New York

Françoise Gilot, The Telephone Call, 1952, oil on canvas, 39 3/8 x 31 7/8".

Françoise Gilot, The Telephone Call, 1952, oil on canvas, 39 3/8 x 31 7/8".

“Picasso and Françoise Gilot: Paris-Vallauris 1943–1953”

Françoise Gilot, The Telephone Call, 1952, oil on canvas, 39 3/8 x 31 7/8".

The details of Pablo Picasso’s public and private life are by now well known. No artist of parallel celebrity (is there one?) has been so written about—often enough in records as delightful to read as they are fundamental to art history. This is especially true of the memoirs written by the women in his life. Fernande Olivier, Picasso’s earliest companion of fame, spilled the beans in Picasso et ses amis (Picasso and Friends, 1930), recounting his Bateau-Lavoir high jinks—prize fights, recreational drugs—during the first decades of the twentieth century, when he and Braque were inventing Cubism. In 1964, Françoise Gilot, mother of two of Picasso’s children, wrote (with Carlton Lake) the stunning Life with Picasso, which concerns the gray years of World War II and its sunny aftermath in France. Now in her nineties, Gilot remains a rigorous artist and the costar of this nonpareil event curated by John Richardson, the giant of Picasso historians.

The exhibition was jaw-dropping and, disputatiously, eye-opening. It included not only masses of paintings by Picasso and Gilot (made between 1943 and 1953) but also the grand sprawl of Picasso’s period graphics and a broad selection of his inspired ceramic renovations of the folkloric pottery traditions of the Côte d’Azur. (The photographic reconstruction of the Le Fournas studio in Vallauris allowed for a matchless installation of the clay works.)

But this occasion was particularly engrossing owing to its inclusion of the redoubtable Gilot, whose memoir first began to dismantle the glorious Picasso legend—more than hinting at his stupefying misogyny and obsessive envy of Matisse’s unflagging invention. The exhibition can also be credited with helping to resurrect a period of postwar French painting long under a cloud, the result of the miraculous transfer of the house of modernism from Paris to New York. Much of the work from this period hardly needs rehabilitation. The minimalization of the later École de Paris—for example, the work of once-touted painters and writers such as Edouard Pignon and Hélène Parmelin, sycophantic Picasso acolytes and propagandists, not to speak of acres of the master’s own painting, genius though he may have been—was justified even if predicated on American chauvinism. But some of it deserves our fresh attention.

To be sure, a certain Picasso-ism seeps into Gilot’s painting—as is easily seen in the section of the exhibition devoted to her work. But her painting is more severe than is usual of the École de Picasso. Gilot is an independent figure, resisting the improvisational Mannerist filigree that mars (at least in my view) much of Picasso’s painting at the time—even works as widely admired as his Winter Landscape, December 22, 1950, which Richardson sees as a paraphrase of El Greco’s famous View of Toledo and which Gilot, in her conversation with Richardson (the heart of the exhibition’s magnificent accompanying volume), interprets in part as a coded picture about herself. Gilot’s work, at moments spare and empiricist, Jansenist in that sense, is entirely appropriate for a well-born but bloody-minded young Swiss woman who had studied painting under the German heel in an occupied Paris before meeting Picasso. (Perhaps the meeting was not so coincidental, if we regard name as a kind of destiny. Gilot is a diminutive of Gilles—“little Gilles”— and Gilles is the name of the greatest of French mimes. In time, Picasso would adopt the mime, be he Pierrot or harlequin—art’s jester, acting and tumbling—dissembling, as it were, at the margin of polite society for his very own allegorical emblem, one long visible in his oeuvre. In this linguistic index, Picasso and Gilot were united even before they ever met.)

Richardson approaches his conversation with Gilot with a courtier’s poised discretion, daring such potentially explosive issues as the directional flow of “stylistic” influence between the Minotaur and his inspiring Woman-Flower. Discounting an inevitable freighting in favor of Picasso, a strong case is still made for the artist’s magpie liftings from Gilot’s paintings, especially those depicting her children at play or in repose, such as My Children in the Kitchen or Paloma Asleep in her Cradle, both 1950. Picasso’s variants were all but to be expected, granting the Spaniard’s ogre appetite. As he once memorably quipped: “Bad artists copy. Good artists steal.”

Robert Pincus-Witten