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Life with Picasso: Book Review 

Francoise Gilot writes with an intelligence and wit, yet when she describes Pablo Picasso’s conversation with her, one is even more amazed at his facility with language– almost equal to his artistic ability.  Fortunately, both Picasso and Gilot had a way with words, which makes her memoir delightful to read. As NPR puts it, Life With Picasso is an “invaluable work of art history.” 

The Courtship

In their initial courtship, Picasso is positively charming. He doesn’t pressure Gilot for physical intimacy.  Rather, he savors their budding feelings for one another, and prefers to let these feelings simmer in their unique beauty.  

Francoise and Picasso do indeed develop an intimate, if not romantic relationship.  Several times Picasso alludes to his desire to have her all to himself, if only she could live in his attic so no one else could see her, he mused.  They went for long walks and discussed art. During this time of friendship and courtship, one has the impression that Picasso is an extraordinarily sensitive and thoughtful person, outside of his career as an artist.  For her part, Gilot is smitten.  

Gilot’s association with Picasso takes place during the German occupation of Paris.  Needless to say, this adds intrigue and romance to the memoir.  One could hardly imagine more interesting circumstances, involving more fascinating people.  It was only during the war that, under the influence of a chance acquaintance, Picasso joined the Communist party.  This had a negative effect on Picasso’s sales: 

“As it happened, Pablo’s joining the Communist Party had resulted in a temporary colling off in the affections of certain American buyers and a drop in the sales and prices of his paintings in America” (57). 

In the story of Gilot and Picasso, we run into other famous historical characters in the arts, such as Gertude Stein.  The formidable Stein took a liking to Gilot.  However, Stein’s lesbian lover gave her dirty looks, which persuaded Gilot not to return to Stein’s Paris apartment. 

A Genius with Words Too

One of the takeaways from Life with Picasso is that Picasso’s genius was by no means limited to art. To hear him discuss art makes one aware of his genius with language and his intentionality with his craft: 

“I want to tell something by means of the most common object: for example, a casserole, any old casserole, the one everybody knows.  For me it is a vessel in the metaphorical sense, just like Christ’s use of parables. He had an idea; he formulated it in parables so that it would be acceptable to the greatest number. That’s the way I use objects” (66).  

One can only marvel at Gilot’s ability to recreate her conversation with Picasso, seemingly word for word of long monologues.  What is more, her prose stylings are superb:

“Although French was Gilot’s first language, she had composed the book in a much better English than most of us native English speakers can usually muster.” (Alther vii).  

Apparently Gilot prefers the “shorter sentences” in English prose as compared to the more circuitous sentence structures that are typical in French.  

Gilot has an interesting explanation for this: 

“Pablo had always liked to surround himself with writers and poets…That is one reason, I think, why he was always able to talk very articulately about his painting.  At each period the poets created around him the language of painting” (128). 

The Relationship Grows 

As time went by, Gilot began to notice Picasso’s callous attitude towards his fellow man.  He considered people like grains of dust that can be sent away with a broom.  On women, he told her: 

“There’s nothing so similar to one poodle dog as another poodle dog and that goes for women, too” (76). 

She’s not dismayed by this aspect of his personality though. To her, it is just a quirk of his personality, not a dealbreaker as it were. Indeed, Picasso eventually suggests that Gilot move in with him.  Gilot is concerned this might have a negative effect on her grandmother, with whom she currently lives.  Picasso explains sagely that she must approach the question differently: 

“It’s a question of the recognition of one’s destiny and not a matter of unkindness or insensitivity.  Theoretically one might say one hasn’t the right to reach out for a share of happiness, however minute it may be, which rests on someone else’s misfortune, but the question can’t be resolved on that theoretical basis.  We are always in the midst of a mixture of good and evil, right and wrong, and the elements of any situation are always hopelessly tangled. One person’s good is antagonistic to another’s. To choose one person is always, in a measure, to kill someone else.  And so one has to have the courage of the surgeon or the murderer, if you will, and to accept the share of guilt which that gives, and to attempt, later on, to be as decent about it as possible.  In certain situations one can’t be an angel” (93). 

