Picasso: Creator and Destroyer

Picasso's art enacted the violent passions and twisted energies of the twentieth century. So did his life.

MADELEINE GILOT had given birth to Françoise on November 26, 1921, nine months after Olga Picasso had given birth to Paulo. Emile Gilot, a successful businessman highly interested in educational theories, was determined to bring up his only child like a boy—a very well educated one. As a result, Françoise could read and write by the time she was four and was more familiar with the gods of Olympus and the formulas of algebra than with the children of her neighborhood in Neuilly. Until she was nine, a tutor came to the house to teach her under the stern supervision of her father.

When the war began, Françoise was studying law, planning, in accordance with her father's wishes, to become an international lawyer. But the war and the growing Resistance, which many of her friends had joined, made her rethink what was really important to her. "I told my father," she remembered, "that it didn't mean anything to me any longer to become a lawyer when the law, and especially international law, didn't even exist....So, in 1941, I decided to use the time I was spending earning a master's degree at the school of law to pursue my studies of art." She had been drawing ever since she was a child, illustrating daydreams or stories she told herself, full of monkeys, devils, and ghosts. But then everyone in her family had a gift for drawing, so no one took her gift very seriously. Still, her mother agreed to pose for her, and so did her closest friend, Geneviève Aliquot. Geneviève, who was a pupil of Aristide Maillol's, was instrumental in Françoise's decision to give up law for painting.

Picasso watched Françoise closely that night at the Catalan and made quite sure that all his witty aphorisms and brilliant declarations were clearly overheard. It was as if they had dinner together before they ever met. When Cuny introduced them and Picasso discovered that Françoise and Geneviève were painters, he invited them to his studio to see some of his paintings.

AFTER Geneviève left Paris, Françoise would come to the Rue des Grands-Augustins alone. One day, while Picasso was showing her his sculpture tools, he turned and kissed her on the mouth. She accepted this familiarity as matter-of-factly as she had accepted tubes of paint and drawing paper from him, which enraged Picasso. "That's disgusting," he told her. "At least you could have pushed me away. Otherwise I might get the idea I could do anything I wanted to."

Françoise told him that she was at his disposal, her tone making it clear that this was an assertion of control rather than an admission of surrender. "That's disgusting," he repeated. "How do you expect me to seduce anyone under conditions like that?"

It was their last meeting before Françoise left for Fontes, a village near Montpellier, where Geneviève's family lived. Her father was the head of the Resistance there, which brought Françoise closer to the daily dangers of the Nazi Occupation. From Fontes the two women cycled to Les Baux, where they stayed for two weeks. Françoise's time at Les Baux was her life's major turning point. "I remember every detail as though it was today," she said. "First of all the place itself is so special. Dante was there during his exile from Florence, and he was so affected by the setting he made it part of the Divine Comedy. And in nearby Arles, Van Gogh did all those extraordinary paintings. While I was there, I had the most incredibly mystical experience that challenged every aspect of myself and my life. It was not a momentary thing—there was an inner struggle that went on for days, during which I knew that I had to stop identifying with my ego and my intellect if I was to enter into that transcendent state. I felt on the edge of an abyss, and then on the other side I was sort of re-made, bit by bit, from nothingness into being."

When Françoise went to see Picasso again, she found him in a state of extreme sadness. She also found that she felt closer to him than ever before. "The impact of our meeting," she recalled, "would have been very different if we had met at a time of peace. The tragedy around us and the pounding of history made it extraordinary where otherwise it might have been something interesting but ordinary, without the metaphysical quality that it had. Also, in the perspective of war, the fact that Picasso was forty years older than myself didn't mean a thing. After all, I could have died at any moment. And in any case, Pablo was more like a man of forty than a man who by the time I saw him again in November had had his sixty-second birthday."

TO PICASSO, Françoise was a marvel, a marvelous accident. As this girl young enough to be his granddaughter expressed her precocious opinions and pulled the rug out from under his tricks of seduction and control, a grudging respect walled up in him. One day in February of 1944 he suggested that next time she should come in the afternoon and he would teach her engraving and not let anyone disturb them. She arrived for her engraving lesson looking like a vision out of Velázquez, in a black velvet dress, her face framed by its high collar of white lace, her dark red hair swept up. Once again he was the one thrown off balance. "Is that the kind of costume you put on to learn engraving?" he asked. She replied that she had dressed not for engraving but for what she had assumed he had on his mind: "I wanted to look beautiful for you."

