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Life with Picasso

In response to:

Trompe l'Oeil from the December 3, 1964 issue

To the Editors:

It would be a shame if, after such a warm, relaxing shower of highly favorable reviews of Life with Picasso, there were not something sharp and chill to tone up the system. John Richardson’s article (December 3) performs that function, but with so much distortion that I sometimes wondered if we had read the same book. Actually, his review tells us very little about the book; a great deal, however, about him and his feelings about Françoise Gilot.

He’s not obliged to like her—some people don’t, as he points out—but it is only fair to let your readers know that she has a thoroughly first-rate mind (not just “jaggedly sharp”) and a phenomenal (not merely “retentive”) memory. A somewhat grudging suggestion of this does flicker through his second paragraph, but having almost conceded that much, he snatches it away abruptly and whips out his hatchet. Why? Because she has told too much, and her “evident lack of scruple” and “indiscretion masquerading as candor” have put him in a terrible temper. He hints that there is far worse to say about her than what she has seen fit to tell us. His old boss, the late Lord Beaverbrook, would be proud of him.

Let’s look at the facts: In Life with Picasso Françoise Gilot has tried to tell a story which no one else has lived and which is not dictated by an acolyte’s sense of what is “discreet” or politic to reveal. She has tried to be objective, and considering the intensity of her involvement with Picasso’s life and the eventual outcome of their relationship, almost everyone but Mr. Richardson thinks she has done remarkably well. She has given us the peaks as well as the depths of that experience, the genius and the humanity—sometimes appealing, sometimes unpleasant—of the man. She has set forth ten crucial years of her life in the pattern of “I was there; this is what happened to me.” Reviewers by the scores have saluted her for her effort. But Mr. Richardson—volunteer spokesman for the Inner Circle—intones: “This breach of confidence is the more unconscionable, as Picasso loathes any public divulgence of his private views…”

But this is Françoise Gilot’s story, not Picasso’s, not Mr. Richardson’s, and I think we have to let her tell it as she sees it. Mr. Richardson fervently wishes Picasso would “tell his side of the story!” I’m sure all of us would enjoy that but since Picasso gives no indication of writing his autobiography, it would be unfortunate if we had to make do with the semi-official “house” jobs, of whatever length, that have so far appeared, with their treacly compound of sanctimonious mush and public-relations puffery.

Mr. Richardson generously says he does not question the authenticity of the conversations that took place between Madame Gilot and Picasso; yet for him they don’t have the ring of real talk or of Picasso’s talk, either. Surely one must make some allowance for the translation of Picasso’s idiosyncratic French into English. Beyond that, any such reporting—on that scale—demands organization and compression if the reader is not to be swamped by what were often long and even rambling discussions and monologues during the years Madame Gilot spent with Picasso. Also, although Picasso’s conversation is frequently “spontaneous and brilliant” and he sometimes “leaps from image to image, aphorism to aphorism,” as the book indeed shows, life is not lived onstage night and day, year in year out, not even Life with Picasso. Isn’t it more than a little presumptuous of Mr. Richardson to attempt—on the basis of his occasional and limited experience—to stack his own modest gleanings from Picasso’s intellectual buffet against the ten-year harvest of the woman who had, in Mr. Richardson’s words, “the good fortune to be loved by the most inventive and creative artist of this century…”? Of course, “presumptuous” isn’t really the word. Nor would it take a Freud to suggest a better one. In any case, a number of people who have known Picasso longer and more intimately than Mr. Richardson has have already spoken and written their approval and admiration of the book’s essential accuracy.

Mr. Richardson seems often to have missed the point of things that would be obvious to most. For example, “Why ‘ill-starred?’ ” he asks in reference to the head of Dora Maar set up as a monument to Apollinaire in the little park behind St.-Germain-des-Prés. And yet the answer is right there in the passage he quotes. If he is still unable to fathom the mystery, let him go stand quietly beside the head of Dora Maar under that tree and see what he looks like, at the end of a day, “encrusted with the droppings” of “the local sparrows.”

