(The National Post, 10 May 2016)
When I met Françoise Gilot in London in 1968, she seemed impressively confident and highly articulate. Two things she said stick in my memory. One of her regular chores while living with Picasso, she recalled, was to get him out of bed every day around noon.
Each time he was reluctant to begin a new day and had to be given reasons for leaving his bed - a new letter had appeared from a friend, for instance, or a visitor was due to arrive in an hour. Always, it was a struggle. The other point she made revealed a less amiable fault. Picasso loved his small children but lost interest when they became adolescents. At the first sign of puberty he turned away, bored. Did he dislike the growing children because he saw them as competitors in the household? She couldn't quite explain it.
In an age enthralled by celebrity it's sometimes possible to achieve longrunning fame by association with the great. The ultimate case is Françoise Gilot, who lived for a decade with Pablo Picasso in the middle of the 20th century and had two children with him. Ever since leaving him in 1955, she's been a vivid figure in the pages of art history and gossip.
In 1969, as a painter and art teacher in California, she also became a footnote in the history of medicine. She met Jonas Salk, the bacteriologist who had become the most famous American doctor of the era by developing the first effective vaccine against polio. They married in 1970 and shared their lives until he died in 1995.
Her story has been told often but remains remarkable nevertheless. This month, aged 94, Gilot is the subject of a new book, The Woman Who Says No: Françoise Gilot on her life with and without Picasso (Greystone Books) by a German journalist, Malte Herwig. The title is the term Picasso used to describe Gilot when she refused to stay with him.
Herwig's book is not so much a biography, more a collection of interviews or a besotted fan's illustrated notes. It begins at the point when Gilot left Picasso. The first sentence establishes the tone in two words: "Picasso raged."
At first he believed that she couldn't walk away. No woman rejects Picasso, he pointed out. What would become of her? She explained that she wanted to know people her own age for a change. That infuriated him. They had come together when she was 21 and he was 61, both of them pretending (as lovers often do) that age didn't matter.
Later she decided that she resented his lack of attention to her. "He always saw me from without, not within," she said. "When I left him it was because I knew him but he still did not know me, and I thought, after 10 years that's a bit much."
In 1964 she wrote, with the help of Carlton Lake, a memoir, Life With Picasso. He went to court in a vain effort to prevent its publication, and a reading of the book explains why. She admired Picasso, and gratefully learned from him, but he was a dominant force in her life, angry and sometimes unyielding in his efforts to control her.
Picasso's many friends treated the highly readable book as a scandal, but it was a huge success - selling hundreds of thousands of copies in many countries. In a few years, even scholars who deplored her gossip began to see it as fundamentally truthful. The evocative memoir became the standard source on the intimate Picasso, and has never been replaced.
The curiosity stimulated by her writing renewed interest in her own paintings, which she had begun before meeting him and continued during most of her life. Collectors, having read about Picasso's influence on Gilot, were eager to see the results. The pictures she showed in her exhibitions were often good but seriously influenced by Picasso; sometimes, from across the room, you could mistake them for the work of the master.
John Richardson, Picasso's main biographer, claims she did her best work while she lived with Picasso and never equalled it again. Certainly the great man cast a permanent shadow, if not always in her paintings certainly over her reputation in the mind of the art public.
The Woman Who Says No is almost uniformly admiring. Herwig is grateful for every word that falls from Gilot's mouth, but in a reader it raises difficult questions about the effect celebrity has on those who are celebrated. It encourages, for one thing, a not always beneficial selfconsciousness.
Being interviewed several hundred times, and usually by pious devotees, may raise an individual's self-esteem to a dangerous or at least preposterous level.
Gilot tells Herwig that "Artists today are so egocentric. They are absolutely no longer interested in the unknown, only in themselves." But Gilot is not innocent of that trait. At one point an obnoxious journalist asked her what it was in her that attracted such outstanding men.
"I think I am just as interesting as they," she replied. She obviously preferred to be considered their equal. "Lions mate with lions," she said. "They don't mate with mice."
A pleasantly lightweight book, The Woman Who Says No also stimulates uncomfortable thoughts about its famous subject.