Françoise Gilot's exhibition at the Gallery-Museum of Lendava

The text of the catalogue published for the exhibition:

Space and timing: A Journey into the Unknown
Françoise Gilot Exhibition in Gallery-Museum Lendava
20 August – 28 October 2010

In history of art, the 20th century was doubtlessly the most stirred and variegated. It is easy to remember the names of many giants of art from this period, even if we limit them to only Western Europe and the first half of the century. It is easy to picture the artistic centres, the theoretic debates, indignant faces after seeing the strong Cubist or Dadaist creations or even grimaces of incomprehension from some art lovers after publication of the Surrealist manifesto. Numerous –isms have already conquered artistic life and the reform of puritan shapes demands its place as well.    
Imagine for a moment the young painting pupil, born in 1921 and therefore in her twenties around 1940, on her bicycle, hurrying secretly through the streets of Paris to her painting lesson.  (And imagine with this the artistic atmosphere in the French capital before the war.) The image is of Françoise Gilot, who has been interested in art since childhood, despite the fact that her family intended a different career for her. Before she finally chose art as the main thing in her life, she studied philosophy, English literature and law at Université de Paris. Meanwhile in 1939 a Hungarian youth Endre Rozsda, living in Paris at the time, was one of the first Hungarian surrealist painters and one of the founders of the European school of this movement. He influenced her life considerably after our French lady started uncovering art in a different way as she had learned until then and this was the beginning of a new and unknown artistic journey for her. Rozsda was not Françoise Gilot's teacher; he was more like a mentor who talked to her about colours, shapes and composition while he was painting her portrait (one of the portraits from this time, now owned by the Hungarian National Gallery, is exhibited at the exhibition in Lendava, Slovenia as well). Rozsda remained a close friend of our artist until his death in 1999 or as Françoise Gilot sometimes mentions, he used to be her »alter ego« despite the fact that history and unpredictable life paths separated them from each other many times. The young Françoise therefore took art very seriously, liked to debate about it and due to her curious nature learned a great deal.
Her first exhibition was organized in 1943, together with another artist, Geneviève, who can later be seen in her creations on many different occasions.  By this time, Françoise Gilot was a student at the Académie Julian in the class of Jean Souverbie. The period starting in 1943 and ending about a decade later was extremely important for her private life and her art as she met the painter Picasso. The master, who was then already in his sixties and lived through a quiet period due to the German occupation, invited our painter and her friend Geneviève to his studio. Since then, Françoise Gilot became a regular guest in the house at Grands Augustins street. The first period of the friendship between the artists can be described as »intellectual acquaintance« as they would continuously debate the various aspects of painting and lead the »creative dialogue« on art. Many of the dialogues cited by Françoise Gilot in astonishing detail in her book Life with Picasso, which was published in 1964. In 1945 she becomes acquainted with Nicolas de Staël and the circle Réalités Nouvelles, and their principles shortly show in her works as well.  Regardless of their »theoretic differences«, the art of Nicolas de Staël influenced Françoise Gilot even in her later works. It is interesting that the young artist literally does no painting during 1946 and 1950, she creates only on paper and since the mid decade, her creativity is comprised of more and more nonfigurative art. On the other hand, this period is characterized by the birth of Gilot's and Picasso's two children, Claude and Paloma, which meant that our painter could only occasionally concentrate on art. Works created after 1950 present a specific and exciting period for her as she becomes more and more courageous in the oil on canvas technique and on the other hand paints with relatively moderate colours; one of the authors of her monograph actually names the period as the »White Period« .  Françoise Gilot is primarily known as a colourist painter, who was alongside the colour theories interested in research of structure and drawing as well. »In my paintings, the influence of colours is not enforced directly. I don't paint according to nature, but more based on constructivist elation, according to memory«, she would later claim about herself . In her early development as an artist, even before Picasso, her »role models« were Gauguin (for his great harmonies and intentional primitivism), Bonnard and also Matisse. As she says herself: she followed the tradition and as an artist from the northern France she was mainly interested in colours leaving the shapes to those from the south...
