What was it was like for George Harrison, a talented musician playing in a band beside two men who might have been the greatest pop artists of all time? And what was it like for Francoise Gilot, a talented painter living with a man who might have been the greatest painter of all time? The most recent of the Gagosian Gallery’s thrilling, museum-quality Picasso shows, Picasso and Françoise Gilot: Paris–Vallauris 1943–1953, makes one wonder. The show is organized in three parts: two galleries with Picasso’s work from that period, a gallery with photos showing the life of the two artists together, and finally, a gallery with Gilot’s work. As we entered that room a gentleman behind me declared, “Well, she was no Picasso,” an assessment that seemed terribly unfair.
Gilot’s work is serious but there isn’t enough of it at the exhibit to get a strong sense of what her deep interests are. Picasso’s work, on the other hand, illuminated what we already know of him. There are lovely, colorful paintings of Gilot, their children, their pets, and their toys, scenes lighter and more joyous than we thought he was capable of. But the most moving pieces in the show are Picasso’s two drawings and painting, all titled Femme Designe, that show Francoise at work. Today Gilot is remarkably good-humored about the time she spent with the master, however much it overshadowed her own work. She thinks she made it through those years because she had a strong sense of herself, and, as she puts it, “He did not try to destroy me.” She remembers that Picasso supported her work at first but lost interest as she began to gain recognition. But there’s a tenderness in his depictions of her as an artist that I’d like to understand as an endorsement, however complicated it was.