Mistress of the master
He was 61, she was 21 and their love affair was a decade-long battle of wits and wills. LARA MARLOWEmeets artist Francoise Gilot, the former muse and mistress of Pablo Picasso
Olga and Dora lost their senses. Marie-Thérèse and Jacqueline took their own lives. Francoise Gilot was the only one of Pablo Picasso’s long-term wives, mistresses and muses to survive and lead a long and happy life.
When I meet Gilot in a hundred-year-old building of artist studio apartments off Central Park West, six days after her 91st birthday, she recounts the tale of Bluebeard, the 15th century French nobleman who murdered his first six wives and buried them in the dungeon of his château. “I was the seventh wife of Bluebeard,” she laughs, referring to the bride who escaped by ruse.
“Since I knew in advance that bad things happened to the others, why would I put myself in that position? It was as if I had accepted an impossible wager.”
One night in May 1943, Gilot was dining with friends in Le Catalan restaurant on the Left Bank. Picasso brought a bowl of cherries to their table. “I was 21, he was 61,” Gilot recalls. “He had such power that one didn’t notice his age at all. He was a man of intense physical energy.” Gilot began sporadic visits to Picasso’s studio, to see his paintings.
“I had said I would come to see him and I knew what that would lead to,” she wrote in Life With Picasso. First published in 1964, the book has sold more than a million copies in 12 languages. “I was willing to accept the consequences but I didn’t really want to. Whatever I might have done I would have done to please him, but not wholeheartedly.”
On one visit, Picasso cupped his hands over Gilot’s breasts “as if they were two peaches whose form and colour had attracted him”. The first time he kissed her, Gilot’s passivity unnerved Picasso, as she calculated it would. “How do you expect me to seduce anyone under circumstances like that?” he said. “If you’re not going to resist – well then it’s out of the question. I’ll have to think it over.”
The young woman from a good family in Neuilly held the most famous artist of the 20th century at bay for months. “I met him in May 1943 and the flirtation went on for nine or 10 months,” she recalls. “So our sexual affair didn’t start until 1944.
“I wasn’t trying to make him wait; I didn’t desire him. I was more intelligent than most of the women he met. I think he wasn’t used to that kind of challenge.”
Picasso took Gilot to the haunts of his youth in Montmartre. He introduced her to the most celebrated writers and artists, including Aragon, Braque, Cocteau, Éluard, Gide, Malraux, Matisse, Prévert and Sartre. They called on Gertrude Stein in the rue Christine. “Pablo, who was proud of my sharp mind, was very pleased to take me to see her,” Gilot says. “But Alice B Toklas hated me the moment she saw me.” Because she was young and beautiful? “Because I was intelligent,” Gilot says proudly. “Being young and beautiful was the least of my concerns.” But she was aware of the power she exerted over men? “Obviously,” Gilot replies. “Could a woman who was not beautiful have the life I’ve had? No; it goes without saying. But that was only part of it. It comes from within . . . It’s my facon d’être, my way of being . . . I never show more than one self at a time . . . I succeeded in keeping my mystery.”
Years later, after she had married Jonas Salk, the American scientist who invented the polio vaccine, Gilot was amused to overhear two women talking about her at a reception. “One of them said, ‘Look at her! What does she have that we don’t? There’s nothing special about her’,” Gilot laughs heartily.
Gilot calls Picasso “the greatest passion of my life” and describes him as “one of the most intelligent, amusing, interesting men I ever met.” Yet the artist she revealed in her book was also moody, capricious, superstitious, demanding, unfaithful, self-pitying and sometimes violent.
In that peculiarly French tradition, their love was a decade-long battle of wits and wills, more mortal combat than romance. When she met him, Gilot wrote, “I knew that here was something larger than life, something to match myself against. I had the feeling that even though the struggle between us was so disproportionate that I ran the risk of resounding failure, it was a challenge I could not turn down.”
Picasso, Gilot explained, “tired of most women because they let him win the battle . . . He always thought of the other person in a love relationship as an adversary at the same time. I had no intention of losing. You were only loved if you were winning.”
Gilot had two children, Claude and Paloma, with Picasso. Two years after she left Picasso, she married a young artist, Luc Simon, whose family had made cathedral stained glass windows since the 13th century. She had a daughter, Aurélia, before divorcing Simon. In 1970, she married Salk, and stayed with him until his death in 1995.
As we talk in Gilot’s sitting room, with its Persian carpet, inlaid Syrian table and an enormous vase of lilies, the lyrics of that old Cat Stevens song, “I’m looking for a hard-headed woman”, comes to mind. Gilot is “fed up with” the “three-quarters of women who bug us all the time with their subjectivity”. She prides herself on keeping a distance. “It doesn’t prevent me having passions, but I don’t live them in a subjective way,” she says.
“Feeling and being chamboulée [overwhelmed by emotion] are completely different,” Gilot says. So she’s never been overwhelmed? “Apparently not,” she replies offhandedly. Now I understand why Picasso told her she was monstrous each time they argued, I tell her. “Picasso said something I never repeated but which is amusing,” she continues. “He said I ran through the chamber of love. Isn’t that pretty? I’m hard to catch. I don’t know why there aren’t more women like me. Because in reality men like it when we elude them. I’m the perfect example of the woman who escapes.”
