Françoise Gilot on loving and leaving Picasso: ‘It was a permanent earthquake’

Françoise Gilot, left, at the age of 96, and with her former lover Pablo Picasso - Judy Rogac/ Getty Images
Françoise Gilot, left, at the age of 96, and with her former lover Pablo Picasso - Judy Rogac/ Getty Images

NB. This interview first ran in 2018 and has been republished following the death of Françoise Gilot, aged 101

Petite, immaculate, formidable, Françoise Gilot – artist, lover and muse of Picasso and friend of Matisse – lives and paints in an elegant apartment on New York’s Upper West Side, a stone’s throw from Central Park.

There are high ceilings and a huge window, flooding the room with light, which falls on bookshelves lined with artists’ monographs, bound volumes of classics – she is particularly fond of Rabelais – and canvases propped on easels and resting against the walls.

Gilot, who is 96, sits, straight-backed, alert and watchful, in an armchair. Her housekeeper, Anna-Maria, dressed in a blue smock uniform and a mere two or three decades younger than Gilot, brings coffee and florentines on a silver tray. Outside, Manhattan is going about its noisy business. Inside, time seems to have stood still.

How, I ask Gilot, do you pass the days? Her eyebrows arch. ‘I am an artist. I paint, I draw…’ – as if to say, ‘What else do you think I would be doing!’

The declaration is telling. Since the day in 1943 when Picasso first set eyes on her, in the 65 years since she walked out on him, Françoise Gilot’s name has been synonymous with his: a tiresome encumbrance. Over the years she has done her duty to history – her phrase – by talking of their time together. One is warned beforehand – those who come to talk about him will be given short shrift. Gilot may once have been Picasso’s lover, but she has always been her own woman.

With Pablo Picasso in France, August 1948 - ©Robert Capa © International Center of Photography / Magnum Photos
With Pablo Picasso in France, August 1948 - ©Robert Capa © International Center of Photography / Magnum Photos

The works that hang on the walls and rest on easels are her own: a small abstract, recently painted, of geometric shapes in aquamarine, red and black, and a huge expressionist painting, a jungle scene with figurative elements – a monkey, and a cockatoo – painted in the 1960s, she explains, when she was living in London, and working in a studio that had been given to her by the Tate Gallery. ‘Well, not given, because I had to pay rent. It was the largest studio I ever had in my life.’

On the table in front of her are three sketchbooks – originals of the set recently published in handsome reproduction form. One is from one of her frequent visits to Venice; the other two from trips in the 1970s to Senegal and India, where she was travelling with Jonas Salk, the medical researcher and virologist who developed the polio vaccine, and to whom Gilot was married for 25 years.

It has always been her practice to travel with a sketchbook, she says. Her drawings were done from memory, not life. ‘I never work from something I am looking at, never. I don’t need it. The artist who does the still life with pears and apples, et cetera… if I had that in front of me, I would paint oranges and lemons instead. I am not dedicated to what is there. I am dedicated to the imagination of what I put there.’

Gilot with her daughter, Paloma Picasso, at Tiffany’s in New York, 2000 - Getty images
Gilot with her daughter, Paloma Picasso, at Tiffany’s in New York, 2000 - Getty images

She remembers holidaying in the Swiss Alps with her parents as a child of five, and being struck by the juxtaposition of light green meadows and dark green forest.

‘I said to my father – there is something there, but do we see it in the same way? What I meant was, is it objective or subjective; I could not say it that way, of course, because I was five. And my father said, “Oh, this is stupid; the retina is the same for everybody.” Well, yes – but obviously this is not true! I was five years old, and my father was very clever. But I defended my point of view. The retina is the same for everybody, but the imagination is not.’

Her father, Emile, was an agronomist and chemical manufacturer, her mother a ceramic artist, her upbringing intellectual haute bourgoise. She was an only child, cleverer than others of her age – this as a statement of fact, not a boast. The one thing she never lacked was self-belief. ‘At school I was a good student, but in terms of my attitude, I was always talking when I shouldn’t have been. I behaved as I wanted. I was not the charming little person. I was always against this, against that.’

And that set the mould for your life? ‘Probably it did. After that, when I had a tool – painting – then I became easier as a person. Before that, I was very prickly.’