In fact Mr. Richardson’s interpretation of this entire episode is badly warped. Picasso’s generosity is no way “impugned” by the book’s account of his gift of the head of Dora Maar. Nor is there any basis for Mr. Richardson to imply, by his use of the term “studio discard,” that the authors disparaged the quality of the sculpture. The point is simply, as many friends of Apollinaire and Picasso himself felt, that the head was not the most fitting memorial since it bore no relation to Apollinaire. All this is made quite clear in the two pages preceding Mr. Richardson’s quotation, which describe Picasso’s attempts to work out a monument he would have considered more appropriate to the circumstances.

Elsewhere Mr. Richardson has so deformed both the intention and the effect of a passage as to reverse completely its spirit and meaning. As an example of the way painters and poets have not been “spared by the author’s acid nib,” he says: “Matisse is surprised in a moment of senile love-play.” First of all, “love-play” is very misleading (as are so many other of Mr. Richardson’s terms—the “studio discard” I have referred to, “sexual habits” in paragraph three, and so on). And that is his only reference to Matisse. In the book this incident, intended as a humorous illustration of a certain attitude of Picasso’s and not as an indication of Matisse’s “senility,” takes up two paragraphs of a total of 15 pages devoted to visits with Matisse (not counting incidental references). Throughout these passages it is made clear that Picasso’s feeling for Matisse (at least at this period), and Françoise’s too, was one of respect and affection. Unfortunately, the examples of this kind of baseless distortion in Mr. Richardson’s review are so numerous that to discuss them individually, even briefly, would require far more space than the original review.

Finally, if we are to accept Mr. Richardson’s thesis—a very dubious one—that Picasso’s deformations of Françoise’s face and figure in his painting are “a sad tale” and “eloquent evidence” that “Life with Françoise…was a bed of anything but roses,” then we must assume that Picasso had the same complaint concerning the other women he has been painting over the past thirty years, which washes out Mr. Richardson’s point about Françoise. If we are to be at all logical about it, we should carry his thesis one step further and find added cause for gratitude to Madame Gilot in that she stirred Picasso sufficiently to explore the pictorial possibilities of her body beyond the simple Arcadian fantasies of the beginning, however “touching and tender” Mr. Richardson may find them.

These are interesting speculations but highly irrelevant in the contest, unless, of course, one is as firmly determined as Mr Richardson not to give the devil his—or her—due. He finds it difficult to “exonerate this wretched book.” Apart from three or four “lackeys” (his word), no one should exonerate him for having distorted it so grotesquely.

Carlton Lake

Cambridge, Massachusetts

John Richardson replies:

Mr. Lake’s voluntary on Madame Gilot’s trumpet may deafen but it cannot blind us to the fatuousness of his claims: for instance, that “everyone but Mr. Richardson thinks [Françoise Gilot] has done remarkably well…” Nonsense!

  1. Mr. Lake knows as well as I do—or he should by now—that any old and close friends of Picasso who have read this book are united in condemning its bias, as are most reputable authorities on the artist’s work.

  2. Furthermore, far from “saluting” Madame Gilot, students of Picasso are incensed with her, not just because she give a false picture of a great man but because she is so misleading about his and her political views and the crucial (to Madame Gilot’s book) matter of their mutual “peccadilloes.” This was the central complaint of my review and one that Mr. Lake does not even try to refute in his letter.

  3. I am glad, however, that Mr. Lake now concedes that he and Madame Gilot “organized” and “compressed” Picasso’s conversations. Given this admission and the fact that these lecturettes appear without the artist’s authorization, I suggest that they be taken out of quotes in any future edition of the book.

  4. On one other point I find myself in agreement with Mr. Lake. We should certainly be grateful to “Madame Gilot in that she stirred Picasso sufficiently to explore the pictorial possibilities of her body.” I am especially grateful for that revealing portrait of Madame Gilot wrestling with a boxer dog (Rosengart Collection, Luzerne). It prepared me for the vacherie of this book.

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