Wanderings and Wonderings
of the Imagination

Modern wars with millions of dead, invalids, prisoners and apocalyptic destruction also leave behind a sad cortege of displaced people. Once cut, the primal link to a place of origin may not be restored. If an individual cannot find stability or a reason to remain in a place where intense suffering occurred, even when the material possibility exists, he or she will drift along as if forever in limbo. Similarly, the continuous increase of population in developing countries and an economy that makes poor countries poorer and rich countries wealthier, many of the underprivileged looking for an elusive El Dorado, leave the birthplace where they belong but where they can no longer survive.

Nomadism, a condition linked to survival necessities, has always existed and still continues in semi-desert countries. But since the Industrial Revolution, the lure of big cities has created miserable slums on their edges, where living conditions are untenable. Of course, there is also a kind of poetic wandering, a wanderlust that propels some to go beyond conventional boundaries. They consider life an existential voyage, or an initiatic quest, Crusades without Holy Lands, or pilgrimages where the destination doesn’t count as much as the journey itself. Paul Gauguin showed the way in this instance, believing that a lost paradise lies behind us. To recapture truth and the simplicity of our origins, it is necessary to share the beliefs and habits of human societies that still exist in a symbolic alliance with nature.

In my youth I was entranced by the utopic desire of returning to an idyllic Golden Age. I wanted to free myself from the rational constraints of the intellectual bourgeoisie into which I was born, to break loose by discovering lesser-known pathways and to immerse myself in the primal aspirations of exotic cultures. In that regard, the tribal masks and sculptures of black Africa held me less entranced than the convoluted and embryonic forms typical of the seafaring people from the Pacific Islands. Above all, I was attracted to the Muslim culture of the Maghriban countries that ally the exoticism of their customs to the refined elegance of their architecture and the beauty of abstract Arabic calligraphy.

What moved me the most during a trip to Tunisia in the spring of 1956 was to discover how distinctive the lifestyle of the Berber nomads was as compared to the rest of the sedentary Arabic population. All about them was special: the way they dressed, their customs and the permanent mobility from north to south and back, following the seasonal crops of wheat, fruit, grapes, olives and dates, They disliked holding paper currency, so during times of affluence they acquired traditional jewelry of gold and silver bought in the souks by the weight to be worn by their women and sold one by one thereafter as the need arose.

They wore no sandals or babouches as if the contact of their bare feet with the soil charged them with tellurian energy. Any recess between two walls could become a temporary abode directly on the ground. My painting, The Souk (1956), depicts the curvilinear figures of the Berbers as compared to the statuesque stance of Muslim people, especially the women draped in white chadors. The nomads were at home everywhere and nowhere, always on the move.

In the course of time, I often painted the experiences of my seafaring erratic voyages from memory. Having had several opportunities to visit India, I felt again a deep current of empathy for those I call the nomads of the wind, whose well-coordinated rhythmic movements made them appear to glide rather than walk through the landscape. Their innate detachment seemed to derive from an intuitive acceptance of the impermanence of all things.

1n 1989 and during the years that followed until 1977, the concept of wandering became crystallized for me in the solitary figure of the homeless individual who crisscrosses without joy very inhospitable places. His compact, almost shapeless body, his profile hidden by a broad-brimmed hat that might also be a bird’s bill, gives him an ambiguous presence. Everywhere he is a foreigner, not knowing what direction to go to find a spring to quench his thirst. In a state of quiet desperation, all spent, he broods on a rock at the edge of the sea. No ship is in sight but, ultimate irony, he wears the kind of folded paper hat that children use as toy boats – Wanderer Sitting by the Sea (1990 – 1991).

Such embodiments of the human predicament carried more sadness and anxiety than I had dared express ever before. It went on from one oil painting to the next, and also in the 1993 series of The Wanderers in India ink washes on paper. The relative scale of the figures within the space they animate becomes smaller and smaller; they seem to shrink as they walk and end up miniscule.

The men are sometimes accompanied by women, similarly dwarfed, who also have to fight their way in an increasingly abstract cosmic space. In some images these minute creatures altogether disappear or as in Underground Passage (1994), they seem ready to be engulfed by the gaping mouth of a grotto that suggests a premonitory vision of impending death. In my oils of 1994, the Wanderer is reborn in the guise of a shaman wearing a horse-head mask, as in The Organizing Power of the Shaman (1994) in which the wizard seems to be the beneficial presence. Yet he is still of a minute size as he stands at the cusp of a chaotic universe.

After all this, any anthropomorphic presence seems to have deserted my canvases once and for all and to have become simple stardust. But one never knows – wanderers have more than a trick or two – they might emanate from the very emptiness of the desert or from the void of cosmic spaces as mirages or better still, new realities for tomorrow.

– Françoise Gilot

Entering The Souk, 1956

Oil on canvas,
13 3/4 x 9 1/2 in. (35 x 24 cm.)
Collection Paloma Picasso, London

Representing the outdoor scenes Gilot experienced on her Tunisian journey in 1956, this tableau is infused with pink light and bustles with activity as it suggests a typical marketplace in Tunisia. Though inspired daily by the bohemian colors and the atmospheric light, Gilot made only small black and white sketches during her trip. Canvases from this series were actually painted from memory when she returned to her Paris studio.

Wanderer Sitting by the Sea, 1990-91

Oil on canvas,
45 3/4 x 51 1/4 in. (116 x 130 cm.)

Renewal, 1992

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

This work was inspired by Gilot’s return journey in the spring of 1991 to the south of France and the Languedoc landscapes of her adolescence. Although there is a dramatic reemergence of the passionate vermilion seen in the works of the early 1960s, in this cycle its mottled surface evokes a sense of “silence” in the composition – creating a kind of breathing space along the journey to the hopeful landscape in the distance. Along the way are color and structural devices from that earlier period now incorporated in a refreshed and even more confident compositional style.

The Organizing Power of the Shaman, 1994

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

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