When German journalist Malte Herwig interviewed Françoise Gilot for the first time in 2012, he had a tough time convincing the then-92-year-old artist to pose for the accompanying magazine photos. There’s no way in hell, she told him. Desperate, he tried to appeal to her ego. “I had the stupid idea to compliment her with the first thing that came to mind, which is, ‘but you are very photogenic, madame.’”
Gilot shrieked with laughter, which was when Herwig realized his error. “I thought, ‘Wow, is there anything more stupid I could have said to a woman who has been captured in portrait by Matisse and Picasso?’”
Awkward moment aside, three years later Gilot would pose in her studio for more photos to accompany Herwig’s new book, The Woman Who Says No: Françoise Gilot on Her Life With and Without Picasso, published by Vancouver publisher Greystone Books. It’s a fascinating story of a woman who, regardless of her own impressive artistic credentials, is destined to be a footnote in the biographies of her former lovers — artists Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse, and medical researcher Jonas Salk, who discovered the first polio vaccine.
But the photos in Herwig’s book, taken by Berlin photographer Ana Lessing, present an elegant, energetic woman who is clearly living as a successful artist in her own right, without a care for her notorious past. It’s easy to see why Herwig was so taken by Gilot and why, rather than writing a straightforward biography, he chose to pose the book as a series of lessons that he learned from spending time with the artist, travelling between her Paris and New York-based studios. “The teacher-disciple dialogue is an ancient form since the 17th Century. I thought I would revise it for modern day, sort of like Mitch Albom did for Tuesdays with Morrie,” Herwig says.
Born in 1921 to a well-educated, wealthy family, Gilot’s parents dreamed of having a boy, which led to her father treating her more like a son, which Herwig suggests set her up with the strong self-confidence and financial means that Picasso’s previous partners — most of whom ended up committing suicide or in mental institutions — never enjoyed. Gilot met the famous artist when she was 21 and he was 61; they were together for 10 years and had two children, Claude and Paloma. After Gilot decided to leave Picasso for good, he threatened European gallerists, saying that, if they showed her work he would withdraw his own paintings. Instead of being defeated, Gilot moved to New York and began her own career there.
That is not to say Gilot’s life has been easy. “Nowadays children of celebrities they do their own thing, a fashion label, perfume, whatever, that’s a dime a dozen,” says Herwig. “But back then it was still different. Picasso was the celebrity of 20th-Century art and he cast a long shadow. But she did something on her own.”
“That’s what fascinated me,” says Herwig. “How your work as an artist enables you to live fully. That’s also something we can all aspire to, rather than fall into the routine of everyday life. She helped pull me out of my own routine by giving me something to watch, to observe, to think about.”
Sue Carter is the editor of Quill & Quire.