There was both an innocence and a power in her directness that unnerved him. She kept dealing him cards he had never been dealt before. "You do everything you can to make things difficult for me," he said, throwing up his hands. "Couldn't you at least pretend to be taken in, the way women generally do? If you don't fall in with my subterfuges, how are we ever going to get together?" He complained, and at the same time he loved it. "You're right, really," he conceded. "It's better that way, with the eyes open. But you realize, don't you, that if you don't want anything but the truth—no subterfuges—you're asking to be spared nothing. Broad daylight is pretty harsh."

He had issued a warning, but, vibrant with all the courage of youth, she felt invincible. So far she was winning—the twenty-two-year-old virgin was outwitting the sixty-two-year-old roué who had explored to the full the dark outer limits of sexuality. The engraving lesson forgotten, he began showing her his Vollard etchings. A minotaur is watching over a woman asleep: "He's studying her," Picasso explained, "trying to read her thoughts, trying to decide whether she loves him because he's a monster. Women are odd enough for that, you know. It's hard to say whether he wants to wake her or kill her."

No matter what he said, he could not succeed in disturbing her equanimity. He was intrigued by the source of her strength; he sensed that it came from a higher place than experience, looks, or brains. "You are the only woman I've met," he told her, "who has her own window to the absolute." He was excited about the possibility of what he considered a new kind of relationship, where there was reciprocity—perhaps even love. "I guess I'll die without ever having loved," he had told her a few months earlier. And she had laughed and asked him not to make up his mind yet.

"What as it all about, anyway?" he asked her suddenly as they were looking through the Vollard prints. "Do you know?" There was hope in the challenge. Françoise said that she didn't know for sure but that yes, she had taken the first steps on the journey of finding out. It was his cue to take her arm and lead her to the bedroom. He undressed her, and then studied her. And then he marveled at how closely her body matched his image of her body.

Françoise lay in his arms filled with a peace so profound and a joy so complete that nothing else mattered and there was nothing left to achieve. She felt impervious to doubts, fears, and even to the pessimism that had seeped into Picasso's very being and which now took over. He did not trust life enough to give himself over to what he sensed would bring light into his darkness; and he did not trust himself enough not to destroy it. By asking to see her sparingly, he was seeking to protect what had begun to grow between them from the monster that, experience had taught him, he could not control.

Françoise left, feeling that the great painter she had admired impersonally had, in the course of the past hour, been transformed into a man she could not help but love.

IN FEBRUARY of 1944, the same month that Picasso and Françoise set out haltingly on their journey together, Max Jacob was arrested at Saint-Benoît-sur-Loire and sent to the detention camp at Drancy, a stop on the long journey to Auschwitz or Dachau. On his way he wrote to Cocteau: "Dear Jean, I'm writing this on a train out of the kindness of the gendarmes who surround us. We will very soon be in Drancy. This is all I have to say. Sacha, when they talked to him about my sister, said: 'If it was him, I could do something!' Well, it is me. I embrace you. Max." The restraint of his plea made his agony all the more poignant. From Drancy one last appeal reached his friends in Paris: "May Salmon, Picasso, Moricand do something for me."

His friends had already begun to mobilize all the support they could find. Cocteau drew up a moving letter about Jacob, about the reverence in which he wes held by the French youth, about his invention of a new language that dominated French literature, about his renunciation of the world. And in a discreet postscript he added: "Max Jacob has been a Catholic for twenty years." The appeal was personally delivered to von Rose, the counselor in charge of pardons and reprieves at the German embassy, who, miraculously, was a lover of poetry and an admirer of Jacob's work. Conspicuously absent from the petition's signatories was Picasso. His silence in behalf of one of his oldest and most intimate friends was thundering. When Pierre Colle, Jacob's literary executor, went to the rue des Grands-Augustins to ask him to use his considerable authority with the Germans to intervene in Jacob's behalf, he refused, crowning his indifference with a quip: "It is not worth doing anything at all. Max is a little devil. He doesn't need our help to escape from prison."

On March 6 von Rose announced that he had succeeded in obtaining a liberation order signed by the Gestapo, and a few of Jacob's friends left immediately for Drancy. There they were informed that Jacob was dead. He had died the day before of pneumonia, fatally weakened by the conditions in prison and the freezing cold in his damp, filthy cell. The "little devil" had flown out of his prison through death. Did the Germans know that Jacob was dead when they signed the liberation order? Or was this a genuine reprieve that arrived too late? And would Picasso's intervention have made a difference?

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