The 96-year-old French painter and author Françoise Gilot — famously known as the former lover and muse to Pablo Picasso, and the mother of two of his children, Claude and Paloma — has a book of sketches out this week that she completed during her travels to India, Senegal and Venice between 1974 and 1981.
While most artists use sketchbooks to harness their impressions into material for their work — to help them remember — Ms. Gilot has used hers to forget.
“Things I have seen, I want to take them out of my mind,” she told me as we sat in her brightly-lit living room on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. (Ms. Gilot’s home doubles as a studio in which she still paints nearly everyday. Canvases are hung on the two-story-high walls, stacked on the floor and displayed on easels.) “Art doesn’t come from what is around you, but from what is inside of you.”
This philosophical approach is unmistakable in the new monograph (published by Taschen), “Françoise Gilot: Three Travel Sketchbooks,” which includes drawings and watercolors that bear little stylistic resemblance to her public work. Instead, they offer an intimate glimpse into Ms. Gilot’s inner life.
Her distinctly whimsical sensibility permeated our conversation. When asked about her years with Picasso and the comparisons that have been made between their work, she replied with a sly grin: “Sometimes you need an umbrella when it rains.”
But Ms. Gilot has hardly lived her life under the shelter of that umbrella. Dorothea Elkon, her New York gallery owner and longtime friend, stressed Ms. Gilot’s fierce independence. While the legacy of her relationship with Picasso has endured as an undeniable presence in her life (Paloma Picasso called it a “nuisance” to her mother), Ms. Gilot has worked hard to maintain her autonomous presence in the art world. “It’s a dedication that’s essential in her life,” said Ms. Picasso, who vividly recalls being a child, sitting on the balcony outside her mother’s studio and watching her paint for hours.
Ms. Gilot was born in a suburb of Paris in 1921. Her mother was an artist, and her father, an agronomist, insisted that his daughter pursue a law degree after she graduated from the Sorbonne in 1938 with a bachelors in philosophy. But while enrolled in law school, Ms. Gilot studied art in her free time — entering into the tutelage of the Hungarian painter Endre Rozsda, who would become a lifelong mentor and friend — and she eventually abandoned the legal track.
She met Picasso at Le Catalan Restaurant in Paris, in 1943. She was 21; he was 61. During their roughly 10 years together (a period described at length in her best-selling 1964 memoir, “Life with Picasso”), Ms. Gilot mingled in a group that included Henri Matisse and Georges Braque, though today she claims her art is not influenced by anyone. “I don’t believe in influences,” she said. (Picasso’s biographer John Richardson agreed: “Picasso took from her rather more than she took from him.”)
By the fall of 1953, Ms. Gilot had ended the relationship. Picasso was displeased; after all, she was allegedly the only woman ever to have left him. He ran her out of town and turned the Paris art world against her, Ms. Elkon said. In 1955, she married the French artist Luc Simon. Their marriage lasted only a few years and produced one daughter, Aurelia. In 1970, Ms. Gilot married the virologist Jonas Salk; they were together until his death in 1995.
The sketches in this latest book are a stylistic departure from her body of work, and she considers them deliberately unfinished, completed as they were in notebooks she kept while traveling with Salk when he was collecting research for the polio vaccine he would go on to develop (except for the sketches from Venice, a city that has captivated her since childhood). They contain watercolor drawings but also words, written in careful, beautiful script. For Ms. Gilot, colors, text, shapes are used interchangeably — synesthetically.
“If you can think of something in words, then you can see it in images too,” she said.
Narrative has always been paramount to Ms. Gilot. The floor-to-ceiling bookshelves that line the walls of her apartment, which is just down the block from the Hotel des Artistes, are a testament to her literary mind. Visual monographs on Claude Monet, Francis Bacon and, yes, Picasso are shelved alongside volumes of T.S. Eliot, Shakespeare and Evelyn Waugh. She has published collections of her own verse, and even these sketchbooks contain full pages devoted solely to her handwritten text. “I was always good with poetry and letters,” she said.
Ms. Gilot’s friend, the actor and playwright Thérèse Crémieux, who interviewed her for the pamphlet that is included in “Three Travel Sketchbooks,” is the one who convinced her to publish this book. Ms. Gilot was hesitant. “Françoise said, ‘No, it’s not going to interest anyone,’” said Ms. Crémieux, who argued that readers would like to see what Ms. Gilot calls “the process.”
Completed mostly on tiny, bumpy plane rides between remote corners of the world after she’d taken time to reflect on the moments she’d encountered, the sketches favor figures over scenes: “A landscape is always there and the people are not,” Ms. Gilot said.
“You can call it a diary,” she added. “What I draw has meaning. In my mind, I notice what I feel, and not what is there.”
Ms. Simon, who is also Ms. Gilot’s archivist, noted that if you look through her body of work, “you can see all of the people in her life coming through, all of the friends, the men in her life, the children growing up, the places she went. You can really feel the emotion she is going through and how she reacts, and what catches her eye or memory.”
Intimacy aside, the sketches in this book also betray a remarkable raw talent. “Her draftsmanship is exquisite,” said Jill McGaughey, the owner of the Mac-Gryder Gallery in New Orleans, which has represented her since the early 70s. “She has such great control and economy of her lines. Everything has a purpose. She’s got a great sense of movement in her lines and in her figures. They’re lyrical.”
The publication coincides with a period of particular commercial success for Ms. Gilot. “In the last 10 years, there’s been a tremendous snowball of interest in her work,” Ms. McGaughey said. “Pieces that sold for $10,000 10 to 15 years ago are twice that or more now. The market can’t get enough of her.”
A few weeks after I met with Ms. Gilot, I visited the Elkon Gallery on the Upper East Side where several of her works are held. Two of those works had been viewed by a potential buyer that week: a painting of herself with Paloma, “Protection,” from 1954, and a drawing, “Self-Portrait by the Sea,” from 1946, which she completed when she was 25 — the year she began living with Picasso.
In the 1946 drawing, she’s looking upward and there’s a man in the background walking toward her. It reminded me of something she said about her art when we met: “In the work of all the generations of painters who were like Picasso, the figure is so huge, it’s all over the painting,” she explained. “Whereas me, I have turned it the other way around. The figure is lost in a universe that is very much bigger.” One could say the same about her personal outlook on life, too.