This is another reason why it is exciting to touch the metamorphosis that can be seen in her work during her life with Picasso. In a kind of reduction procedure, she reconsiders her own knowledge, overcomes significant boundaries, adopts and transforms a kind of speech within which she develops her own semantics. In the first part of fifties she discovers graphic reproduction procedures (although in the early period she chose not to use them) and especially lithography and she was able to prepare her first graphic series together with the big names of the period in Mourlot Atelier. Later she illustrated several poetry collections; one of them was also by Paul Éluard (Pouvoir tout dire, 1951). For her art around 1952, she again chooses oil on canvas. This period is characterized by use of strong contours and intense colours, her strokes give the impression of drawings. As a rule, she does not consider rules of perspective and rather transforms them, characterizes them, making some elements bigger and other disfigured. She is still in the field of figural painting; nevertheless, she creates circular shapes resembling children's drawings and often stresses the characteristic outlines of objects and figures. Her paintings open up a familiar world, as they show common features with Picasso – which is not unusual, after a decade long cohabitation and joint creation, the art of both shows an influence on one another – yet if we are to compare their art from this period, intense differences can immediately be seen as well. Françoise Gilot is gentler, more sensual, whereas the structure of her paintings is more reserved and therefore »expresses its own speech«. Her first really independent exhibition was in 1952 in Galerie Louise Leiris in Paris as Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, one of the biggest art traders of the time, had had a contract with her before that time. 
 In 1953, the young artist decides for a completely new life, deserting Picasso and shortly after that finding a new life companion, Luc Simon. They have a daughter Aurelia, whom we can see on many paintings some years later, similarly to Claude and Palome in paintings from the late forties. Breaking up with Picasso is a giant leap for her as she needs to start over again, yet it helps her find her own ways even more. In the years 1945-55 she paints according to nature and sometimes even using a model. For her, it is an unusual approach; nevertheless, as she writes herself, she is willing to do everything to become free of some "stylistic habits" she got in her earlier years. The characteristic of this short period is, apart from painting mostly her surroundings and her family, using less intense colours, usually a palette of pastels, while creating completely figurative art.    
In the beginning of sixties, after many trips to Greece and the Aegean Sea, Françoise Gilot is full of marking experiences. The world of mythology she used to read about during childhood comes to life again and she is fascinated by the interlacing of natural colours there, which opens up completely new perspectives for her. Some 50 of her works can be placed within the Labyrinth period. Françoise Gilot, knowing the world of Greek mythology very well, strolls about in its labyrinths with pleasure and love. She is aware what dangers are imminent because of her archetype gods, yet due to her serious knowledge of the subject, she is capable of giving her own views of the myths and thus avoids excessive narrativity. An interesting aspect of this period is also the fact that she took upon herself to write a book about her years with Picasso. The figures of Minotaur and Ariadne with their strong narrativity point to her private life as she can identify herself with the »Cretan princess« who defeats the »monster« exceptionally well.  Obviously this definition of an ominous decade is somehow too metaphoric, nevertheless, Françoise Gilot always used to veil her confessions in her works, be it in still-lifes or even in scenes of a more global importance; all these works offer an insight into the fight she fought while writing the book - with memories, with herself and the persona of Picasso – all these on a theoretical level. The Labyrinth series does not follow mythological processes chronologically, but represents for our painter a kind of intermediary between the past, the present and the future; through the utopia of Greek myths she faces her own inner conflicts. Later she often idealizes by hiding or covering people she likes into images of (imaginary) Greek gods and goddesses and throwing them into the world of metaphors. Since the beginning of sixties, her art becomes increasingly abstract so that gradually she reaches the world of symbols. In 1970 she marries her second husband Jonas Salk, the pioneer of the polio vaccine; since then she has lived and worked in USA, at first for a long time in California and now in New York.   
In her art, some themes reoccur so it is possible, also through the experience of the Lendava exhibition in Slovenia, to get an interesting and relevant image of later decades of her creativity. Almost fifty paintings and graphic paintings are exhibited, although not to reveal a thorough retrospective survey of her art: Most of them are from private collections in Hungary and primarily belong to the period from late seventies until today.
