Few of his peers can stand up to a comparison to Pablo Picasso. He competes only with Henri Matisse as the greatest artist of the 20th century. So we shouldn't take in the large collection of prints by Francoise Gilot with an eye to comparisons between them and a smaller group of Picasso prints, both on view at the Leepa-Rattner Museum of Art.
Gilot, as many readers will know, was Picasso's mistress from 1943 to 1953, and the couple had two children, Claude and Paloma (who gained fame as a designer for Tiffany). Gilot was an artist with her first significant exhibition when they met. She was in her early 20s and he was 61. After a decade with the artist, she did the unthinkable: She left him. He was astonished and belittled her, saying (according to a quote from her), "You imagine people will be interested in you. They won't ever, really, just for yourself. It will only be a kind of curiosity they will have about a person whose life has touched mine so intimately."
The great man was wrong. She became a respected artist (though, she has admitted in print and interviews, never even close to Pablo) and wound up happily married for decades to Jonas Salk, a man as distinguished in the field of science as Picasso was in art.
At 91, she still creates art.
"Francoise Gilot: A Print Retrospective" might be a bit broad for a title since the group of 34 spans only 1962 to 1992 and all are from the collection of her friends Patrick and Jackie Terrail, who once owned the legendary Ma Maison restaurant in Hollywood.
Fittingly, it begins with three charming menu covers she designed for the restaurant. Most of her prints have great charm along with technical virtues such as linear discipline and effective coloration.
Her style is markedly influenced by Picasso — what artist of his time was not? — as well as Matisse (again, what artist ...?). The Four Seasons Suite, color aquatints created in 1976 and 1977, show a definite nod to Matisse in their strong, simple lines. They begin with a spring nude in a lovely stippled green; followed by a still life on a table with borders of blue and yellow (sunny summer sky colors and a backward reference to the spring green which is made when the two primary colors are combined); then a red autumn with birds surrounded by falling leaves; and finally a winter woman in purple with a blue border (which combined with red becomes purple).
She made portraits of her three children (a marriage after Picasso and before Salk produced a daughter, Aurelia) through the years. My Children in Brittany II, a lithograph, is composed of Paloma in a chair reading to Aurelia with Claude next to them on the floor. Stylistically, it is like many of her prints, in which she favors soft delineations over bold outlines. It's technically a good print, but it just seems amateurish in its depiction of the figures. That's my impression with many of the prints having more subtle forms.
But she is a good artist, and we can see her evolve. The Purple Cloud, from 1991, is a big landscape with a tiny, almost indiscernible sailboat. With its exuberant wash of colors, it's just lovely.
Then you round the corner and: Yo, Picasso! (He sometimes used that signature; yo means I in Spanish). This group has fewer than 20 prints from the museum's collection and that of collector Lothar J. Uhl. Some are not among his most distinguished print work and some are simply posters he designed for exhibitions, but even an okay Picasso blows everyone else out of the water. Consider Bacchanale. The rollicking characters have many iterations in his art over the decades, so it's a well-used narrative. But the rich, roiling landscape in which the party takes place is overseen by a small, spare owl at the top. It's genius.
Women were necessary muses throughout his life, and the major ones are documented along one gallery wall. Only two of the women, Gilot and Picasso's second wife, Jacqueline Roque, are represented by Picasso prints. That his feelings for them, good or bad, always made their way onto the canvas is universally acknowledged, and we see his waning affection for Gilot, looking like a frenetic virago in a 1949 lithograph (she left him in 1953), and his last love, Roque, who immediately followed her and remained with the artist until his death at 91 in 1973. She is portrayed as serenely beautiful in 1957, in profile with her great sloe eyes exaggerated even more.
Gilot stood up to Picasso when she left and continued to do so as she moved forward; it took courage and great self-confidence to make art she knew would be considered by many derivative. She has recounted that a fellow artist remarked of her work in 1952, "Even if Françoise had had some originality, Picasso would have destroyed it. You cannot possibly be original when you live with him."
Perhaps Gilot isn't especially original. But she's certainly as genuine in her intent as was Picasso.
Lennie Bennett can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8293.