Sunday, September 1, 2019

"Life with Picasso", by Françoise Gilot

Last month I posted an item about Françoise Gilot, muse and wife to Picasso. I learned about her through a profile in The New Yorker, in their July 22, 2019 issue. Since then I have read her book, Life with Picasso (McGraw Hill, 1964), and enjoyed it even more than I expected.

Françoise Gilot and Pablo Picasso

Her co-author, Carlton Lake, wrote the foreword to the book, and was clearly impressed by the consistency and detail of Gilot's memories. The book was published barely ten years after she left Picasso.

When they met, Gilot was a young art student. She relates some of the advice Picasso gave her as a beginning artist. For example,
"You know, we need one tool to do one thing, and we should limit ourselves to that one tool. In that way the hand trains itself. It becomes supple and skillful, and that single tool brings with it a sense of measure that is reflected harmoniously in everything we do. The Chinese taught that for a water-colour or a wash drawing you use a single brush. In that way everything you do takes on the same proportion. Harmony is created in the work as a result of that proportion, and in a much more obvious fashion than if you had used brushes of different sizes. Then, too, forcing yourself to use restricted means is the sort of restraint that liberates invention. It obliges you to make a kind of progress than you can't even imagine in advance."
We also learn about some of the aesthetic considerations of Picasso. For example, we see how Picasso celebrated the unexpected in his compositions.

Pablo Picasso, Girl Before a Mirror, 1932

"I start with a head and wind up with an egg. Or even if I start with an egg and wind up with a head, I'm always on the way between the two and I'm never happy with either one or the other. What interests me is to set up what you might call the rapports de grand écart – the most unexpected relationship possible between the things I want to speak about, because there is a certain difficulty in establishing the relationships in just that way, and in that difficulty there is an interest, and in that interest there's a certain tension and for me that tension is a lot more important than the stable equilibrium of harmony, which doesn't interest me at all. Reality must be torn apart in every sense of the word. What people forget is that everything is unique. Nature never produces the same thing twice... a small head on a large body, a large head on a small body.... I want to draw the mind in a direction it's not used to and wake it up.... That's why I stress the dissimilarity, for example, between the left eye and the right eye.... So my purpose is to set things in movement, to provoke this movement by contradictory tensions, opposing forces, and in that tension or opposition, to find the moment which seems most interesting to me."

Pablo Picasso, Woman with Guitar, 1913

We read about Picasso's thoughts on Cubism:
"The papier collé was really the important thing...."
and his reflections on how modern painters must navigate their own paths without the benefit of the Academy:
"Beginning with van Gogh, however great we may be, we are all, in a measure, autodidacts –you might almost say primitive painters. Painters no longer live within a tradition and so each one of us must recreate an entire language.... In a certain sense, there's a liberation but at the same time it's an enormous limitation...."
We learn about the relationships between Picasso and his contemporaries, and about what they thought of each other's work. Gilot recalls the reflections of Matisse on Jackson Pollock:
"I have the impression that I'm incapable of judging painting like that... for the simple reason that one is always unable to judge fairly what follows one's own work. One can judge what has happened before and what comes along at the same time.... But when he gets to the point where he no longer makes any reference to what for me is painting, I can no longer understand him. I can't judge him either. It's completely over my head."

Henri Matisse, The Green Line, 1905

and Matisse's account of how Renoir responded to Matisse's paintings:
"He looked them over with a somewhat disapproving air. Finally he said, 'Well, I must speak the truth. I must say that you're not really a good painter, or even that you're a very bad painter. But there's one thing that prevents me from telling you that. When you put on some black, it stays right there on the canvas. All my life I've been saying that one can't any longer use black without making a hole on the canvas. It's not a color. Now, you speak the language of color. yet you put on black and you make it stick. So, even though I don't like at all what you do, and my inclination would be to tell you you're a bad painter, I suppose you are a painter, after all."

Marc Chagall, La Mariée

An excerpt that I found very amusing was about the mutual regard of Chagall and Picasso. To understand the context, you have to know that it was said during a time when Picasso had let his painting lapse in order to explore lithography, sculpture and ceramics. Picasso is quoted as saying,
"When Matisse dies, Chagall will be the only painter left who understands what color really is. I'm not crazy about those cocks and asses and flying violinists and all the folklore, but his canvases are really painted, not just thrown together. Some of the last things he's done in Vence convince me that there's never been anybody since Renoir who has the feeling for light that Chagall has."
Gilot recounts how, long after that, Chagall gave her his opinion of Pablo.
"What a genius, that Picasso," he said. "It's a pity he doesn't paint."
Of course we learn all about the squabbles between the artists and a good deal about the irascible, difficult and demanding personality of Picasso. And we are skillfully transported to the artistic community of the mid-century Midi.

I would strongly recommend Françoise Gilot's Life with Picasso for anyone who is interested in the French art scene of the 20th century. A good read.

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