if it weren’t for two things. First, it was published by NYRB Classics, and I trust them even with books I with which I have no natural affinity, so even if I don’t start one right away, I’m always interested. Second, this was the next book for #NYRBWomen24, and this project (and last year’s) by Kim McNeil has helped me read so many books I might otherwise miss out on. I’m glad this was on the list!

Now, how to articulate my reading experience? My primary reaction, in the first hundred pages for sure but also throughout, was that reading this in 2024 must be very different from reading it in the 1960s when it was published. Indeed, it must be very different from reading it in the early 2010s. Picasso was 61 years old, Gilot was just over 20. It’s shocking though not surprising that, while Gilot says that Picasso was intrigued by her intellect (she was herself a rising painter), it wasn’t long before Picasso wanted to see the aesthetic qualities of her body.

And thus we take off into this decade of close proximity with one of the world’s most acclaimed artistic minds. Gilot relates a lot of anecdotes about their acquaintances with other artists and wheelers-and-dealers, as well as other women. Indeed, for me a striking moment was when, a few years after Gilot and Picasso were living together (indeed, after the birth of Claude), they met Picasso’s wife (since 1918), Olga Khoklova. Here is how that meeting went:

During the summer of 1947, I had a new view at first hand of Pablo’s wife, Olga. I had met Olga for the first time about a month after I went to live with Pablo in the Rue des Garnds-Augustins, shortly before we left Paris for Ménerbes. He and I had gone to see an exhibition of Dora Mara’s paintings at Pierre Loeb’s gallery. We had just left the gallery an were turning from the Rue de Seine into the Rue Mazarine when a small, middle-aged woman with red hair and a thin, tight mouth, walked up to us. It was Olga. Pablo introduced me to her. I had noticed, as she approached, that she walked with short, stiff steps like a little circus pony. Her face was freckled and crinkly and her bright brownish-green eyes darted everywhere as she spoke but never looked at you directly. She repeated everything she said, like a broken record, and when she paused, you realized she hadn’t said anything. As soon as I saw her, I could tell she was extremely neurotic, at the very least.

I didn’t figure out until later that she must have been waiting outside the gallery, angry at the idea that Dora Mara, whom she still considered her most serious rival—although Pablo had left Olga more than ten years before and not because of Dora Mara but for Marie-Thérèse Walter—was having an exhibition and that Pablo was probably there. When she saw him leaving the gallery with someone oether than Dora Maar, she must have felt relieved, because she made a certain amount of small talk with us, was fairly pleasant, and gave little indication of living up to Pablo’s descriptions of her.

At the time of this meeting, as you can see, Olga didn’t know who Gilot was, but she soon found out and, Gilot reports: “The obsessive hatred she had been bearing Dora Mara quite unjustly, she transferred to me.”

This passage not only gives some insight into Picasso’s many infidelities and the affect they had on the women around him, but it also shows Gilot’s own attitude, which I found fascinating for its satisfaction and for what appears to be a bit of dissonance. Here Gilot renders Olga in a horrible light while at the same time says she was “fairly pleasant, and gave little indication of living up to Pablo’s descriptions of her.” So where do Gilot’s descriptions of her come from? Aside from the stories told, the things going on beneath the surface (and I’m far from knowledgable about any of these topics, so this is just a sense) are what made this book so interesting to me. It’s not the experiences Gilot conveys that make this such an intriguing book; it’s how she processes them.

I’ll end with one of my favorite passages. It shows the idealized mindset Gilot had when she entered her relationship with Picasso. She reminds me of Dorothea as she approaches her marriage to Casaubon in Middlemarch. And, like Dorothea, Gilot learns and, remarkably, can articulate, that she herself needed something different in the end.

At the time I went to live with Pablo, 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. At that time I was strong because I was alone. During the next five or six years I had given my life over to him completely, I had had the children, and as a result of all that I was perhaps less capable of satisfying myself with such a Spartan attitude. I felt the need of more human warmth. And I thought that we had been working toward the point where such a thing was possible.

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