Francoise Gilot in Conversation with Benjamin Doller

On the occasion of a new edition of her 1964 book Life with Picasso, artist/critic/educator/author and former mistress of Pablo Picasso, Francoise Gilot is interviewed at the 92Y by Chairman of Southeby’s Auction House, Benjamin Doller. Southeby’s handles Gilot’s work. The relationship is respectful and affectionate. “It’s a real treasure to have you as a link to a world we only know reading books,” Doller comments.

The host notes Life with Picasso has been translated into over a dozen languages, that the uniquely compelling book shows a human side of genius. “It’s a rule for us at Southeby’s not to ask about Picasso,” he continues, obviously finding tonight a treat.

At 97, Gilot remains formidable. One can only imagine the kind of run for his money she gave Pablo Picasso during the ten years she was mistress, muse, and then the mother of Claude and Paloma. Gilot was the only woman ever to have left the famous lothario.

Deciding to become a painter at five, the little girl was taught by her artist mother and then her mother’s instructor. She was educated at Cambridge and The Sorbonne and went on to law school, but skipped classes eventually becoming a full time painter.

“Why did you write the book?” Dollar asks. “They just wanted me to. I did not want to say no so many times.” She shrugs. “The book is filled with quotes, yet I understand you never kept a journal,” he says. “I have the memory of an elephant…I was attentive to everything and it would be a shame if the public didn’t know.” She tells us Picasso was furious every time he heard someone inquire after a copy. In fact, the icon tried to stop publication in France.

Benjamin Doller and Francoise Gilot- photo by Alexis Branagan

We’re told two stories about Gilot’s meeting the legend when she was 21, he 61. In one, she sent Picasso an invitation to her first exhibition never imagining he’d come. He attended one quiet morning, apparently spent time, and left a note encouraging a visit to his studio. “From eleven to one, he received visitors. I was curious. His studio was in a 16th century stone building…” she recalls as if the historical nature of the edifice was the attraction.

In the other, she was at Le Pré Catelan Restaurant in Paris with a well known actor and a girl friend. Picasso approached the table offering a plate of cherries. “How come you don’t introduce me to your friends?” he asked the actor who bristled. Doller points out the artist painted a lot of cherries after that.

“Very soon I started to see him very often. I was not astonished. This was Paris. To meet Picasso was not so extraordinary,” Gilot reflects. “You were smart, talented and beautiful. Do you think you intimidated him?” She laughs. “Certainly not!”

Gilot is queried on the shape of her days. She vaguely refers to a room filled with visitors and supplicants as if it was commonplace. Asked whether she helped Picasso prepare for business meetings, Gilot responds in no uncertain terms that the artist had more than enough intelligence and “cleverness” not to need or, one infers, ask for help.

Did they ever collaborate? Non! Though working in adjacent studios, the twain never met. “It would be as if you asked me to drink from someone else’s glass!” she snaps, shocked at the idea. “If there is one thing in which you have to be alone, it’s your work!”

What about interaction with any of Picasso’s other women? (History indicates considerable overlap.) Gilot tells us a story of Olga Khokhlova, who’d been with Picasso in the 1920s and occasionally stalked the couple.

The former Madame Picasso came across them on a beach in the south of France. Francoise was sitting propped up by hands extended behind her. Olga walked on them with her high heels. Francoise withdrew them – ignoring the woman who considered her a rival, then put them back a few minutes later, only to be again trod on. “Picasso laughed,” she remembers without acrimony. “I grabbed her ankle and she went down in the sand.” Is there a twinkle in her eyes? Gilot never saw her again.

Projections on a screen show several Picasso pieces, some created by Gilot, and selected photographs of younger days. Doller brings her attention to the iconic image where Picasso holds an beach umbrella over her head. “It seems like you’re more in charge.” “No, I think I didn’t take myself too seriously. I was amused and amusing, but protecting my own personality. If he wanted to pay attention to me as if I was someone important, well, why not?”

Interestingly, despite many depictions of her, Gilot never sat for Picasso. “You have to have enough brain to put that in your head and not need interaction,” she says tapping her forehead. Doller remarks that she may be the only one of his lovers whose portraits were not distorted.

“How did living with Picasso for ten years change you?” he asks. “It didn’t change me at all. It’s not like catching a disease!…I don’t think Picasso had any idea that people like me existed.”

An audience member asks whether Gilot was attracted to “a whole different kind of man” after Picasso. Wed to another painter for seven years, she then met and married polio vaccine pioneer, Dr. Jonas Salk. “I was never the one to be attracted,” she responds. “I was the one to be attractive.”

“Pablo told me that our relationship would bring light into both our lives. I left when it was no longer light. He burned all the bridges, but in doing so forced me into myself and I’ll always be grateful.”

“Could you tell us where you get your inspiration?” Doller asks in closing. “It’s by starting to mix color on my palette… then…this should be larger, this should be smaller. That’s how it goes. You should be true to your instinct. You have to have something inside that drives you.” Up until recently this remarkable woman painted every day.

Oh, to have been a fly on the wall back then!

Opening Photos of Francoise Gilot and Benjamin Doller; photo of Francoise Gilot with her painting – by Colas Engel
Book cover image: Françoise Gilot, Self-Portrait, 1953; courtesy of the artist

About Alix Cohen (1769 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of ten New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, TheaterLife, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.