By Lonnie Burstein Hewitt
On June 12, the Oceanside Museum of Art will open “Transitions,” an exhibition of Francoise Gilot’s work that connects the transitions in her life with the evolution of her artistic style. Almost everyone who recognizes the name “Francoise Gilot” will immediately think of her connection to Pablo Picasso, though locals will surely remember her as the artist wife of scientist Jonas Salk.
But Gilot, who turns 90 this year, has had a rich and varied life all her own.
The strong-willed daughter of a strong-willed father and a mother who was an accomplished watercolorist, she set her course early in life, saying she wanted to be a painter the way some children say they want to be a fireman. She went to law school to please her father, but even the tragic events of World War II could not make her give up her art. She was already an up-and-coming painter in 1943, when she had her first exhibition in Paris and met Picasso. He was 61, her grandmother’s age.
“Our relationship was basically about painting,” she said in a 1998 interview.
The relationship lasted 10 years and produced two children. After Picasso, she married a younger, less celebrated artist: that briefer union produced another daughter. In 1961, she started coming to the United States, adding a New York studio to the ones she maintained in Paris and London. By the mid-1960s, she had written “Life With Picasso” and had her first New York solo show.
In 1969, following an exhibition in Los Angeles, she came down to La Jolla to visit her friends, Chantal and John Hunt (he was executive vice-president of the Salk Institute) and they introduced her to Jonas Salk. The two formed a bond that lasted a quarter-century, until Salk’s death in 1995.
Gilot went back to New York, and her easel. Work, as always, was the thing that sustained her. In her long, often complicated life, she has managed to produce some 1,500 oil paintings and 5,000 works on paper.
“I am a painter,” she said. “And a painter paints.”
An exhibition of Gilot’s work, “Transitions,” curated by Mel Yoakum (director of F. Gilot Archives since 1987) opens June 12 at the Oceanside Museum of Art.
“I know her work better than anyone,” Yoakum said. “I’ve archived every single piece! And her paintings are visual manifestations of her biography.”
“Transitions” features 40 pieces, ranging from the 1960s into the current millennium.
“We’re deliberately not starting with the Picasso years,” said Yoakum. “We’re starting with a period that that was really transformative for her, where she moved between abstraction and figuration, coalescing all her earlier inspirations. In the ‘60s, you can see everything coming together, the first visual fulfillment of her style. And then she moves forward from there, continuing to explore, evolve, and simplify, learning to evoke the same emotions with fewer brushstrokes.”
Sailboats, windows and birds abound in Gilot’s abstract paintings, clear symbols of moving on, taking flight, new openings, freedom.