Whoever proclaimed mid-February the season of love must’ve had a cruel and unusual tenderness for cable-knit turtlenecks. But nevertheless, in honor of the fast-approaching Valentine’s Day (our last large-scale occasion on the calendar not lapped by the pandemic), here’s a meet-cute from the vault:
The curtain rises on Nazi-occupied Paris. A young woman walks into a studio – the only place to see blacklisted artists’ work, at this time. The artist is in. The young woman happens to be a student of art, a painter. The artist decides to show her some recent projects – amorphous works, not quite sculpture and not quite painting, created with bicycle handlebars, cardboard, cigarette packages, bits of string. He says to her, “What interests me is to make what might be called links, connections, over the widest possible distance – the most unexpected link between objects I wish to consider.” Now they are standing near his table of tools, the ones he uses to create these collages: planes, files, pinchers, nails. He takes a step toward her. “One must rip and tear reality.”* The artist is Pablo Picasso. The young woman is Francoise Gilot. He kisses her as squarely as he speaks to her.
Perhaps we’re too much in the holiday mood, and that’s the more romantic version of the tale. Perhaps it’s evident from the way Francoise stood so safely in his studio next to his table of tools, from the way Picasso knew so certainly that she enjoyed his company more than his presence – their real first encounter had been days before. Francoise remembers that it was a Wednesday. She and a few friends headed to a restaurant in the Rue des Grands-Augustins, one known to host artists and writers. At the table drawing the most notice from her fellow diners, she first identified a woman – a beautiful oval face, a heavy jaw, a demeanor of dignity verging on rigidity. For Francoise, Dora Maar stepped right out of her Picasso portraits. So much so that without Dora’s attendance at the table, Francoise might have mis-identified Picasso himself, who was sitting next to Dora greyer, and more bored-looking, than Francoise had remembered from seeing his photos by Man Ray. Francoise was twenty-one; she’d already made up her mind that “painting was [her] whole life;” who could blame her and her friends for not being able to look away?**
The truer wonder is that Picasso began to look back. From that first night, from tables away, his eyes sparked when they took in Francoise. Eventually, he got up from his table and approached hers, proffering a bowl of cherries. Chatting, he was quick to discover that she was not just a pretty girl, not just a sharp intellect, but an artist-in-training to boot. As we already know, he invited her to tour his studio. The rest, as they say, is history.
Luckily, we lovers of art do not have to wonder what Picasso saw when he first took in Francoise – a subsequent decade of portraiture, of discovering her again and again, fills in that blank. La femme a la resille, also called Femme aux cheveux verts (B612) is a lithograph made in 1949, popping with color rarely seen in Picasso’s prints. The quiet, intelligent beauty of its subject emanates, the focus on her recognizably warm, richly lined eyes and long, straight nose. The duality of the title – is it more notable that her hair appears to be netted? Or that it is green? – continues that quiet intelligence, that sense of wonder and connection, the rip and tear of reality. The play reveals a less obvious subject: an unexpected link between objects. Netted hair, green hair, the same hair; the pattern and color of Francoise’s blouse rhyming with her hair; the deep lines of her eyes and eyebrows and lips continuing the poem. In her surreal depiction, Francoise appears in all the reality of her lover’s eyes.
Five years passed between their meeting and this astute rendering. In fact, at the time of Francoise and Picasso’s meeting, in 1943, the artist’s Sunday mornings were for Marie-Therese and their daughter Maya, his afternoons and evenings split for the studio and Dora. All day, every day, there was the war. So then, how did this pair go from a forty year age difference to the closeness of a shared, internally rhythmic reality, when so many factors barred the way? As always, we look to Picasso’s diaristic art to better understand.
More of this in weeks to come. In the meantime, we wish a safe and restful weekend to our readers.