June 14, 2023

Letting in the Light — Françoise Gilot’s Picasso

By Stuart Mitchner

When I paint smoke, I want you to be able to drive a nail into it.

—Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), from Life With Picasso

When Pablo Picasso died 50 Aprils ago, Paul McCartney and Wings recorded “Picasso’s Last Words,” a tribute to the “grand old painter,” the chorus based on what were purportedly his last words: “Drink to me, drink to my health / You know I can’t drink any more.” However, TIME (April 23, 1973) claims he went on to say, “And now I must go back to work,” which he did, painting until 3 a.m. After suffering a heart attack in his sleep, he died at 11:40 a.m.

Orange Skies

The week of orange skies from Canadian forest fires coincided with the June 6 death of artist Françoise Gilot (1921-2023), whose 1964 memoir Life With Picasso (New York Review Classics 2019) “is crucial” to an understanding of him, according to his biographer John Richardson. A June 6, 2019 NJPR piece by Lily Meyer calls it “an invaluable work of art history and a revealing precursor to the literature of #MeToo.”

Given the extraordinary weather event that was underway as I began reading Life With Picasso, I was struck by the moment early on when Picasso told Gilot about his Cubist portrait of an art dealer that “in its original form” looked “as though it were about to go up in smoke.” But, he continued, “when I paint smoke, I want you to be able to drive a nail into it. So I added the attributes — a suggestion of eyes, the wave in the hair, an ear lobe, the clasped hands.” Earlier in the conversation, Picasso had said, “When I paint, I always try to give an image people are not expecting, and, beyond that, one they reject…. I always try to be subversive.”

Picasso’s affinity for smoke dates back to October 25, 1881, when the midwife thought that he was stillborn, he looked so weak, so “grey.” Numerous sources, including Norman Mailer’s Portrait of Picasso as a Young Man, claim that at that point, the infant’s cigar-smoking uncle blew a huge cloud of smoke in his face that brought him howling to life.

Streaming Picasso

After watching Picasso stand before the same canvas “for three or four hours at a stretch,” making “no superfluous gestures,” Gilot asked if it didn’t tire him, and he told her, “While I work I leave my body outside the door, the way Moslems take off their shoes before entering the mosque.”

The notion of the artist leaving his body “outside” accords with my impression of “Picasso” as terminology, another word for a force of pure imagination that inspires, builds, fuses, assembles and disassembles, a gene in the DNA of the culture that in 2023 might take the form of a meme based on his signature. While reading Gilot, I’ve been thumbing through the fat, 411-page Portable Picasso (Universe 2003), a carnival of images that took on the fluid force of “streaming Picasso” when I flipped the pages into cinematographic motion, from the cover’s self-portrait of the artist at 25 to the monstrous close-up self-portrait at 91; from the frontispiece Nude in a Red Armchair of May 1929 to the thrilling two-page Landscape of March 1972 that you could spend the better part of an hour wandering around in.

Picasso’s Nightmares

Later in the “I leave my body outside the door” conversation, Picasso talks about a dream he had when he was a child “that used to frighten me greatly. I dreamed that my legs and my arms grew to an enormous size and then shrank back just as much in the other direction. And all around me, in my dream, I saw other people going through the same transformations, getting huge or very tiny. I felt terribly anguished every time I dreamed about that.”

At this point, you half-expect Gilot to ask if he’d ever read Alice in Wonderland, presumably one of the first books she picked up when learning English during her childhood years in the U.K. But she makes a more apt connection: “When he told me that, I understood the origin of those many paintings and drawings he did in the early 1920s, which show women with huge hands and legs and sometimes very small heads: nudes, bathers, maternity scenes … and occasionally male figures and gigantic infants. They had started through the recollection of those dreams and been carried on as a means of breaking the monotony of classical body forms.”

Big Foot

In the winter of 1941, soon after the Germans had occupied Paris, Picasso wrote a short, surreal six-act play called Desire (originally Le Désir attrapé par la queue). Published seven years later in an English translation by Bernard Frechtman, it’s billed as “a rambunctious farce” for “those who approach life and art without pre-fabricated formulas.” The cast of characters includes Big Foot (Le Gros Pied), Onion, Tart, The Two Bow Wows (Les Deux Toutous), Silence, Fat Anguish (L’Angoisse grasse), Skinny
Anguish (L’Angoisse maigre), and The Curtains (Les Rideaux).

