Picasso biographer John Richardson stopped in front of “Bather Wringing Her Hair,” in which the artist’s mistress and muse Francoise Gilot appears as an awkwardly arched nude with her hair twisted in her chubby fists.
“Whenever I see it I think: ‘I’m gonna wash that man right out of my hair,’” said Richardson, 88, as he recently led journalists through “Picasso and Francoise Gilot: Paris-Vallauris, 1943-1953.”
“And that’s what she was doing at that point. She left him a few months later.”
This is the fourth grand show curated by Richardson for the Gagosian gallery. Imbedded in the exhibition is a sampling of paintings and drawings by Gilot, now 90. According to Richardson she still paints every day. A self-portrait shows a high degree of competence, though many others in the Cubistic mode suffer by comparison.
Gilot was 21, Picasso 40 years older, when they met in Paris in 1943 during the Nazi Occupation. In the following decade she bore him two children, Claude and Paloma.
In 1953, she became the only woman to ever leave the artist.
“What she wanted to be perceived as was an artist who had her own style and her own personality,” said Richardson, patrician and stylish in a navy-blue seersucker suit.
“And Picasso never took her very seriously as a painter and made terrible jokes about what she did.”
He noted one exception, “Woman Drawing (Francoise)” painted in 1951. It shows a woman gazing at a piece of paper and holding a brush or a pen in her hand.
“It’s one of the most important images of Francoise,” Richardson said. “Suddenly he decides to see her drawing.”
Richardson, who has spent half a century writing about his friend, pointed out a flower motif that appears in several paintings, saying that it represents the “hideous tiles” at the couple’s house in Vallauris in the south of France.
He stopped in front of a group of striking, mostly black-and-white lithographs from 1948 featuring images that depict Gilot wearing a top with puffed Renaissance-style sleeves. The outfit, in fact, was a “smelly” goat’s-fur coat Picasso brought back from the World Peace Congress in Poland that year, Richardson said.
The exhibition also includes many paintings of the couple’s young children. Most hang in a room Richardson calls “a nursery.”
“Picasso is the only great master who could paint children without sentimentalizing them,” he said.
“His children are brats. They are little brutes. They are mean-spirited, naughty, nasty.”
In “Paloma sur un fond rouge” (1953), the child is crouching on a red carpet looking menacing despite her pigtails as she reaches with meaty, blocky fingers for a yellow car.
“Picasso adored Paloma but he does always turn her into a predatory monster,” Richardson said.
Gilot’s realistic 1952 painting “Les peintres” depicts three generations of artists, including Picasso, Gilot and communist painter Edouard Pignon.
“Of course one of the aspects of their life in Vallauris was that Picasso became a Communist Party member,” Richardson said. “And although Francoise would rather forget it, she too is on the roster of the Vallauris Communist Party.”
After Stalin’s death in 1953, Picasso was commissioned to do a portrait for a communist literary newspaper, Richardson said. He based it on a photograph of Stalin at the age of 25.
“The Communist Party was furious; it didn’t look like their beloved generalissimo, the man they revered so much,” said Richardson. “And that soured Picasso very much on being a communist.”
“Picasso and Francoise Gilot: Paris-Vallauris, 1943-1953” runs through June 30 at 980 Madison Ave.; +1-212-744-2313; http://www.gagosian.com.
Muse highlights include Jason Harper on cars.