Yet as the couple grows closer, Picasso’s temper becomes more and more apparent.  His rage is triggered should he feel that in some way Gilot has slighted his feelings for her.  At one point he threatens to throw her in the river, at another he threatens her with his belt. Yet Gilot does not take either of these threats seriously, and she proceeds to move in to his Paris apartment. 

A Crossroads 

Picasso and Gilot have a rough patch: she grows jealous of Picasso’s visits to his ex-mistress Marie-Therese and their child.  She wants to leave him and has a mind to do so.  But Picasso has a creative solution: 

“What you need is a child.  That will bring you back to nature and put you in tune with the rest of the world” (123). 

Gilot opens her heart to this concept, and is pregnant within weeks. Did Picasso not have a point?  


Gilot ultimately realizes that Picasso cannot be right for her.  Although they have two children together, she decides to move on: 

“I had waked up and I was disenchanted” (316).  

She found Picasso to be selfish, disloyal, and as he reached 70, a man increasingly not acting his age. Perhaps reaching 70 was making him run away from his own mortality by carrying on affairs and traveling, when Gilot might have preferred that he settled into family life, not an unreasonable expectation for a 70 year old husband. 

Ultimately, Gilot’s fate was the same as Picasso’s exes. She kind of always knew it would end up that way.  After all, she wasn’t special.  She didn’t have any qualities which set her apart from Picasso’s ex-lovers and wives. 

One’s impression is that Gilot is a rather sweet woman, who looked at her time with Picasso as special, but was not willing to sacrifice her entire life for him and be at his disposal.  That she was an inspiration for Picasso was something she might have enjoyed, but she did not let it consumer her: 

“I tried to explain to him that it was his work that held me, not the image of myself that I saw in it” (321). 

It was not her own vanity that motivated Gilot, but rather Picasso’s genius.  One could point out that it’s easy to say such a thing.  Yet the sweetness and meekness of Gilot permeate from the 300 page memoir, and one could not fake a persona so consistently and compellingly.  Granted, it’s her side of the story.  But it’s not like Picasso was reputed to be a really sweet guy in his romantic relationships, so one is inclined to believe her interpretation of events.  

After their separation, Picasso was kind to Gilot, perhaps even kinder than in their cohabitation.  Finally, he suggested they have some fun, staying out at clubs all night until the dawn, and then not bothering to sleep for the next day.  Picasso even suggested that Gilot stay with him, but she protested that she could not go back to the “old way of life,” and left that evening.  In sum, they had arrived at amicable relations as Picasso continued his presence in their children’s lives. 

Modern Reinterpretation 

Now that we must endure the stupidity of the me too movement, you can be sure that Picasso is in the feminists’ cross-hairs. The left now views Picasso as some type of harrassar or abuser, though he would likely only qualify for some vague charge such as “emotional abuse.”  At any rate, any woman was quite free to leave him at any time. 

What I saw at an art exhibit in Dallas really got my blood boiling: there was a “trigger warning,” which insinuated that Picasso had somehow exploited the women whom he painted. Hardly. As we see through Gilot’s memoir, Picasso’s lovers and wives were only too eager to be the subject of his art–who wouldn’t be? In other words, this Picasso-backlash is gaslighting. 

What we see in NPR and other leftist organs is the notion that Picasso somehow appropriated these women’s likeness, as though they were unaware he was painting them. NPR views Life with Picasso in the vein of Gilot being oppressed by Picasso, and only when she left him does she become a hero to the left, concentrating on her own art (which as far as I can tell is strongly influenced by Picasso). 

NPR calls Life with Picasso “a revealing precursor to the literature of #MeToo.”  First of all, what the hell is “literature of MeToo”? Second of all, whatever that genre might be, Life with Picasso is not part of it.  It’s clear in the memoir that Picasso’s charm and genius are what attracted Gilot to him, and that when she decided to leave him, she did so quite willingly, and Picasso hardly forced her to do otherwise. 

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