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Kunstsammlungen Chemnitz exhibition celebrates Françoise Gilot on her 90th birthday
A woman walks past drawings by French artist Francoise Gilot at the Kunstsammlungen Chemnitz, in Chemnitz, Germany. On the occasion of Gilot's 90th birthday, the Kunstsammlungen Chemnitz presents an exhibition of 40 black and white and color drawings by the artist until 19 February 2012. EPA/HENDRIK SCHMIDT.

By: Prof. Dr. Anne-Marie Bonnet

CHEMNITZ.- The first exhibition worldwide marking the 90th birthday of Françoise Gilot will opened on 26 November 2011 at the Kunstsammlungen Chemnitz. On show are drawings dating from 1941 to 2010. After the retrospective exhibition in 2003 “Françoise Gilot – Painting,” this is the second show of works by the artist and author of Life with Picasso at the Kunstsammlungen Chemnitz.

Françoise Gilot adopted her own particular position at a very early stage in her career as an artist, influenced mainly by her travels to India and Greece, and later to Egypt. Gilot strives to harmonize the organic and the abstract. She has produced more than 1,500 paintings and over 5,000 drawings and prints to date. The retrospective exhibition “FRANÇOISE GILOT on her 90th Birthday. Drawings 1941 – 2010” at the Kunstsammlungen Chemnitz is exclusively of her drawings, the majority of which are in color. “One of the reasons I like works on paper so much is that through them I prepare for my paintings. Usually a figurative aspect predominates in the drawings, in any case more than in my paintings”, says the artist.

After World War II, intellectual life in France was fueled not only by existentialism, but by debates about the definition of modern art. In the first decade of the 20th century, the great artists of what is called Classical Modernism – Mondrian, Kandinsky, Malevich,Matisse and Picasso – had already set the ›landmarks‹
of modern art, which continued to represent a highly controversial challenge for the post-1945 generation. The defining and re-defining of modernism was a constant issue in Europe and in North America, which was slowly but surely contesting the old continent’s leadership in ›avant-gardism‹. The international art scene was dominated, in the respective nationally-tinged discourses, by the dispute about Informel art, whether it was termed abstract or lyrical expressionism, tachism or action painting. With the advent of the new generation of Informel artists, the so-called »École de Paris« and then the »Nouveaux Réalistes«, Francewas still polarized by the great living »old Masters « Matisse and Picasso. For several decades those two artists had been the driving forces of the avant-garde, and continued to be highly esteemed, although neither was understood nor accepted by the general public.Nowthey found themselves in the role of chef-d’oeuvres producers.Although themain protagonists of abstraction in France, they never took the final step towards abandoning figuration. The controversies among the following generation concerned ways and modes, theories and methods of non-figurativeness, a threshold into total abstraction which they never crossed.

Being Françoise Gilot
When Francoise Gilot started her career in the 1940s, i.e., during the war, the debates about the abstract and the figurative had not yet begun, and the art scene in Paris was dominated by the »monstres sacrés« (Matisse, Picasso, Miró, and Léger) and their partisans. In 1945, she took part in an exhibition by the Realités Nouvelles group, who was actively involved in the debates about true modernism. From the very start, she worked both in painting and drawing, analysing non-figurativeness and figuration. The object-based genesis of her artistic and poetic synthesis, however, often remained perceptible, facilitated sometimes by a title that was able to suggestively intensify the impact of a nonfigurative composition: in her watercolorMicrocosm (28, 1983), which reveals its title inside the frame, the viewer suspects that the geometrical-zoomorphic forms hovering loosely or connected with each other in the pictorial space are distillates of a symbolic vision of the world using both autonomous monads and subtly corresponding or associated figures. Synthesis and compactness are the specific features of Gilot’s works from the very beginning. The fact that her career and that of Picasso crossed and then ran parallel for a time may have impeded the reception of her work, but in no way did this hinder her creativeness or her individualism. Her early works may be reminiscent of Miró, Léger, and Picasso (who, at that time, could escape the influence of these very seminal creators?), but they are still shaped by her own strongwill, for example, the two earliest drawings in the exhibition: Self-Portrait of 1945 (1) and P.P. Portrait from Memory of 1946 (2). The self-portrait is significantly entitled A Questioning Look: rather than presenting convictions, it expresses a quest for artistic solutions. The artist takes an inquisitive look at herself and the world and condenses the striking beauty of her features into an equally memorable decorative design. By contrast, she transforms the well known face of the mature Picasso into an impressive, seemingly archaic bust, emphasizing concentration and determination in the large eyes and the shape of the forehead. Interestingly, the name of the person portrayed is abbreviated in the title and reference is expressly made to the fact that the portrait was not drawn from direct observation but frommemory.Themonument-like transformation and the avoidance of the subjective impression suggest deliberate distance. Is this an emblematic attempt to control the uncontrollable, or a way to express independence?