Gilot with her son Claude, holding drawings of him by Picasso, in Vallauris, France, 1949 - Getty Images
Gilot with her son Claude, holding drawings of him by Picasso, in Vallauris, France, 1949 - Getty Images

From an early age she knew she would paint. But, in order to appease her father, she enrolled to study law at the Sorbonne.

In June 1940, the German army occupied Paris. Five months later, shortly before her 19th birthday, in defiance of the occupation, Gilot joined a spontaneous gathering with other students at the Arc de Triomphe to place flowers at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, in commemoration of the armistice of 1918. She avoided arrest, but her involvement was reported to the police.

Within days, she was notified that her name had been added to a list kept by the Abwehr of young French hostages – citizens under the age of 21 – who would be seized in retribution for any German soldiers killed by the French. ‘If a German soldier was killed in our area, 20 of us would be killed in revenge. I was lucky that nobody was killed while I was a hostage.’ She had to report each morning to the kommandantur at Neuilly-sur-Seine. ‘And I knew if I were to defect and go to the free zone, then my parents would be taken instead of me, so I couldn’t do that.’ And what does that teach you?

She shrugs. ‘To tell you the truth, at that time our lives were not worth three pennies, you know? We knew we could die at any moment. In a sense it’s not bad; you count for zero, so to speak, because you are so young. But I made up my mind that I would always be free in my life, whatever happened.’

Gilot with Paloma and Claude - GEtty images
Gilot with Paloma and Claude - GEtty images

She abandoned her studies and enrolled in art school, to pursue her ambition to be a painter. A challenging choice, I say, for a woman at that time. ‘But that is obvious. I have never been stopped by the fact that other people did not like what I was doing. Sometimes the defect of women is that they are used to valuing themselves according to how they believe other people see them. But for me, I didn’t care much about that. They like me? Good. They don’t like me? The same way.’

Becoming an artist, then, ‘was like entering sea- water when it is rather cold, but I decided to swim.’ The same phrase might apply to her affair with Picasso.

In May 1943, she was dining in a restaurant on the Left Bank with her friend and fellow artist Geneviève Aliquot and the film actor Alain Cuny, when Picasso approached the table carrying a bowl of cherries. He was dining with Dora Maar, his mistress, whom Gilot would shortly replace. She was 21. He was 61.

When Aliquot told him that she and Gilot were both painters, Picasso told them, ‘That’s the funniest thing I’ve heard all day.’ Piqued, Gilot invited him to a joint exhibition of her and Aliquot’s work. ‘I’m a painter, too,’ Picasso replied, and invited them to his studio.

So it was that Gilot embarked, as she would later put it, on ‘a catastrophe I didn’t want to avoid’. Gilot once described their relationship as an intellectual love, a physical love, ‘but certainly not a sentimental one’. It was her mind as much as her beauty that drew Picasso to her; the fact that they would discuss and argue into the night, about art, life and his favourite subject – himself. And the fact that she was more than capable of holding her own.

When she told him that her favourite painter was Matisse, Picasso took her to meet him. ‘And it was quite annoying for him because Matisse said right away, “Well, I could paint your portrait very well, thank you very much,” as if Pablo were bringing him a gift! Pablo did not like that at all, because he had not yet made a portrait of me, but now he thought he might.’

Gilot with Picasso in 1952 - Getty Images
Gilot with Picasso in 1952 - Getty Images

Matisse was 77 when they met, in what he called his ‘grace period’, recovering from surgery for abdominal cancer that had left him chair- and bed-bound. ‘He considered that time a lease on a bit more life, a bit more work,’ Gilot says. ‘A gift of the gods, so to speak.’ He was of an age to be her grandfather, yet they forged an unlikely bond.

‘Matisse was a man who said little; he was very reserved – like French people from the north. I am from the north in the sense that I am from Paris, which meant we understood each other very well. Picasso was very different. He might have been difficult to know, but at least he was more outgoing.’

Matisse admired her work and wrote complimentary letters. ‘I was astonished! Very nice letters, with a few drawings in them, and I would answer.’ But she disputes ‘admired’. ‘Let’s deflate that. He liked it.’ She laughs. ‘It’s so much better to deflate things because what is left is good. The rest is hot air, you know.’

