Cover Françoise Gilot in her Manhattan atelier, 2011. Photo: © Piotr Redlinski

The French painter, for decades best known as one of Picasso’s muses, is finally being celebrated for her own art.

It is not fair to describe Françoise Gilot only as the muse of Pablo Picasso—although that is how she has been pigeonholed for the past 70 years.

Gilot was starting to experience her own success as an artist at the age of 21 when she met Picasso, who was 40 years her senior. The two met in a restaurant in 1943 and started a ten-year-long relationship. From that moment on, Gilot’s artistic career has been overshadowed by her relationship with Picasso, even after she walked away from him in 1953—the only one of the artist’s muses to do so.

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But her first solo show in Hong Kong, which opens on November 26 and coincides with her 100th birthday, may change the conversation. Christie’s x Home Art is bringing to Hong Kong some of Gilot’s most important works, ranging from pieces made in the 1940s to more recent works created over the past few years. “Every single work of mine showcased in this exhibition with Christie’s documents the crystallisation of my lifelong experimentations on figures, objects, relationships, and nature,” says Gilot. “I fondly anticipate sharing my passion and pursuit of art with audiences in Asia this autumn.”

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Gilot previously showed her works in Japan in March 2010, but she had wanted a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to host a substantial solo exhibition in Asia”, according to Elaine Holt, the deputy chairman and international director of Christie’s Asia Pacific.

Holt says that all works that Christie’s has presented for auction in Asia by Gilot have sold for at least double their high estimates, and that one work achieved nine times its high estimate. “It’s fair to say there is clear appreciation and demand for her work by connoisseurs in the Asian region, despite few works having been bought to market thus far and despite her work not being as well-known to the general public,” Holt says. In contrast, Gilot’s male contemporaries—including Picasso and Henri Matisse—have been long appreciated in Asia.

Holt continues, “It is a well-known fact that women artists have traditionally been underrepresented in western modern art history which translates into their visibility in the market. It is a history which requires reconsideration. We feel the moment has come to show Gilot’s work more extensively in Hong Kong and to give the artist the platform she deserves to be seen and appreciated by everyone.”

Gilot’s artistic talent was honed from a young age by her mother, who was a watercolour painter. Gilot studied English literature at Cambridge University and was planning to be a lawyer, but in the end pursued her love of art instead. The young artist had her first exhibition in Paris in 1943, the year she met Picasso, with whom she had an intellectual yet stormy relationship, and two children. Over the years Gilot was physically abused by Picasso and harassed by Olga Khokhlova, a Russian ballet dancer and Picasso’s first legal wife. When Gilot broke off the relationship, Picasso told art dealers not to buy her art.

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But Gilot is an accomplished artist of her own standing. From early on in her career Gilot has boldly developed her own style of portraying the human body, and she resisted the confines of artistic groups that strictly practised either figuration or abstraction.

“Gilot is a very individual artist. The feelings, memories and stories her works evoke remain a powerful legacy,” Holt says. “Having grown up as an artist within the residual confines of a strict modernist evolution that, to her, were too suffocating, her work relates beautifully to a new time where its resonance can be felt beyond the limitations of an artistic movement or group and its corresponding dictum.”

Ahead of the Hong Kong show, Gilot tells Tatler about her life as the relentless painter who never stops finding her own artistic voice.

What is it about art that you love so much, so much that you ultimately gave up a potentially lucrative career in law to pursue art?

I think that I have always looked at life around me from an artistic point of view, ever since I can remember. Possibly my mother’s aesthetic inclinations might have been a catalyser. Most certainly my father would have preferred me to focus on getting a law degree in the hope that I might join him in his business; that is not to say that he was uninterested in art, after all, he did introduce me early on to Endre Rozda who was to become my first teacher. In painting, I discovered a world in which I could express myself in a way that made sense to me.

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What is the key to becoming a technically good and commercially successful artist like yourself?

There is a lot you need to learn technically before you can acquire a certain freedom, you have to test what you are told and make it work for yourself—it certainly doesn’t happen in a day. Training with different professors makes you envision solutions of different kinds and broaden you approach. Of course you find some answers in the past but you have to have a vision that is your own.  It is the recognition of that particular vision of yours and how you materialise it that makes you credible or not.

Would you say you had any influence on Picasso’s work, or vice versa? Did you see any similarities between your and Picasso’s work?

It is not for me to say if I had any influence on Picasso or vice versa. We were working side by side but each in our own studio and not dependent on each other. We would have discussions on other painters work rather than our own.

Where do you find inspiration?

As you can see my sources of inspiration are multiple. I might create a still life out of some cut flowers in a pitcher on a table in front of me as well as a landscape that exists only in my mind where I stretch the colours to obtain some red composition that you could say doesn’t exist in the real world.

What do you think is more real, what you see around yourself or what inhabits [yourself]? When you paint, one thing leads to another and it creates a logic of its own. You just need to keep the right balance. When you start a painting you have an idea of where you are going but the artwork itself is stronger than your will—that’s when the magic of creation happens.

How have your artworks changed throughout your artistic career, from living with Picasso, through motherhood and to after your two marriages?

My paintings evolve with the years in a nonlinear way. Artworks are a reflection of your mind and feelings, but I wouldn’t say they follow literally one’s life, at least not in my case. At times you could say my work is more abstract but through these different times I may make portraits of my children or my friends that are more realistic.

Very often my mood would have been influenced by my readings or my travels rather than changes of circumstances.

Françoise Gilot: A Celebration will take place from November 26 to December 1 at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre. Find out more at www.christies.com.

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