Trompe l’Oeil

Life with Picasso

by Françoise Gilot and Carlton Lake
McGraw-Hill, 373 pp., $6.95

Pablo Picasso
Pablo Picasso; drawing by David Levine

Everything about Picasso is interesting. Even the most trifling facts of his personal life turn out to be valuable clues which explain his unpredictable changes of subject, style, or mood. If, for instance, he is prevented from going to the bull-fight of a Sunday, he will console himself by doing drawings of a corrida. If he acquires a new mistress, her presence will at once be reflected in his work—in still lifes as well as figure paintings. If he acquires a new dog, there will be pictorial repercussions. All this puts the student of Picasso’s art in an embarrassing dilemma. His understanding of what goes on in the studio will inevitably depend on his knowledge of what is happening elsewhere—not just in the house but on the street and out in the world. For this information he has to rely on books by Picasso’s intimate friends. Some are most useful, others are not always reliable. Take the present volume.

On the face of things, Françoise Gilot should be an invaluable source of information. For ten crucial years (1943-53), during which Picasso revolutionized the technique of lithography and the craft of pottery and also executed vast numbers of paintings, drawings, and sculptures, she was his mistress. She has the advantage of a painter’s eye, a retentive memory, and a sharp—jaggedly sharp—mind. No less important, she has been seconded by a ghostwriter who is self-effacing and literate compared to most.

A more questionable advantage is Madame Gilot’s evident lack of scruple. Far from being deterred by feelings of delicacy, she sticks pins indiscriminately in friend and foe and mercilessly rattles the skeletons in any closet to which she has the key. In Life with Picasso the artist’s complicated relations with family, mistresses, friends, colleagues, and dealers, not to speak of his private business arrangements and even his sexual habits, are unveiled to the public with such relish that one sometimes wonders why this book was serialized in the Atlantic Monthly and not in Confidential.

Indiscretion masquerading as candor is not an endearing trait in a writer. Nor is the apparent chip-on-shoulder malice which permeates—and ultimately invalidates—much of this book. Instead of showing us “the most intimate and revealing” portrait of the greatest artist of our time, as the blurb claims, Madame Gilot has concocted the caricature of a petty tyrant. Even Picasso’s generosity is impugned. For example, this sour account of how the artist presented a memorial to the City of Paris In memory of Guillaume Apollinaire:

…By now Pablo was thoroughly disgusted and lost all interest in the project…he simply gave them a sculpture that was lying around the studio, a bronze head of Dora Maar that he had done in 1941.

In due time the committee had it set up in the little square under a tree particularly favored by the local sparrows. There it stands today, encrusted with their…

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