By Zahra Haroon
The iconic French artist, author and activist, by the name of Françoise Gilot, is known to be one of the many muses and lovers of Pablo Picasso. Her legacy, however, surpasses her public bestowal as merely Picasso’s shadow. At the age of twenty-one, Gilot met the famous artist, who despite being forty years her senior, charmed her into starting a love affair which resulted in two children. After a decade together, Gilot left Picasso resultant of his chronic infidelity. This shocked him greatly as his success and charm warranted an easy lifestyle filled with copious romantic interests and womanising. Picasso referred to Gilot as “the woman who says no,” being the only woman with the stomach to defy and leave him. To Picasso’s further annoyance, Gilot later went on to publish her memoir titled Life with Picasso, co-authored by Carlton Lake, a renowned American Literary critic. The memoir discussed the pair’s relationship, often calling out Picasso’s controlling, narcissistic and borderline sadistic behaviours and tendencies. The memoir recounts numerous conversations between the pair, including one in which Picasso describes people as meaningless and unimportant “grains of dust floating in the sunlight,” needing merely a simple sweep of a broom to be rendered insignificant. Gilot extends this metaphor by describing herself as a particularly “autonomous” grain of dust, someone who may appear insignificant in the eyes of a luminary yet is equipped with the strength to make her way in life.
Being about such a notable figure, the contents of her memoir became a public scandal, intriguing readers and fanatics yearning for a peep into the mindset and private life of the celebrity. The novel sold over a million copies within the first year of publishing. Despite scandal and controversy, Gilot has never demonstrated regret over her writing, proving her capability in having paved her own successful career.
Her love for art began early, deciding she wanted to be an artist at the age of five, giving her a lifetime to nurture her creativity and talent. At the age of twenty-one, just before meeting Picasso, Gilot hosted her first important exhibition under the mentorship of Endre Rozsda, a Hungarian and French painter specialising in surrealism. Later in her career, Gilot’s style shifted from surrealism to cubism, in line with the avant-garde approach to modernist art following the Second World War. She became known for her use of vivid colours and animated expressions as well as the striking messages behind her work which often married archaic and contemporary concepts, depicting the artist’s personal philosophies — her paintings serving as a public window into her own life.
In 2010, Gilot was bestowed the French government’s highest honour in the arts, receiving the title of an “Officer of the L’égion d’Honneur.” Gilot’s portrait of her and Picasso’s daughter titled Paloma à la Guitare, originally painted in 1965, sold for $1.3 million at a Sotheby’s auction in 2014. Françoise Gilot lived a long and fulfilled life of passion and success, long enough to see her work widely appreciated and celebrated, before passing away at the age of 101 on the 6th of June 2023. Gilot’s legacy lives on as a pioneer in the cubism movement and paving the way for women in art.
Illustration by Zahra Haroon