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Book of the Week: Life with Picasso

'Life with Picasso' (1964) was written by Francoise Gilot (with help from Carlton Lake). Gilot was Picasso’s mistress from the mid-1940s until the end of the 1950s. It’s a first-person account of her stormy time with Mr Love-Pants, beginning with the day in wartime Paris when Gilot was approached by Picasso in a restaurant, to the time when, exhausted by feeding the monster’s ego and with a couple of children in tow, she did what no other mistress of Picasso had done before: she broke free and left him.
There are different ways of looking at the relationship that is painted by this book. Picasso certainly considered that it would damage his post-war image as the left-wing saint, and he tried to have the book banned and withdrawn before it was first published. It’s true that Picasso does not come off well in terms of how he treated Gilot, or any of the women in his life. Infidelity? Yes, from the start, as he was still conducting a relationship with Marie-Therese Walter during the first years that Picasso and Gilot were together. Cold-hearted? Well, when Gilot was in the hospital, he would blame her for getting ill on purpose in order to abandon him. Cruel? Certainly. There are many anecdotes of how he verbally mistreated the people around him, from Sabartes, an old Catalan crony who was Picasso’s secretary for many years, his dealers and buyers, and the mother of his children.
Yet unlike, say, Arianna Huffington, who rehashed a lot of this material in her ‘all men are bastards’ book ‘Picasso: Creator and Destroyer’, Gilot recounts all these events dispassionately, with no rancor or appearance of trying to settle scores. On more than one occasion, she says that she knew what she was getting into, and had no illusions about Picasso as the ideal, tranquil domestic partner. Even though she was clearly worn out by him in the end, she takes pains to mention all the good things she got out her relationship with him. I’m sure that, if nothing else, she got lessons in painting and in human nature that she could not have received from any other human being. (Born in 1921, Gilot is still alive, by the way. A painter herself, she has had a successful life as an artist, despite Picasso making sure that she couldn’t exhibit in any prestigious galleries for a long while after the split.)
The meat of the book, the thing that draws me back to it time and again, is the number of vivid scenes from the life of Picasso at that time. We get to see his rivalry with Matisse up close, his envy and slight fear of Braque. We see Picasso’s insecurities, his pettiness, his showmanship, his manic swings between boredom and productivity, the need to have activity all the time, and his complaints about never having time to work. For me, knowing Picasso’s character faults in no way diminishes my admiration for his work, and my fascination with his life. And no other book by people who knew him brings you closer to Picasso than Gilot’s.
To take one example: in the first chapter, Gilot conjurs up the atmosphere in Picasso’s mansion on the Rue des Grands Augustin, with its antechamber guarded by the suspicious and vigilant Sabartes, the great room where Picasso would receive visitors, and the attic room to which he enticed Gilot in order to put the wheels of seduction in operation, pointing out to her that Balzac had owned the building in the nineteenth century, and that he, the great painter, was now living in the rooms depicted in Balzac’s masterpiece ‘Le Chef d’Ouevre Inconnu’. Here is an excerpt from Gilot’s description of the moment when the 61 year old Picasso makes his move on the 21 year old Gilot:
“On the opposite side of the room from the vitrine was a table covered with tools. I walked over to it. Picasso followed me. ‘These I use in finishing my sculpture,’ he said. He picked up a file. ‘This is something I use all the time.’ He tossed it back and picked up another. ‘This one is for finer surfaces.’ One after another he handled a plane, pincers, nails of all kinds – ‘for engraving on plaster’ -- a hammer, and with each one he came closer to me. When he dropped the last piece back onto the table he turned abruptly and kissed me, full on the mouth. I let him. He looked at me in surprise.
" ‘You don't mind?’ he asked. I said no -- should I? He seemed shocked. ‘That's disgusting,’ he said. ‘At least you could have pushed me away. Otherwise I might get the idea I could do anything I wanted to.’ I smiled and told him to go ahead. By now he was thrown completely off the track. I knew very well he didn't know what he wanted to do, or even whether, and I had an idea that by saying, placidly, yes, I would discourage him from doing anything at all, so I said, ‘I'm at your disposition.’ He looked at me cautiously, then asked, ‘Are you in love with me?’ I said I couldn't guarantee that, but at least I liked him and I felt very much at ease with him, and I saw no reason for setting up in advance any limits to our relationship. Again he said, ‘That's disgusting. How do you expect me to seduce anyone under conditions like that? If you're not going to resist -- well, then it's out of the question. I'll have to think it over.’ And he walked back into the sculpture studio to join the others.”
‘Life with Picasso’ has never been out of print since it was published (Amazon link here). And here’s something that’s completely mental: Gilot, whose book describes an era that seems both very close and yet incredibly remote, even has her own website!

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  1. You've reminded me of how much I enjoyed this book when I read it years ago. I suspect I borrowed your copy! Am delighted to hear she's still alive.


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