Seeing as Shaping
Seeing and showing, the artist interprets experiences, representations and materialities, as well as spaces that reveal their inner structures and unfold ever new imaginative and pictorial features.

Her early still-lifes (3 Rose of the Winds, 1946, 4 Constructivist Tea Pot, 1947, and 6 Emblematic Still Life, 1947) illustrate a struggle to translate volumes and spaces two-dimensionally in a willful synthesis ofMatisse-like planarity and Picasso-like cubist-crystalline faceting. The series of drawings (7 to 15, 1949–1959) in which she creates graphic translations in the portraits of her children, herself or her friends, is one that is quite strongly marked by Picasso’s overwhelming sign language, although her formulations express much greater empathy. Picasso’s line is always a willful expression of control and domination of the sitter,whereas Gilot’s succinct line conveys empathy and the will to do justice to the subject.

Control and Compactness
This search for a strong expressive synthesis is characteristic not only of Gilot’s graphic translation of the biographical resp. direct life-worldly, but also of the artistic interpretation of literary and mythological subject matter (18 Indian Moon, 1963, 19 Lions of Delos, 1967, 21 Oberon, 1970, 22 PuckWeaving a Charm, 1970). Here, drawing – as the most immediate trail of the artist, as a guarantor of the greatest possible proximity to the origins of creativity – is never spontaneously or subjectively expressive, but always the artistically guided and creatively controlled expression of a will to form. Sometimes the manipulative interventions are minimal and elementary, yet they unfold a poetic, at times surreal unfathomability, particularly when the artist works with different techniques and in color. The power of her focused, empathetic translation is particularly conspicuous in her portraits of the protagonists who were close to her (26 Jonas Salk, 1974).

Seeing, Showing, Thinking, Feeling
In Gilot’s works the pictorial space is not a site or a place; it can signify a void, but also an intermediate or free space, even room for maneuver (29 Again, Late for the Party, 1985). Space thrives on its borders and it is existentially crucial to establish these borders. The graphic line invents and sets the limits of space as the site of the possible, an imaginative space in which to find and experience oneself (31 Mythological Couple, 1989, 30 Intertwined Lovers, 1989).Gilot’s drawings addressing worldliness (32 Lost in Thought, 1993, 33 Falcon’s Abode, 1993) seem to illustrate the existential dimensions of being-in-the-world, reflected on most strikingly perhaps by Heidegger in the category he calls »making room« (»Ein-Räumen«).There are not only real spaces, but also new sites of thought and imagination, intertwined in Gilot’s very specific performative act of drawing (34 Carnac, 1994). For her, biography and experience are material and medium, point of departure and goal all in one. Yet her emblematically compact formal idiom conveys not only her ownworldliness, but also her own concept of art. It is a self-declarative manifesto, an artistic statement identified at a very early stage by Mel Yoakum when writing about her 1945 painting The Painter, An Abstraction: » … this distillation of artistic hieroglyphs…symbolically evokes the very act of creating«. (2) The fundus is always passage, journey, path, opening; its transformations in drawings are choreographies of light and shade, proximity and distance. At a time when virtual spaces, in the Internet, for example, are becoming more real and more private, and people’s own or imaginary spaces are coming increasingly under threat, Gilot’s reflections in drawings with concrete articulated shapes remind us of the creative potential of an alert gaze at the world, a gaze nourished by a rich inner life and a deep affinity to the sources of ancient cultures.

Subject and Archetype
The translations and metamorphoses in Gilot’s drawings bring to light surrealist-analytical poetics of life. Based on life, searching for symbols, setting benchmarks, Gilot develops her own idiomand formulates her personal archetypes.Mel Yoakum, perhaps the best expert on Gilot’s works (3), expresses her concept of art as follows: » … what she has come to envision as the core of art is: the ability to make a statement that is both meaningful personally and archetypically without disclosing its content directly.« (4) By distilling from time and life, Gilot develops a highly original balancing act between abstraction and figuration, the formulations of which in turn have almost timeless symbolic power.

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