It’s been almost three years since her retrospective exhibition, Françoise Gilot at 90, at the Kunstsammlungen Chemnitz Museum in Germany but the slight, upright figure that greets me with a smile at the door of her New York apartment has all the energy of a woman decades younger.
“I first came to this building in 1961, admired the double-height studios with their north-facing light and promised myself that if I ever could, I would live here,” Gilot says of the 1903 purpose-built artists’ co-op that was once also home to Marcel Duchamp and George Balanchine, and where she has now lived for 20 years.
Despite the fact that she is inevitably best known as Picasso’s consort, Gilot has been a working artist all her life. In the room where we sit, on a low table among numerous books is a black and white Studio Harcourt photograph of the young Gilot, while on one wall hangs one of her own paintings, a serene-faced portrait of her girlhood friend Geneviève alongside a vibrant painting by the Hungarian Jewish painter and friend Endre Rozsda. Every picture, it seems, tells a story but some stories are told by their absence: there are no Picassos.
Gilot is, of course, the woman who had the audacity to leave Picasso, after a relationship that lasted 10 years. They met in occupied Paris in 1943, when she was 21 and he was 62. She became his lover, artistic muse – he painted her many times, beginning with the “La Femme-Fleur” portrait in 1946 – and mother to their two children, Claude and Paloma. Gilot covered their life together in her 1964 bestseller Life With Picasso, an unsentimental and perspicacious insight not only into the man but also into a working artist’s life. Picasso tried to stop publication and refused to see her and their children ever again when it came out.
One story that speaks volumes about the stormy side of their relationship dates from early in their time together. Gilot was living with Picasso in Golfe-Juan, in the south of France, and made a plan to visit the studio of Pierre Bonnard at Le Cannet. On hearing of this, Picasso took exception. “It provoked a great argument between us,” Gilot tells me, laughing at the memory. “Pablo said he hated Bonnard – hated him! – and did not want me to visit. I replied that I could, of course, do what I liked without his permission: but the argument was heated and I did, in the end, decline to go.
“As a result, when he realised how irrational he had been, he said he would take me to visit his friend Matisse – whose work I liked even more than Bonnard – then living at Villa le Rêve in Vence, a short drive away. I knew it was a sort of trade-off to appease me but, I accepted, a good one.”
Matisse was one of many of Picasso’s contemporaries that Gilot met and observed, and they immediately liked each other. “I thought it was interesting that the critics like to make it as if they were almost enemies but they were the best of friends in all the world,” Gilot says of the two artists, about whom she wrote her 1990 book Matisse and Picasso: A Friendship in Art.
“They were rivals in art, yes, but they were friends in life. Also the fact that Matisse was 12 years older, he had a kind of parental attitude towards Pablo – I was always amused by this – as if Picasso had been the bad boy, and Matisse was the nice parent.”
When she left Picasso, against his will, in 1953 she was forced to continue her work elsewhere. “I knew Paris was no longer the centre but I hesitated between London and New York. My work was with two galleries in London, which were holding it because in France things had got rather difficult for me – leaving Picasso was seen as a big crime and I was no longer welcome. During the 1960s I had a studio in Sydney Close, Chelsea, given me on the recommendation of the director of the Tate, but I always had more collectors in the US than anywhere else, so it made sense to relocate here for work.”
Having married and divorced the artist Luc Simon, with whom she had a daughter, Aurelia, in 1970 Gilot married Dr Jonas Salk (the scientist responsible for the polio vaccine) and divided her time between California and Paris. She continued to work all the time.
“I always knew I was an artist, from a child, even while my father wanted me to become a lawyer. You have to be born a painter and then, after that, it takes a lot of work to get there. You cannot be too intellectual. When I was young, I had an art critic on my shoulder, one that would mutter all the time in my ear, so I would play music to distract the critic, because it doesn’t help.”
Gilot’s efforts have paid off. Her work is in the permanent collections of MoMA in New York and the Musée d’Art Moderne in Paris, among others; in 2010 she was made an Officier de la Légion d’honneur, France’s highest honour for the arts. Today, she is recognised for the artist she is rather than the muse she was yet remains a link with a distant but important cultural era. New York’s Elkon Gallery is currently showing some of her recent drawings, while in 2012 she collaborated with Picasso’s biographer John Richardson on the curating of the first joint exhibition of her work with Picasso’s at Gagosian in New York.
In her studio is a large easel with a work in progress. Other canvases are stacked on the floor, and there are yet others on the walls. Gilot still works every day, and seems very much someone who lives in the present, not the past. “As long as I am breathing, I am painting,” she says. “I don’t always have to have an idea when I start a painting. I don’t always know where I want to go with it but I know how to get there – it will emerge as I work, sometimes fast and sometimes more slowly.”
She is also a prolific writer, preferring to write in English rather than her native French and with a new book due for publication next year. “When I paint and when I draw, I am always in a good mood as a result. But if I write – and I would say I am the same artist whether I paint or write – I am always in a bad mood,” she says with a laugh.
‘Françoise Gilot: Works on Paper’, Elkon Gallery, New York, until May 30, francoisegilot.com