Françoise Gilot had more such longer journeys, which left a permanent trail in her art. In her youth, for example, one of her favourite destinations was Brittany (there she first met Rozsda) and its landscapes can be seen in her early, but also some later works, the later ones bearing a scent of nostalgia. This makes it even more probable that her painting Towards the Clearing shows this landscape. Travelling made an impact on her that can be sensed in her paintings – in 1956 she went to Tunisia and in 1976 to India (memory of this can be traced in her paintings Eastern town I and II). Another important journey was alongside the aforementioned journey to Greece also one to Senegal in the eighties. African dancing moves she captured in her drawings on her journey reappear after a decade in a black and white series with ink on paper. This period is represented at our exhibition with Bodies in Motion: Its goal for the artist is to present light and shade with dance, all connected with a zeal that can be sensed as a kind of element of existence. Motion, dynamic rhythm surging from the human body, has already been an important theme in her early works and she occasionally comes back to it. At the beginning of fifties, our artist even designed stage scenography and costumes for a dancing performance in Théâtre des Champs-Élysées. The same feeling of motion and freedom emits from her canvases from the eighties. This large scale art did not originate on an easel but on the floor with the help of big painter's tools and wide brushes. Mostly she would paint both sides of the canvas, therefore this floating painting could only have an effect with its placement in the space, with only the upper edge of the canvas supported by a wooden bar. These floating canvases bear a unique symbolism, as most of her creations present an emblematic design of a thought or a metaphor. Another painting that can be seen in Lendava exhibition as well is Sailboat, which combines natural elements while presenting freedom, manifested in the vastness of the sea. Her biggest floating canvas was commissioned in 1984 for the Joël Thome concert in auditorium of the New York Guggenheim museum.  The emblematic nature of this more than 4 metres high and 9 meters wide painting served to transform the concert into a performance. This exhibition offers emblematic paintings of F. Gilot also in presentations of the Gordian knot. Our artist’s thoughts on the subject of emblems can be well seen in this quotation: »Painting art is not a shopping bag, a gobbling limbo in which spectators can discard whatever they wish. Painting is a metaphor, a symbolic speech, that addresses not only feelings and sensuality but in general terms also the conscious mind .« Her paintings with celestial bodies and comets (Unsystematic Orbits, Collision of Comets) analyse the relationship between microcosms and macrocosms (human life resembles the track of a comet in a big universe) but on the other hand also point to the theme of journeys which emerge on many of her paintings in the 80s and 90s: Comets symbolize the personality of the »celestial traveller«, leaving behind a track in world history with their »individual way«, carved in the solar system. A more »earthly« version of the abstract revelation of the cosmic realm represents a series from the early 90s, from which there are several graphic paintings exhibited as well. »I don't start a new canvas to see what I already can, quite the contrary: I try to get into the equation with the unknown«, writes Françoise Gilot . The theme of the journey is therefore a kind of inner, spiritual journey, a pictorial design of existential research, while through time the traveller – the human image of an unusual trapeze-like form with a beak-like nose, a »stranger« - becomes increasingly smaller in more and more abstract landscape. There have been several serious and substantial monographs on the multi-layer nature of Françoise Gilot's art, so we mentioned merely the more essential elements due to the space limitations, yet it is important to detect her artistic self, veiled in the resounding world of colours in her colourist paintings. Her paintings may be a kind of mediators between the artist herself and the observer, nevertheless as Françoise Gilot added: »...contrary to what the audience may think, the artist's emotional atmosphere differs from the one that he is in the same moment as a human being« . Her painting Farewell is one of the "mediators of emotions", especially if we consider the fact that with years she used more and more colours to interpret her feelings at the time the painting originated.
 The artist has been officially represented by Gallery Várfok in Hungary since 2000. This meant that she has presented her art on many occasions in the Várfok Street in Budapest to the interested public in Hungary and in the Central and Eastern Europe. In the first half of 2010, she exhibited her works in one of the world culture capitals, in Pécs, whereas in Slovenia, this will be the first exhibition. It will be open to public from August to October 2010. The presented works of art are partially from individual collections and partially from the collection of Várfok Gallery. Her paintings can be seen in many places around the world, in private and in public collections (Metropolitan Museum of Art / New York, Musée d’Art Moderne / Paris, Museum of Modern Art / New York, etc.); of her many awards, the most outstanding are the rank of Officier from L’ordre National du Merite (1996) and the rank of Chevalier de la Legion d’Honneur (1990).     
Françoise Gilot is an eyewitness and a participant of the mid and late 20th century art: Most of her publicised books (alongside Life with Picasso also e.g. Matisse & Picasso: A Friendship in Art, 1990) are a valuable imprint of the era. It is not exaggerated to claim that her knowledge of art (not thinking only of Picasso, as she had many other friends such as Matisse) comes from the most valuable sources. The Lendava exhibition and its catalogue try to offer a slight insight into her painting knowledge and more than seventy years long artistic life.

Borbála Kálmán ©
Translated by: Sandra Vida ©

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