Françoise Gilot is widely known as the only woman who dared love Picasso and leave him. "You imagine people will be interested in you?" he was said to have declared as they separated. "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." Over the last few decades, however, several important exhibitions of Gilot’s work have sought to readdress the balance and have successfully ensured that she receives recognition as a talented artist in her own right. Gilot has always been much more than merely Picasso’s muse and companion; when she famously first met him at Le Catalan restaurant in 1943, at the age of 21 (and forty years his junior), she was already an ambitious and exhibiting painter. Her extensive accomplishments as a painter, printmaker and writer have since seen her inducted into the French Légion d'honneur—in 1991, then one of only a handful of women to be so honored—and exhibited worldwide, culminating in a blockbuster show at Gagosian Gallery in 2012. This highly anticipated exhibition, Picasso and Françoise Gilot, Paris-Vallauris, 1943-1953, focused on the aesthetic dialogue the two artists shared during the decade they spent together, and it was co-curated by Gilot herself.
GILOT AND PICASSO, VALLAURIS, 1952.
Reflecting on her relationship with Picasso at this time, Gilot described their decade together as a passionate mano a mano: “In Spain, mano a mano refers to a bullfight where, instead of watching three toreros alternating to kill six bulls in the arena, the public watches two matadors, each of whom takes turns fighting and killing a total of six or eight bulls in one afternoon. In mano a mano two artists work side by side, sharing the same challenge, the same ideal, as, for example, Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque did during Cubism. The term also emphasizes the hand, and the strange fraternity that must exist between artistic partners in which emulation must never degenerate into rivalry. Thus it seems an apt metaphor for what happened between Picasso and myself. […] After Pablo and I separated, even though new loves entered our lives, a sense of loss remained. It was the end of a great passion,” (Françoise Gilot, ‘Françoise Gilot and Pablo Picasso mano a mano’ in Picasso and Françoise Gilot, Paris-Vallauris, 1943-1953 (exhibition catalogue), Gagosian Gallery, New York, 2012, p. 307).
Sotheby’s forthcoming Impressionist & Modern Art Evening & Day sales at Sotheby’s New York on May 5th & 6th will see a wonderful selection of paintings and sculpture that reflect the richness of the work inspired by the couple’s mano a mano, including the mesmerizing Femme au chignon dans un fauteuil, Picasso’s Le Hibou noir and Gilot’s The Guardian.
PABLO PICASSO, FEMME AU CHIGNON DANS UN FAUTEUIL, 1948, OIL ON CANVAS. TO BE OFFERED IN THE
IMPRESSIONIST & MODERN ART EVENING SALE ON MAY 5TH 2015, ESTIMATE: $12,000,000-18,000,000.
THE CANNES FILM FESTIVAL, 1953. GILOT IS WEARING THE POLISH COAT GIVEN
TO HER BY PICASSO.
Femme au chignon dans un fauteuil, Picasso’s richly colored depiction of his Françoise, dates from the fall of 1948, not long after Picasso returned from a conference of the Communist Party in Warsaw. At the time, Françoise was pregnant with the couple’s child, and she was furious that Picasso had left her alone for several weeks. As a gift of appeasement, he returned from Poland with an embroidered red peasant jacket, which Françoise wore on occasion and is depicted wearing in the present portrait. This brightly colored article would feature in several portraits of Francoise during these months, perhaps inspired by Picasso’s rival Matisse’s successful series of the woman in a Romanian blouse that had been exhibited to great acclaim in Paris around this time.
Picasso loaned the present work to several important career retrospectives held at museums throughout Europe in the early 1950s. It seems that he only parted with the picture in 1956, when it was sold to the Goldwyn family, presumably by Picasso's dealer Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, at Galerie Louise Leiris. Samuel Goldwyn Sr., who was born in Warsaw, must have been profoundly impressed by the composition’s Polish element and, perhaps, felt a kinship with Picasso through this picture. Indeed, Picasso and Goldwyn were great visionaries of the 20th century, who both created indelible images that have withstood the test of time.
PICASSO AND GILOT AT MADOURA POTTERY, VALLAURIS, 1953.
In 1946, whilst he was working in the Antibes Museum (Palais Grimaldi), Picasso adopted a small owl with an injured leg that was found hiding in a corner. Gilot described Picasso’s reactions to the owl in her memoirs: “While Pablo was still working at the Musée d'Antibes, Michel Sima had come to us one day with a little owl he had found in a corner of the museum. One of his claws had been injured. We bandaged it, and it gradually healed. We bought a cage for him, and when we returned to Paris, we brought him back with us and put him in the kitchen with the canaries, the pigeons and the turtledoves. He smelled awful and ate nothing but mice. Every time the owl snorted at Picasso, he would shout, Cochon, Merde, and a few other obscenities, just to show that he was even worse mannered than him, but Picasso’s fingers, though small, were tough and the owl didn’t hurt him. Finally the owl would let him scratch his head and gradually came to perch on his finger instead of biting it, but even so, he still looked very unhappy,” (Françoise Gilot, My Life with Picasso, New York, 1964, pp. 144-45).
Executed in 1952, Picasso’s Le Hibou noir is a magnificent example of the artist’s command over the sculptural medium. The owl was a subject that intensely interested Picasso, and it appeared in a number of his paintings (see Zervos, nos. 400, 401, 403, 404, 475-477, 573-575), and at least two lithographs, as well as a number of ceramics. The transition to ceramics as a medium for artistic expression both fascinated and provoked Picasso. His son Claude has vivid memories of the firing process at Vallauris: “Experimenting with the mixing of those non-existent colours was an interesting challenge for my father. Working with the primal elements fire and earth must have appealed to him because of the almost magical results. Simple means, terrific effect. How ravishing to see colours sing after infernal fires have given them life. The owls managed a wink now. The bulls seemed ready to bellow. The pigeons, still warm from the electric kiln, sat proudly brooding over their warm eggs. I touched them. They were alive, really. The faces smiled. You could hear the band at the bullfight,” (Claude Picasso in Picasso: Sculptor/Painter (exhibition catalogue), Tate Gallery, London, 1994, p. 223).
FRANÇOISE GILOT, THE GUARDIAN, 1993, OIL ON CANVAS. TO BE OFFERED IN THE IMPRESSIONIST &
MODERN ART DAY SALE ON MAY 6TH 2015, ESTIMATE: $60,000-80,000.
Gilot’s painting The Guardian was painted in 1993, exactly forty years after Françoise Gilot parted from Picasso. The subject of the owl clearly harks back to their time together, but quite apart from its reference to this extraordinary period in Gilot’s life, the present work stands in its own right as an image of great force and compositional clarity. This is a painting by a bold and accomplished colorist, and in this respect, the work arguably owes more to Gilot’s old friend Matisse than to Picasso’s many depictions of the subject. The bright blue background speaks of romance and mystery and is masterfully offset by the accents of complementary yellow and gold pigments, both on the owl and the tree trunk. Gilot’s statements about her earliest experience of color leave us in little doubt about its central role in her oeuvre and help us to better understand the concerns behind her extraordinary artistic vision: “each time we open our eyes, we experience a new birth. Whenever all the sensations from the external world rush towards us, tones, shapes and textures seem to fight for precedence, but in my earliest childhood remembrances, color always prevails," (Françoise Gilot, in Mel Yaokum, ed., Françoise Gilot, Monograph 1940-2000, Lausanne, 2000, p. 13).