Emblems and Symbols

Figurative art does not necessarily allude to naturalism, realism or traditional representation. Mental geometric objects can be depicted as in a quotation from Leonardo Da Vinci: “The world appears to us in the form of figures.”

The term “informal art”, which means formless painting, does not cover the whole territory of nonfigurative art, as some may think. For example, it does not apply to mental objects, emblems, symbols or calligraphy and other parts of its vocabulary.

As to myself, if my art can never be regarded as informal, I have a smuggler’s instinct that propels me not to respect the theoretical boundaries separating nonfigurative from figurative art.

Be it as it may, the architectonic laws of compositions have nothing figurative about them. If and when I use recognizable symbols for the viewer, I do it mostly to make communication and comprehension easier. The goal is not to add narration, description or representation, but only to dramatize and enliven the dialogue. I want the viewer to be able to recognize in order to be able to understand. Painting is not a shopping bag, within which the public can drop his anger, lust and other unwanted emotions. It is a parable. It is a symbolic communication that addresses itself not only to the senses and the feelings, but in a global way to the soul, the spirit, to the whole human being. Mental objects or symbolic and emblematic objects exist on the canvas as clues to help the public (playing the part of amateur sleuth) to decipher the artist’s thoughts.

I love it when in a nonfigurative construction some small ectoplasms are ambling around to tickle the mind, as in the Miro pictures, for example. I wonder why Matisse and Picasso were always adamant that no symbols were to be found in their work, while agreeing that they used signs, and why would that be if not to beckon to the public’s attention? Probably, being born in the nineteenth century, they wanted to reject the symbolism practiced by Gustave Moreau and Odilon Redon because it had been fashionable at the turn of the century. They disengaged from it to become more radical. Their interest in primitivism and tribal art was a way to magnify the magic powers of the image and reinstate the sacredness of the icon.

Being an artist-woman (not a woman-artist) but still a woman, theories, groups and movements hold little attraction. I like solitude above all else, especially after having known all the greatest creators in my youth. Since then, I have continued to develop according to my own lights, without caring too much about what other artists do or say. The important thing is to be true to myself and sincere and not to turn my head in different directions like a weathercock with each new wind that blows. In my oeuvre I have attempted to deal with my major preoccupations at the time when they were essential either to my individual progress or on a broader transpersonal plane.

In The Hawk (1943) the war is the obvious subject matter. A taxidermied bird of prey (ironic image of Nazi armies, whose advance was beginning to be held in check) fills up the space in front of a window showing a view of Paris looking like a large graveyard. The Eiffel Tower culminates higher than the tip of the falcon’s wing. In the lower right corner some knives, like surgical instruments in an open box, are a reminder of cruelty and torture.

Freedom (1952) is almost a manifesto, a new concept of child-parent relationships. A young boy is writing in chalk the word “freedom” on the blackboard while a little girl plays with matches. Curled up on the second plane, the mother pursues her own train of thought without seeming in the least concerned about their activities.

The canvases of the 1960’s -- consecrated to ancient Greece -- are often a meditation on the temporal cycle of civilizations reenacted in the biological cycle of animals living off one another in the food chain where a small predator becomes, in turn, prey to a larger animal. In the same way as columns that can now be seen as part of the big mosque in Kairouan (Tunisia) were first erected in Delos to celebrate Apollo, nowadays on the once sacred island now deserted, hawks will pounce on snakes or lizards. The wheel of time goes on turning ruthlessly and all that remains are sorrowful vandalized statues and fallen heads of gods and goddesses that in a forgotten landscape look just like large heaps of stones.

In the 1980’s I executed my floating paintings (without stretcher bars) directly on the floor using brushes as large as brooms and big rollers. This is my most emblematic period and many of these pictures bear that title accompanied with a qualifier. They are painted without primer or gesso on both sides of simple rectangles of cotton and are usually larger than my other works. My last floating paintings are from 1986. Afterwards my work is again more directly pictorial and less emblematic.

– Françoise Gilot

Return to the House of the Sun, 1995

Oil on canvas,
25 5/8 x 21 1/4 in. (65 x 54 cm.)

The Hawk, 1943

Oil on canvas,
51 1/4 x 35 in. (130 x 89 cm.)
Collection Francoise Gilot, New York

Painted during her student years – the years of the Nazi Occupation of Paris – Gilot expresses the tensions of the period through the symbolic character given the objects in this still life. Owing to the taxidermist’s art, the hawk, a bird of prey, is no longer aggressive. In the distance we see the crosses and tombs to suggest Paris is now a graveyard during the war. The window is locked, as is the situation. However, the Eiffel Tower, a symbol of the French nation, rises triumphantly above the scene. Gilot played various verticals, horizontals and forceful diagonals consciously against each other in order to express the conflict of the time.

Freedom, 1952

Oil on canvas,
63 3/4 x 51 1/4 in. (162 x 130 cm.)
Collection Claude Picasso, Paris

Continuity, 1967

Oil on canvas,
51 1/4 x 63 3/4 in. (130 x 162 cm.)
Collection Paloma Picasso, London

The cycle of building, destruction, and rebuilding is the focus of this canvas from the later series of paintings with a Greek theme. Comparing her canvases to a mask, Gilot feels that a painting conceals the individual but reveals the greater truth of the archetype. Furthermore, even the most subjective painting is not the reflection of a particular truth but rather a visible hieroglyphic of the total process of revelation. Here is revealed a dark, armless masculine figure, a bodiless feminine presence and the toppled head that lies between them. Gilot reinforces this “cycle” by causing the viewer’s eyes, through color, structure and forms, to traverse the painting in circular movements, the different tones on the pavement suggesting the complexities of life through the evocation of a harlequin’s costume, the emotionally charged red sky clearly adding to the drama of the tableau.

Sun Emblem, 1980

Acrylic on canvas,
105 x 91 1/3 in. (266.5 x 232 cm.)

This work was inspired by a 1962 oil on canvas and reads like ancient tomb art in its suggestion, with only a spare, emblematic vocabulary, of a radiant and fiery sun, cool tranquil water and lush vegetation. Meaning to evoke rather than describe, this interactive landscape is suspended by and mediated from the actual environment by the wide framing margin, a typical Gilot structural device.

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