Her mother, Françoise Gilot, was the only woman to leave Pablo Picasso, when she was four and her brother, Claude, was six, fleeing a relationship she would later describe as a “catastrophe I didn’t want to avoid”.
Yet Paloma Picasso shows little sign of harboring ill will against her father, the towering genius of 20th-century art, despite her family being cast into the wilderness when Gilot, of whom Picasso produced thousands of paintings and drawings in cool blues and olive greens, ended their ten-year and often turbulent relationship.
Today, as she prepares to take control of her father’s estate, replacing her brother at the head of a billion-dollar empire that fiercely protects the Picasso brand, the 74-year-old offers a laugh when she recalls her father’s womanizing.
“It’s obvious that he was a man from a different century and his values were not exactly what we would wish,” she says from her home in Switzerland. “But at the same time he was a wonderful father to have, and with his different women, of course he had his good days and bad days.”
She says Picasso, who insisted his driver first take him to a conference before delivering Gilot to hospital to give birth to Paloma, the youngest of his four children, cannot be judged by the movement that has swept through the art world, reappraising masterpieces in light of the outdated views of those that created them.
Gilot, who was 21 when she met the 62-year-old Picasso in Le Catalan restaurant in Paris in 1943, was an accomplished artist who died in New York last month, aged 101. Picasso is said to have been so intensely jealous when it came to his muse, Gilot, that he once held a lit cigarette to her right cheek when she went on a seaside trip without him.
“He was a wonderful father to have, and with his different women, of course he had his good days and bad days.”
“It’s not to say that he was perfect, and why should he be perfect while the rest of the world is not?” Paloma says. “I think that it’s good that we’re able to talk about it and yet what he represents in the art world shouldn’t really be put down because of that. I mean these are different matters. We can talk about the problems but that doesn’t make his art less relevant.
“There are difficult stories, but he was also able to work with different women. Most people’s private lives would be as bad, most likely, except that nobody would know about it but because it’s Picasso one gets to know about it.”
Gilot’s 1964 book Life with Picasso infuriated the artist and he tried unsuccessfully to have it banned. Subsequently he saw less of Paloma and Claude. They later accused Picasso’s second wife, Jacqueline, of using the book to try to persuade him to cut off relations with them. Jacqueline killed herself in 1986 at the age of 59.
Paloma, who worked as a costume designer for the Folies Bergère cabaret music hall after university in Paris before moving into designing jewelry has a long-standing relationship with Tiffany & Co. It was Yves Saint Laurent who commissioned some of her first pieces. She lives with her second husband, Eric Thévenet, and has homes in Lausanne, Switzerland, and Marrakesh.
Once known for carousing at Studio 54 with Andy Warhol and Truman Capote, she is about to replace her brother Claude as head of the Picasso empire. He launched the Paris-based Picasso Administration in 1996 and is said to be stepping aside voluntarily.
Paloma, who is represented in several of her father’s works including Paloma à l’orange (1951), will control the rights for exhibitions, reproductions of her father’s work and merchandising licenses for a range of products from key rings to pens, ties and dishes. Under international law the estate’s rights belong to the heirs until 2043, the 70th anniversary of Picasso’s death.
Their control has not been without controversy. In 1998, for example, when Citroën announced a licensing deal with Picasso, Jean Clair, then the director of the Picasso Museum in Paris, wrote in the Libération newspaper that the artist “has become a brand that can be applied at will to anything produced by contemporary technology”.
Henri Cartier-Bresson, the photographer who counted himself among Picasso’s inner circle, wrote to Claude and accused him of having “betrayed” his father. Citroën was reported to have paid $20 million to use the family name, paying royalties annually, according to Vanity Fair.
It is not only Picasso’s attitude to women that Paloma wants to address. His use of African art and artifacts, which he collected, has also become controversial. Some critics argue that he plagiarized them, but Paloma sees it differently.
“It showed that he thought that African art or art from other parts of the world was actually really interesting and a reference, and should be a reference, not just the Greeks or the Egyptians. So I think he certainly saw it as giving a space to this art, it was not the idea of stealing from it. On the contrary, he was putting it on the map, I would say.”
Paloma believes her father’s work should stand regardless of his shortcomings. She is enthusiastic about the current exhibition at the Picasso Museum in Paris, which has a playful and colorful décor by Paul Smith, the British fashion designer. It features her father’s works alongside pieces by contemporary painters, including African and Black female artists, to try to attract younger audiences and open up a discussion about how Picasso’s art can be viewed from a feminist and post-colonial perspective.
She plans to continue the work of her brother, a capable and efficient manager to whom she is still close. They are the only two of Picasso’s children by Gilot. One of his paintings shows Paloma and Claude side by side as children, drawing.
Henri Cartier-Bresson, the photographer who counted himself among Picasso’s inner circle, wrote to Claude and accused him of having “betrayed” his father.
The estate manages works held by Claude and Paloma and two of his grandchildren, Marina and Bernard Ruiz-Picasso. Paloma says she is not planning big changes in the running of a flourishing business 50 years after the artist’s death. The estate lawyer, Jean-Jacques Neuer, said her appointment is “very important for the art world”.
Early last year the estate blocked the sale of more than 1,000 NFTs (non-fungible tokens) due to be released by Marina and her DJ son Florian. They were said to have hoped to base the NFTs on a ceramic bowl made by Picasso in 1958. The idea is thought to have led to infighting within the family before Florian released the digital collectibles under his own name.
“Changes will happen because that’s always how things go,” says Paloma, “but until now I’ve always relied on Claude basically doing the job and of course Claude and I grew up together so we have a common mindset, I would say, even though we don’t exactly have the same personality.” She is planning to give younger family members greater responsibilities. “With all my nieces and nephews being older, they also want to participate a little more and so I will be running it with [their] help.”
She is unashamedly enthusiastic about merchandise such as key rings sold in museums, which she describes as one of the biggest parts of what the organization does. “There are Picasso exhibitions all around the world and museums need to finance their work through selling things that go along with the exhibition,” she said. “This is really how it all started.”
She realized the importance of merchandising when a museum director in Berlin explained to her that he could finance an exhibition from selling spin-off products. “I thought that was quite wonderful.” She insists, however, that “we don’t want to overexpose Picasso”, which seems at odds with the fact that he remains probably the most recognizable 20th-century artist. “At the same time we can’t be too elitist.”
She wants to find new ways of getting younger people interested. She is keen on immersive exhibitions using digital technology, soundtracks and holograms, which she says “open the door to the art world to people who might not have dared enter a museum”.
Children are naturally attracted to her father’s work, she says. “I’ve always heard from teachers and even from guards inside museums that when children go into a room and there are Picassos, they will naturally almost always go directly to the Picassos. And I’ve heard this over and over since I was a teenager.”
She believes her father’s work is increasingly relevant in a world anxious about the war in Ukraine and the potential spread of conflict in Europe. “He was very much for peace, which we’re having a problem with, as you may have noticed, and for freedom of all kinds,” she said. “Being a pacifist, he was also very much a protector of human beings. So I think he has very positive things to teach us. After all, Guernica is the painting that is the No. 1 reference for anti-war messages.”
David Chazan is a reporter for The Times of London