Life with Picasso

Before reading this book, there was only one thing I was certain of with regard to Pablo Picasso: although decades apart, he and I share the same birth date. Does this infer that by sharing the man’s birth date, I may have some type of creative superpower lying dormant that will eventually transform me into some kind of artistic phenomenon?

I can safely say I’m still waiting for this to happen. Placing my tenuous “connection” to Picasso aside, this book on his life surprised me.

Francoise Gilot together with Carlton Lake has pieced together a biography entitled Life with Picasso. Gilot was Picasso’s long-term partner for years and mother to two of his children, Claude and Paloma. Being one admitted into the “inner sanctum” of Picasso’s life, Gilot speaks with unquestionable authority and honesty in this well-written documentation of their time together. Unlike many academic researchers, she knew the artist but also the man.

Their relationship was fraught from the onset: an older man and his younger protégé. Not that age matters; however, Picasso did seem to patronise Gilot when she is an accomplished artist in her own right. She refers to numerous times when he would “kindly” remind her of how fortunate she was to be with him. Gilot impresses as an intelligent, talented, loyal, headstrong, and patient individual; she was the only one who would resist bending to Picasso’s every demand, unlike his staff and admirers who were all-accommodating.

Picasso as an artist is intense, ambitious and a complex perfectionist. Gilot speaks of his methods and art practice in detail. When painting, he used no palette and would stand for three to four hours before a canvas. There was absolute silence while he was working, with little conversation nor interruptions from the outside world. He worked non-stop from two in the afternoon to eleven at night, when he would finally stop to eat. He had several canvases on the go at once and would often sit in a large wicker chair to stare at them for an hour or so before attempting adjustments. Gilot asked him whether he tired easily, to which he replied, “No. While I work, I leave my body outside the door.” If only we could all share his unwavering discipline.

He dabbled in many mediums, trying his hand at lithography, sculpture and pottery –  all of which he was successful. His contemporaries, including friend and artist Henri Matisse, were wary of him visiting their ateliers. They felt he may adopt one of their ideas and do it considerably better. Their fear was not assuaged by the fact that Picasso admitted, “When there’s anything to steal; I steal.”

In his personal life, Picasso seems quite moody, sometimes selfish, manipulative and egotistical, even referring to himself as a “monster” – and his misogynistic behavior and ideas are enough to set any woman’s teeth on edge. However, there is always light and shade to a person’s character and Picasso did have his “softer” moments. When Gilot had her first major exhibition, he chose to stay away. Friends misconstrued his absence as rude and inconsiderate, however Picasso explained, “There’s no point in my going tomorrow… If I’m there it will take the attention away from you. People will come around asking my opinion on all sorts of things, so you’ll be better off going alone.”

This is a great read. Gilot is candid but never strays into sensationalism; she recounts events as she herself experienced them. Picasso’s legacy is untouchable, his contribution to the art world is undeniable and this book details how he worked and lived.

Article by Annette Ong

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