Picasso’s first wife, the ballerina Olga Khokhlova, followed Picasso, Gilot and their infant son Claude to the Côte d’Azur. “While I was finding my keys and unlocking the door, all the while holding Claude in my arms, Olga would come up behind me and start to pinch, scratch and pull, and finally squeeze into the house before me, saying, ‘This is my house. My husband lives here’, and pushing at me so that I couldn’t even go in,” Gilot wrote.
When Gilot had qualms about taking the place of Maar, Picasso’s previous mistress, he told her: “Life must go on, and life is us.” He recounted with amusement how Maar and a concurrent mistress, Marie-Thérèse Walter, the mother of Picasso’s daughter Maya, once wrestled angrily on his studio floor while he painted.
Gilot says she tried not to succumb to jealousy for Picasso’s other women “because Picasso often played on that. One woman was jealous of another, while he did whatever he wanted.” Walter hanged herself in 1977. Jacqueline Roque, Picasso’s last wife, shot herself in 1986. “They both did it after he died,” Gilot says. “But it meant they only existed through him. I didn’t go mad or take my own life or anything at all. I don’t need someone to exist.” Picasso often said that women were either goddesses or doormats. “I have no talent for being a door mat. I’m better at being a goddess,”Gilot laughs.
Gilot’s marriage to Salk was “totally different,” she says. “With Picasso, it was a passion on both sides. It was a mortal passion. It could have killed me.”
Salk was so generous that he refused to patent his polio vaccine because be believed it should belong to everyone. Gilot thought scientists were boring until he ordered pistachio and tangerine ice cream when they met for tea.
“My life with Jonas Salk was a great friendship based on shared intelligence and understanding, on an art of living, sometimes together, sometimes apart,” she says. “It made it possible for us to stay together for 25 years. We didn’t step on each other’s toes. A lot of people don’t know how to do that.”
Gilot was already a painter when she met Picasso. She has produced some 1,600 canvases and up to 5,000 works on paper. Her paintings sell for up to $200,000. She insists she learned more from Braque and Matisse than from Picasso.
Though Gilot claims to have lost interest in Picasso when she left him in 1953, she says she never lost interest in his work. She had just visited the Picasso Black and White exhibition at the Guggenheim museum when I met her. Earlier this year, Gilot’s and Picasso’s paintings were exhibited together for the first time, in a highly successful exhibition at the Gagosian Gallery titled Picasso and Francoise Gilot; Paris-Vallauris, 1943-1953.
For three years after she started living with Picasso, Gilot switched from painting to drawing, so she wouldn’t take up space in his studio. “I didn’t learn painting from him – luckily for me,” she says. “Picasso was the quintessence of Spanish painting; the drama, the monsters. French painting is philosophical. I am a French painter, 100 per cent, and moreover a French painter of the north, that is to say a painter of colour.”
Last month, a combined portrait and still life that Picasso painted in two and a half hours in 1932 fetched $41.5m at Sotheby’s. The astronomical prices paid for his work mean no more to Gilot than share prices on the stock exchange, she says. “There are other painters of the 20th century, like Kandinsky, who I like as much as him,” she says. “I don’t have any Picassos.”
“No woman leaves a man like me,” Picasso challenged Gilot before she left him. “You imagine people will be interested in you? They won’t ever, really, just for yourself. Even if you think people like you, it will only be a kind of curiosity they will have about a person whose life has touched mine so intimately.”
Professional jealousy would have been absurd, Gilot says. “He was 40 years older than me. And he was the painter maximum of the 20th century. How can you be jealous of that? It’s as if you asked me to be jealous of the Eiffel Tower. I’d be crazy to be jealous of a monument.”
Still beautiful at the age of 91, Gilot spends two or three months a year in Paris, the rest in Manhattan. She paints daily. Having long thought she was ill-suited for motherhood, she’s been surprised to find great pleasure in her three children and four grandchildren.
Nearly 40 years after his death, 60 years after she became the only woman to leave him, Gilot relishes her victories over Picasso. She was pleased that he was still alive when she married Salk in 1970. “I knew it would bother Picasso,” Gilot says, smiling as she makes a gesture mimicking the turning of a knife. “Because Jonas Salk was another genius . . . I seem to attract geniuses.”
Picasso sued the French publisher of Gilot’s book in an attempt to block its publication. A former law student, she had carefully documented everything, and the suit for defamation failed. Picasso filed an appeal, on the grounds that she had violated his privacy. But the appeals court accepted Gilot’s argument that, just as she had objected to the way he distorted her features in his art, to no avail, she too was entitled to her interpretation of their affair.
“That’s when I received my last telephone call from Picasso,” Gilot says. “He said, ‘Congratulations. You won.’ I said, ‘You know very well that I’ve always won. You know that’s a characteristic of mine; that I don’t lose.’ He didn’t know me at all.”
The conversation took place just a few years before Picasso died in 1973, at the age of 91, Gilot’s age now. “He died,” she says matter of factly, professing indifference. “His painting didn’t die, you know. I think that’s the only immortality we have.”