“When Pablo informed me that nobody would leave a man like him, I said ‘Ha! That we will see!’ Pablo should not have provoked my aggressiveness,” Françoise Gilot told John Richardson in a frank interview published in the catalogue for “Picasso and Françoise Gilot: Paris-Vallauris, 1943–1953.” The exhibition, currently on view at Gagosian in New York [through June 30], centers on an emotional partnership and artistic dialogue between two painters that spanned over a decade.
When the pair met in Paris, near the end of World War II, Gilot was 21 and Picasso 62. He was already famous, but she wasn’t a fan. She preferred the work of his former collaborator and rival, Braque, which caused Picasso considerable consternation. The couple did, however, share a deep admiration for Matisse, whom they frequently visited in the South of France after the war. The wide range of works in the show—some 250 paintings, works on paper, sculptures and ceramics by Picasso, plus a gallery filled with 30 representative examples of Gilot’s paintings and drawings—proves that despite their often rocky relationship, the period was mostly buoyant and exceptionally fruitful for both artists.
The fourth in a series of Richardson-organized Picasso extravaganzas at Gagosian, the show follows the critically acclaimed 2011 exhibition “Picasso and Marie-Thérèse: L’amour fou,” which focused on the artist’s work and lover in the 1930s. This time, Richardson had the distinct advantage that Picasso’s subsequent life-partner, Gilot, is still very much alive—at age 90. She provided a firsthand account of the times, and an insider’s view of the work. For instance, in the catalogue, she offers a personal reading of Picasso’s 1950 Winter Landscape, featuring an expressionist twist on a Cubist landscape that is one of the highlights of the show. She sees the gnarled tree branches in conflict-the thinner one alluding to herself, the thick one to Picasso. The work had special significance for the couple and also intrigued Matisse when they brought it to his studio to show him. He immediately hung it on his studio wall and wanted to keep it for himself.
“Françoise was a dream to work with,” Richardson told A.i.A. “Although I gave her 1964 book Life with Picasso a negative review when it appeared—I’d just spent quite a bit of time with Picasso and Jacqueline before I read the book, you see, so I reacted unfavorably to it—she doesn’t hold a grudge. We worked well together. She was trained as a lawyer as well as an artist, so she expresses herself very lucidly, very precisely.”
In the exhibition, Picasso’s numerous portraits of Gilot are consistently elegant and stately; they contrast with his often comic images of their two children, Paloma and Claude, in which the artist makes a self-conscious effort to paint like a child. While upbeat and engaging, the exhibition is apparently not focused on a particularly important or profound period in Picasso’s oeuvre.
Richardson disagrees. He told A.i.A., “My primary aim in this exhibition was not to explore the tumultuous relationship of Gilot and Picasso—I’d already gone in that direction for ‘Marie-Thérèse: L’amour fou’—but to focus on Picasso’s revolutionary achievements of the 1940s and ’50s. He completely transformed ceramics into a sculptural medium, and had a similarly radical approach to lithography, which previously had been considered only a second-rate medium.”
In fact, when Picasso turned his attention to ceramics in the early 1950s, the prodigious and prestigious output from his studio in Vallauris helped revive the entire moribund pottery industry in southern France. One of best parts of the exhibition is an alcove with some strong examples of his ceramic works, set against a photo mural background—a life-size image of his studio, which helps evoke the time as well as the mood of the place.
The extensive showing of lithographs is also aided by dramatic installation techniques. “Lithographs, by their nature, are basically flat,” Richardson offered, “so we tried to give them an added sense of depth by hanging them several inches from the wall. And I was hoping that the pistachio-colored walls would convey the look of an aquarium!”
Although Gilot has a substantial reputation as an artist in Europe, her work is little known in the U.S. One of the show’s surprises is that Richardson set aside an entire gallery for her works within the exhibition. “I wanted people to see how extremely professional she is, and how her work in some way decries Picasso’s. She was already an accomplished artist at age 17.”
The display affords an opportunity to compare her efforts with Picasso’s contemporaneous works. In general, to my eye, Gilot’s art seems schematic and employs a rather too tidy manipulation of cubist devices. However, at times, she moves closer than Picasso toward pure abstraction in her most bold and best works. Richardson concurs: “Françoise’s drawing of a circle in the show [Le peintre, 1948] was a response to Picasso’s comments about what to do when the world descends into chaos and destruction. She said she would spend her days attempting to draw freehand a perfect circle.”