So she was a painter who was a lover of one painter, and a friend to another. But she never fooled herself this was equality. ‘Equality doesn’t exist in art. It’s not the French Republic – fraternité, égalité and...’ She laughs. ‘I can’t remember the third one.’

Matisse, she says, ‘knew very well he was the king’ – and Picasso knew that too. ‘But he also knew he had Matisse’s approval. Matisse liked nobody – but he liked Picasso. You could say they had enormous respect for one another. That they loved each other? Well, that’s a different thing. Matisse thought he could allow another king next to him, especially if it was in a different style.

‘Often, painters inhabit their own universe and have a tendency not to look beyond, but Matisse was not like that. On the contrary, he was always open and interested in what other painters were doing. It was one of the things I found admirable in him. He was more objective in a sense than Picasso, more philosophical.

‘Talk to Picasso about another painter and he would say, “Well maybe I could give him a good knock on the head – that would be interesting.” Picasso was extremely subjective, and his moods would go from black to white to red.

‘With Picasso it was a permanent tremblement de terre – what do you say, earthquake? Yes, it was a permanent earthquake. You got along, and if you like earthquakes, you have opportunities to experience that; and if you don’t, you still have opportunities to experience that!’

Gilot’s light-filled apartment in New York, with her extensive art collection -  Jody Rogac
Gilot’s light-filled apartment in New York, with her extensive art collection - Jody Rogac

What is beyond question, she says, is that both were geniuses. ‘Certainly, yes. To be a genius, the most important thing is to be subjective; to recognise that the primary instinct is the good one – the instinct that comes from deep inside you. That is something no other person can give you. If you have that feeling, it is like a root that grows up inside you, so to speak. You have to trust yourself, and you have that self-confidence, perhaps without deserving it, but that’s the way it is.’

And does genius forgive bad behaviour? ‘It has nothing to do with behaviour. The painter Caravaggio killed somebody; that’s not very good. But I couldn’t care less about that. I didn’t pay attention to the ethics; I paid attention to the aesthetics.’ She laughs.

Would she describe Picasso as a sacred monster? ‘Well, monster, yes; sacred maybe…’

In 1947, she gave birth to their first child, Claude, and in 1949, to their daughter, Paloma. Children changed the chemistry of their relationship. Picasso demanded total attention and total fealty; his temper grew worse, and he began to spend more time away from her.

‘Nobody,’ he once told her, ‘leaves a man like me!’ Gilot replied, ‘Wait and see.’ In September 1953, suffocated by his domineering attitude and his philandering, and thirsting for independence, she embarked on a brief affair herself, and then left him, taking her children with her back to Paris. His last word as she departed in the taxi was ‘merde’.

Dominique Desanti, a friend of Picasso and a fellow member of the Communist Party, once talked of the painter’s lifelong ambivalence about women: ‘They were the marrow of life and yet were held in contempt, as though their demon would rise unbridled and overwhelm him. Contempt was his way of exorcising his fear of women’s power.’

Does Gilot think contempt is the right word? ‘No, I don’t think so. He liked women physically; he liked beautiful women. But he did not understand them, did not try, and sometimes he was not so happy with them on account of that. In life, if you are with another person, you have to truly feel them inside yourself. You are not alone.’

And Picasso, she suggests, for all his lovers and camp followers, was essentially alone. She was the only one of his lovers or wives to have walked away. For others, his magnetic attraction would prove fatal. Dora Maar went mad. Both Marie-Thérèse Walter, whom Picasso took as his mistress when she was 17, and Jacqueline Roque, whom he took up with after Gilot and who in 1961 became his second wife, killed themselves.

She shrugs. ‘But it’s a matter of belief. If you think you have been wrong, but somebody else was wrong too, you just take the door and you go away, but you don’t kill yourself.

You might say that I’m very French, very rational.’ She pauses. ‘Of course, I can be very irrational too.’

After she left him, Picasso tried to make her life as difficult as possible, pressuring their friends to have nothing to do with her, and Parisian art dealers to refuse to handle her work.

‘But you know, since everybody knew he had a bad temper, people thought I was not so wrong to have left him, so in a sense it was rather favourable for me. Some people have such hard lives; my life was difficult, but it was not what you call hard.

