I enjoy satire, but I am more inclined to poke fun at other peoples foibles than to see the humor in self-criticism. In my youth, a natural bent to jeer with words or pencil in hand was so strong that it hindered me rather than being of positive use. Tired of caricature, as soon as I started to paint seriously I decided to choose the subtleties of irony over the venom of satire.
The oblique, indirect and hidden nature of irony pleases me a lot. First, it is not obvious and a bit of intelligence is needed to feel its bite and respond to it. Second, since painting is already a cryptic language, irony is one more coded meaning that can be added to symbols already hard to decipher. As my first attempts at oil painting almost coincided with the Nazi occupation of France, I thought that my compatriots would easily understand my critical stance and mockery in the pictures where the subject matter was innocuous at first sight.
For example, in The Chicken Yard (1944), a woman dressed in black distributes corn, which was scarce even for bread-making, to some geese (a reference to the goose step) and to some hens (unfortunate mates of an absentee Gaelic rooster, perhaps as a prisoner of war or as a Free French or an underground fighter). On the second plane, there are some rabbits in their pens. The irony here comes from the fact that everyone in Paris kept a rabbit or two on their balcony or in their kitchen. The darling rodents, first brought in as a hoped for food supply, became good luck charms in each home and people didnt mind tightening their belts some more so that the little dears would not starve to death. So a second-degree interpretation of the work was in complete contradiction with the return to the soil, a main point of Marechal Petains Vichyist propaganda. Perhaps we can say that irony is the revenge taken by the powerless against any totalitarian regime.
From a 1945 sketchbook, I rather like a page with several drawings. One includes a young girl looking quite like me who seems very uncomfortable next to a sturdy man whose head, in the form of an iron weight, seems very heavy indeed. This is, of course, a comment on my relationship with Picasso. In another example, I dont look particularly fulfilled in the India ink drawing Adam Forcing Eve to Eat an Apple II (1946). Of course the Adam in the drawing bears a strong resemblance to Pablo Picasso, who intended to rule my life as if I still were a child.
From the point of view of the possible triviality in still lifes, I fully exert my sense of humor with an anti-poetic turn of the canvases in the Kitchen Series. In The Earthenware (1951), the Provencal tiles and décor dont succeed in making the only window more attractive for it doesnt open up onto a landscape. The black vertical protective grill evokes the iron bars of a jail. The message is clear: the kitchen is a social space where a woman is kept prisoner. This for me was only a metaphor and an article of propaganda since no one actually required my mediocre culinary expertise.
Soon my overview of the world broadens. I become less of an introvert; my satirical outpourings are characterized in animal forms as in Aesops Fables. The monkey and his mimicry, the parrot and his erratic pronouncements, the owl and its so-called wisdom are called upon in many of my compositions mixing present occurrences with the mythical past, and a deep anxiety in regard to the human predicament. Considered in their entirety, the 1960s were full of unrest and not given to optimism. During these ten years, I wanted to take stock and redefine my goals. The time spent in London and mostly in the U.S.A. helped me do so.
During the 1970s my own sense of humor became more playful as seen in Magic Games (1978). This painting refers to conjuring tricks where all kinds of objects seem to spring out of a top hat, while arrows aimed in different directions distract the spectator from the magic dice. Throughout the 1980s my mood leaned towards direct satire, by treating the human figure with increased freedom of interpretation.
The intriguing aspect of using irony is to unveil a new consciousness by the displacement of meaning, to uncover the gratuity of visual stereotypes, the interplay of shapes that are accepted simply because they are familiar. The artist should always imagine unexpected ways of combining elements that allow the spectator to discover the world anew, thus enhancing his thought process, his creativity and his field of action.
The Chicken Yard, 1944
Oil on canvas,
28 3/4 x 36 1/4 in. (73 x 92 cm.)
Adam Forcing Eve to Eat an Apple II, 1946
Pencil, crayon & ink on paper,
19 3/4 x 25 5/8 in. (50 x 65 cm.)
The Earthenware, 1951
Oil on board,
44 7/8 x 57 1/2 in. (114 x 146 cm.)
Collection Dr. Mel Yoakum, California
In 1949, Gilot was offered a contract with Galerie Louise Leiris (then under the direction of Daniel-Henri Kahnweiler) and in April of 1952 she had her first one-woman exhibition there. What has become to be known as the "Kitchen Series" of works were painted in preparation of this important exhibition. Familiar objects of her domestic world at Vallauris - the earthenware of potatoes, the hearth, a strainer, cloves of garlic - are all held in ironic tension. The character of her relationship with Picasso was becoming unbearable and confining - evidenced by the prison bars on the vacant window. With his temper increasingly uneven, often unpleasant and paradoxical, Gilot found augmented strength in passion for her art and in devotion to her children. The earthenware reveals little warmth, the hearth no heat; the orange strainer hangs like a motionless pendulum. Even a stalwart green candle provides it's pivotal color note without a flame. All elements, colors, forms, and even the surface itself reflect the apparent vapidity of the situation. However, it was this exhibition, which received critical and artistic acclaim, which further broadened Gilot's visibility. It was also this exhibition of the "Kitchen Series" that prompted the Cultural Ministers of the French government to make their first purchases of Gilot's work for their permanent collection.
Magic Games, 1978
Oil on canvas,
39 3/8 x 31 7/8 in. (100 x 81 cm.)
Collection Mr. & Mrs. W. Shonenstein, California
This title, provides a clue to the content of the painting, which is intentionally ambiguous. One might first think of a still life, for just to the left of center, the white-edged, black shape somewhat resembles a stylized vase holding flowers. Yet they look more like spheres than flowers. To the right, behind these shapes, there appears the suggestion of a multi-colored plant-like form. But these are only clues to the game, for things are not exactly what they appear to be. According to Gilot, the vase is not really a vase but the top hat of a magician (seen from above) and its flowers are like the magic tricks that come out of a magicians hat. All the elements that issue from it are his magic silk scarves, doves or a white rabbit. Not wishing to make it too literal, she made it more a collection of planes and shapes that are color related, a cornucopia spilling out of a form. The arrows direct the eye to one area or another mimicking the movements of the magician who diverts the eye with one hand while he works his tricks with the other. Like a magic game, what you notice is not what is really there.