Big Foot is the dominant force, the Picasso of the piece, admired by one of the Anguish sisters as he snores: “He is lovely, like a star. He is a dream painted in water colors on a pearl…. His whole body is filled with the light of a thousand electric bulbs all lit up.” A typical sentence: “The scarf of the veil that hangs from the eyelashes of the shutters is wiping the pink clouds on the apple-colored mirror of the sky which is already awakening at your window.”

There are also hints of the Nighttown chapter of James Joyce’s Ulysses in the scene set in Sordid’s Hotel, where the two feet of each guest “are in front of the door of their room, writhing in pain” and saying, each in turn, “My chilblains, my chilblains, my chilblains.”

It wasn’t until 1944 that Desire had its first reading, in a Paris apartment. The readers included Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre, Valentine Hugo, Raymond Queneau, and Picasso himself. The director was Albert Camus.

Lennon’s Inner Picasso

When asked in a 1980 Newsweek interview if he’d been to a certain disco, John Lennon said “I’ve never been to any rock clubs. It’s like asking Picasso has he been to the museum lately.” Lennon composed no McCartneyesque tributes on the artist’s passing, having already expressed his inner Picasso in songs like “Dig a Pony” (“You can penetrate any place you go”); “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” (“a girl with kaleidoscope eyes”); “I am the Walrus” (“Semolina pilchard climbing up the Eiffel Tower”); and of course “Come Together,” a do-what-he-please you-got-to-be-free rogue’s gallery of grotesques led by old flat-top with joo-joo eyeballs, hair down to his knees, who’s “got to be good looking cause he’s so hard to see.”

Gilot’s Picasso Show

The just-opened Brooklyn Museum show “It’s Pablo-matic: Picasso According to Hannah Gadsby,” is creating a  predictable stir that’s worth mentioning here if only to shine some reflected glory on Gilot’s intimate book-length “exhibit” in which Picasso gets an intelligent, credible showing. As if anticipating shows like Gadsby’s, Gilot recalls Picasso saying, “I want my paintings to be able to defend themselves, to resist the invader, just as though there were razor blades on all surfaces so that no one could touch them without cutting his hands.”

Alex Greenberger’s Art News review quotes curators Catherine Morris and Lisa Small declaring that the exhibit “aspires toward a new kind of Picasso scholarship that better accounts for his misogyny, his bad behavior, and his colonialist impulses.” However, as Greenberger points out, “Pablo-matic” repeatedly references Gilot along with Picasso’s previous lover Dora Maar “who both produced art of note,” none of which is on view among the feminist artists in the show, where “it would have been instructive to see their art placed on equal footing with Picasso’s.”

In this context, it’s important to note that the cover image of the 2019 paperback edition of Life With Picasso is a 1953 self-portrait by Gilot. To find the credit line you have to read the fine print on the back of the book. You can call this modesty to a fault or just another example of the grace with which Gilot approached her subject. She was 21 when she met the 61-year-old Picasso in May 1943, during the occupation of Paris. Her final paragraph is worth quoting:

“Pablo had told me, that first afternoon I visited him alone … that he felt our relationship would bring light into both our lives. My coming to him, he said, seemed like a window that was opening up and he wanted it to remain open. I did, too, as long as it let in the light. When it no longer did, I closed it, much against my own desire. From that moment on, he burned all the bridges that connected me to the past I had shared with him. But in doing so he forced me to discover myself and thus to survive. I shall never cease being grateful to him for that.”

Although Gilot knows there’s no point in having “the last word” in such a relationship, she has the “last image” in the famous Robert Capa photograph that appeared on the front page of the New York Times when she died: Gilot striding ahead of Picasso, smiling and happy, while he attempts to hold a beach umbrella over her head, the great artist as gnomish Beast to radiant Beauty.


In her introduction to the New York Review edition of Life with Picasso, novelist Lisa Alther points out that although French was Françoise Gilot’s first language, she composed the book in English “because she prefers the shorter sentences.” In the original edition published by McGraw- Hill in 1964, Gilot expressed her gratitude to art critic and curator Carlton Lake (1915-2006) for encouraging her to take on the project, as well as helping her with “technical aspects” such as taping, typing, and editing.