‘I didn’t earn mountains of money like Picasso, but I earned enough to live a normal life. I’ve always thought that one should earn one’s own living, by whatever means, otherwise you are not worthy. And when I left, I could pay for the upkeep of my children, for school and everyday life, and I could look at myself in the mirror and say I do what I have to do, and after that the rest can go to hell!’

In 1955, she married the painter Luc Simon, whom she had known since they were teenagers. They had a daughter, Aurelia, but divorced in 1962.

As her reputation as a painter grew, Gilot began to spend more time in America. She says she had no intention of ever marrying again, but in 1969, on a visit to California, she was introduced to Jonas Salk. ‘Almost right away, he wanted to marry me. I thought that was rather extraordinary. In fact, I thought it was ridiculous! I had already outgrown other relationships. I was very happy on my own, being a painter. I had a lot of friends. My life was good. And I knew very well, because of my own experience, that I was not a good person for marriage. You might say about me that I am a better friend than spouse.’

But nevertheless, you said yes.

She laughs. ‘You marry because the other one wants to get married – what can you do? Strangely enough, I have to say that it’s mostly the men who want to get married rather than the women, at least in my case. Because they think that like that they are going to maintain me in a certain fashion and then at least I’ll be there. Well yes, but I’m not tame. And maybe I’m not tameable.’

Gilot with her second husband, Dr Jonas Salk, in New York, c 1980 - getty images
Gilot with her second husband, Dr Jonas Salk, in New York, c 1980 - getty images

It is remarkable, I say, that she should have had relationships with arguably the greatest artist of the 20th century and the medical pioneer who made a greater contribution to mankind than almost anyone else in the 20th century.

‘Yes, I am astonished myself!’

How did that happen? I say. ‘That’s very amusing.’ She laughs. ‘Good question! To tell the truth, I always ask that question myself. Do I really have such qualities that I should be considered? I thought maybe they were being indulgent or something. Also, I used to be rather good-looking, and that’s a good habit for a woman to have. A woman’s politeness is to be beautiful.’

You were, and remain, undoubtedly beautiful, I say, but a lot of women would take exception to that sentiment.

‘Yes, it is unfair, but it is a must. A woman has to be beautiful before anything else, otherwise do you think people will even look at you? No!’

When Salk proposed to her, she presented him with a list of conditions. ‘I said, “I’ll give you a few pages and we’ll see if you can do it that way; otherwise we stay apart.” I said I would probably travel, do this and that, because I had my own career, my own life, even exaggerating a little bit to make it even more impossible. But no! He said he found it very convenient that I had written it all down. Four pages of all the things he could not do.

But he said it was OK with him, so what could I do? ‘And I must say, he remembered very well. He was the perfect husband, the perfect person for me. Jonas was exactly the way he said he would be. He just let me be myself. He was really extraordinary.’

Clearly, I say, it was your happiest relationship. ‘I think to tell you the truth, the relationship with somebody who is extremely intelligent is always the best, whether they are bad-tempered, good-tempered, disagreeable, agreeable – for someone to be intelligent and interesting is the most you can ask for. If they are disagreeable, that’s a part of it. You don’t necessarily love people for their qualities; you like them for their defects, because that makes them a bit more human.’

This strikes me as a very ambiguous answer. Salk died in 1995. She has been alone since then, but not lonely. ‘I have my work, I have my family, I have friends – more than I need to have. I don’t miss anything. I am at home in several places. That’s enough for one person, no?’

Her son Claude broke with his father when he was 15. ‘When you have two people with bad tempers,’ she says, ‘that’s too much.’ He worked as a photographer and cinematographer, and also heads the Picasso Administration, which manages the painter’s estate. Paloma became well known for her work as a jewellery designer for Tiffany.

‘She is extremely intelligent, and she has an interesting life. We are on very good terms.’

What, I ask, is the most important lesson Gilot has learnt from life?

She laughs. ‘I’m a bad student. I don’t know!’

But you have led such a full life…

She nods. ‘Yes, I have to say, I am not one of those people who say I wish I had done this or that – no, because usually I did what I wanted to do.’

Our conversation is over. And what, I ask, will you do now? ‘I’ll paint,’ she says. What else?