From the Archives: Françoise Gilot on Life After Picasso

Françoise Gilot—the French painter and memoirist whose accomplished career was long eclipsed by her 10-year relationship with Pablo Picasso—died in a Manhattan hospital on Tuesday at 101. Here, we revisit a 2012 conversation between Gilot (then 90) and Vogue contributing editor Dodie Kazanjian about exhibiting her paintings alongside her famous ex’s.

When Françoise Gilot decided to take her two young children and leave Pablo Picasso in 1953, ending their ten-year relationship, the infuriated genius told her she was “headed straight for the desert” because no one would ever have more than “a kind of curiosity . . . about a person whose life has touched mine so intimately.” He was wrong. Life after Picasso has been a continuing adventure for Françoise—two marriages (the second a 25-year union with Jonas Salk, another twentieth-century genius, who developed the polio vaccine), a third child, many friendships, two best-selling books, and a successful career as an artist who continues, at the age of 90, to paint every day. Next month, for the first time ever, a selection of her paintings and drawings will be shown in a joint exhibition with Picasso’s. The show, titled “Picasso and Françoise Gilot [1943–1953],” at the Gagosian Gallery on Madison Avenue, is the fourth in a Gagosian series of Picasso blockbusters. Françoise agreed to cooperate because it deals with the decade when she and Picasso were together, and, as she tells me in her slightly imperious way, “I thought that was an interesting idea.”

We are in her apartment off Central Park West, her U.S. base for the last 20 years, during which she has divided her time between New York and Paris. There’s a large, double-height studio with floor-to-ceiling bookcases, north-facing windows, and two easels for her current work: abstract oils in resonant colors, which she paints without preliminary sketches and with both hands, alternating between left and right. Erect, alert, and somewhat aloof, she’s a handsome and impressive woman, a presence. Before we start to talk, her eye falls on a Xerox I’ve brought along of one of Picasso’s many paintings of her, and she says, firmly, in her clear French-accented English, “I’m not going to talk about Picasso. I have done my duty to those memories. I have had a great career as an artist myself, you know. I’m not here just because I’ve spent time with Picasso.” She brings out two oversize volumes documenting her oeuvre, which now numbers more than 1,600 paintings and 4,000 to 5,000 works on paper. As we talk, though, Picasso keeps finding his way into the conversation, even if Françoise characteristically refuses to let him dominate it.

Her early life, as she describes it, was privileged but lonely. An only child of haute bourgeois, highly intellectual Parisian parents—her father was an agronomist who developed several chemical firms; her mother was a ceramic artist—she decided at the age of five that she, too, was going to be an artist, but “with a big A.” An active and adventurous tomboy who rode horseback every morning in the Bois de Boulogne, she was tutored at home until she was ten. By the time she went to school, “I was ahead of other children my age, and I didn’t think the same way. I did not submit to rules if I did not see they had any meaning.” Brilliant and willful, she entered law school because her father insisted on it, but when war came and Paris fell to the Nazis, she dropped law—from then on, she was painting full time.

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