Blue Eyes at the NGV
Friend of Matisse, muse of Picasso, Francoise Gilot’s eventful life lead to the creation of some wonderful works of art.
Francoise Gilot was born in Paris in 1921.
Her parents were an oddly matched couple, and had very different ideas about the path her life should take. Her father, Emile, was an agronomist, and was a sensible, hard headed man with a short temper. While Gilot’s mother, Madeline, was creative and sensitive, and a had a passion for visual art.
Madeline introduced Francoise to painting at 5 years of age, initially teaching her to use water colours. When she displayed a natural affinity for the medium, Madeline had her take art lessons from a private instructor, over Emile’s objections.
By the time she was a teenager, Francoise was painting regularly, and had set up her own studio in a relative’s attic.
Gilot studied at the Sorbonne, and completed a BA in philosophy in 1939.
At her father’s direction, she then enrolled in law school in Rennes, and began work on a post graduate degree in International Law. But she approached these studies half heartedly.
She continued to paint in her free time, faced with the growing realisation that she wanted to pursue a career as a professional artist.
The outbreak of World War II curtailed her studies; Gilot was forced to leave university under the suspicion of being an anti-German agitator. Happily, this allowed more time for her art.
Gilot’s first public show was in Paris in 1943, on a gallery on the Rue Boissy d’Anglas. And this was when she met, Pablo Picasso.
Pablo Picasso was born in Malaga, Spain, in October 1881.
An artistic protégé, he demonstrated a natural flair in a variety of artistic mediums – painting, drawing, sculpture – from a young age.
Picasso’s father, Jose, was also an artist and an art teacher, and helped his son develop his talent. He secured a place for Picasso at the prestigious School of Fine Arts in Barcelona when he was only 13 (the usual admission age was 17), and rented an apartment for him, so he would have privacy to paint.
When he was 19, Picasso took his first trip to Paris, and fell in love with the city. Shortly afterwards, he moved there to live, and would remain in Paris for the majority of the rest of his life.
Picasso’s reputation as an artist was forged during the decade prior to World War I.
His 'Blue' and 'Rose' period paintings (1900 – 06), more traditional works, captured the interesting characters and sights of the bohemian Paris that he lived in.
His 'African' period (1907 – 10) introduced exotic symbolism and motifs that Picasso co-opted from native African artworks; visuals that had not been previously used in Western art.
'Cubism' (1909 – 12), co-founded with Georges Braque, was something truly radical; challenging the idea of perspective itself. What if, instead of picking one perspective to draw something from, you tried to show it from all perspectives, simultaneously?
The idea of ‘collage’ flowed from his Cubist works, as Picasso added everyday items – newspaper clippings, scrap metal, string – to his paintings, to give them a heightened texture. This simple idea, now common place in many different types of art, had never been tried before.
All of these periods and styles represented a bold new approach to art, something that seemed properly modern. It galvanized, and electrified, the art world.
Picasso was lauded, derided, mocked and praised. His paintings were hugely in demand and he became rich, and very famous.
By the time Picasso met Gilot in 1943, these radical years were well behind him.
Picasso, then 61, still actively created art, and was often in the news, but he was no longer the young firebrand he once had been.
He met Gilot, then 21, in a restaurant, where she was having dinner with friends. One of these, the actor Alain Cuny, was known to Picasso, and the artist came over to say hello. Pleasant conversation ensued, and Picasso invited Gilot to his studio the following day, to view some work in progress.
When he found out she was an artist, and had an exhibition on, he insisted on seeing it. Impressed by Gilot’s work, Picasso pursued her romantically, and the two began an affair the following year.
Encouraged by Picasso, Gilot also finally determined to pursue her art full time, which lead to a falling out with her father.
Gilot moved in with Picasso in 1946.
It was a move she made only reluctantly, valuing her independence, but the affair had developed into a serious relationship, and the older artist insisted.
That same year, Picasso painted a series of portraits of Gilot, where he combined her body with that of a plant. Collectively, these paintings are known as ‘La Femme Fleur’; AKA ‘Flower Woman’. He would create many more works featuring Gilot in a variety of poses and styles, as she served as his muse and inspiration.
Around this time, Gilot also met Picasso’s friend Henri Matisse, and the two became close. She visited with Matisse often, and they would while away long afternoons, discussing art.
But her relationship with Picasso also stalled Gilot’s own artistic career.
She had two children with him; Claude, in 1947, and Palemo, in 1949, and the demands of parenting, left largely to her, consumed most of her time.
While her relationship with Picasso was passionate and stimulating, it was also draining. He could be moody and self absorbed, and had a famously short temper. At times, he became physically abusive.
While they remained together for a decade, Gilot and Picasso were never married.
She left him in 1954, famously becoming the only one of his many lovers to terminate the relationship themselves. Picasso was furious.
Gilot now returned to painting, and started a relationship with the French artist Luc Simon. The pair were married in 1955.
But Picasso continued to cast a shadow over her life; he was now refusing to support his children with Gilot, or acknowledge them in his will.
To raise money for a legal challenge, Gilot wrote a tell all book about their relationship, 'Life with Picasso.’ This pulled no punches; describing Picasso as romantic and brilliant, but abusive and temperamental.
When Picasso found out about the book’s content, he launched a vigorous legal challenge to try and block its publication, suing Gilot on three separate occasions. All were unsuccessful. He then tried to use his influence to ruin her career, and several well known art dealers did stop carrying Gilot’s work.
Nevertheless, she went ahead with the book and it caused a sensation on release, selling more than a million copies. It has not been out of print since.
Gilot would continue to paint and create art over the ensuing decades, and has been exhibited across the world. After Picasso’s death her son, Claude, was finally installed as the administrator of his father’s estate.
The National Gallery Victoria (NGV) is a huge, rectangular building, on St Kilda Road in Melbourne.
Its permanent international collection is on the third floor. I like going there; it’s a peaceful place, and relaxing to wander through the labyrinthine rooms, taking in the artworks and just generally drifting along.
On a recent visit, I was struck by a new painting.
This shows a woman, sitting on a chair, staring into the middle distance. She wears a red crop top, black skirt, stockings and flats. Her expression is inscrutable, but she looks confident, strong, and independent.
The painting is brightly coloured and eye catching, although the technique is simple. The subject is rendered with basic, geometric shapes, and broadly curved lines, with the barest hint of detail. Her most telling feature is her crystal blue eyes, which stand out dramatically.
And this painting is actually called ‘Blue Eyes’, painted by Francois Gilot in 1956.
‘While sharing Picasso’s life, I relied mostly on my imagination. Back in Paris, I decided to resume drawing from nature, taking inspiration from professional models or from friends.
For the later part of 1954 and all of 1955, most every day, I worked with a young English classical dancer called Germaine Brocks. She became for me quite an inspiring and poetic presence.’
- Francoise Gilot
Brocks is the subject of ‘Blue Eyes’.
Confident, strong and independent; it makes for a perfect summary of its remarkable creator.