Under his spell – my life with Picasso
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Diana Widmaier Picasso, historian, curator and granddaughter of the legendary Pablo, is sitting in front of an 18th-century Indian map of the cosmos in her Paris apartment. She’s telling me about the drawings of her four-year-old daughter, Luna. “They have such spontaneity, the spirit just flows,” she says in her warm and friendly manner. “It’s Picasso-esque, no?”
It brings us neatly to two of her forthcoming projects. The first is an exhibition at the Musée Picasso-Paris about Widmaier Picasso’s mother, Maya Ruiz-Picasso, Picasso’s eldest daughter born of his affair with Marie-Thérèse Walter. The second is a book, Picasso Sorcier. Nearly half a century after his death, her grandfather’s presence continues to loom large.
Widmaier Picasso was born in 1974, the year after her grandfather died at the age of 91. She grew up first in Marseille, then Paris, with her mother and father, Pierre Widmaier (a shipping magnate), and two older brothers. “When I was born, my grandfather’s fame was almost bigger than his art,” she recalls. “I didn’t want to talk about Picasso. I wanted to explore the world.” She studied law followed by art history at the Sorbonne before joining Sotheby’s, heading up the department of Old Masters drawings. In 2005, however, she left to focus on her grandfather’s work. “It’s hard to get away,” she muses. “I felt the need to be more involved in his legacy.” She set up DWP Editions, which aims to publish a catalogue raisonné of Picasso’s sculptures – a projected four-volume catalogue that is still ongoing. “I don’t even know if we will ever be able to fully understand this work,” she adds.
Meanwhile, she has written numerous essays on her grandfather – from “Picasso and Marie-Thérèse Walter: Erotic Passion and Mystic Union” to “one on Picasso and hip-hop” – and already put together exhibitions, including Picasso Mania at the Grand Palais in Paris. She curated another about her mother a few years ago in Paris, but this one (curated with Emilia Philippot, director of collections and education at the Musée Picasso) “is much more complete”, she says. “It brings together for the first time a significant ensemble of 14 painted portraits of Maya – nearly the complete collection. It’s the evolution that is fascinating.”
For Serena Cattaneo Adorno, director of Gagosian Paris, Widmaier Picasso’s “knowledge and insight in Picasso’s oeuvre is scholarly but personal. She transforms the research into her grandfather’s practice into her personal frontier.” Clearly that is a fine line to tread. She admits that putting together the 2011 exhibition, Picasso and Marie-Thérèse: L’Amour Fou, with the artist’s biographer John Richardson, was “very emotional. The show was an homage to love and lust. You really felt this central attraction – to the point that people would walk into the room and start crying.”
Picasso’s love life remains a subject of contention. John Richardson said of his relationship with Walter: “What excited him was having psychological power over her.” Marina Picasso (granddaughter of Picasso’s first wife, Russian ballerina Olga Khokhlova) went further: “He submitted [women] to his sexuality, tamed them, bewitched them, ingested them and crushed them onto his canvas,” she wrote. Widmaier Picasso is a little more generous: “He was always ahead of the time. Today people want the truth. And I think he was honest with his feelings towards women, as tough as that could be.”
Maya, now 86, has steadfastly stood by the memory of her father. Her expertise on his artwork has been regularly sought out by international auction houses, art dealers and collectors. “I felt immediately it was my mission,” she has said. “Above all, I wanted to protect my father’s work and ensure it was respected.” Of her daughter’s work, she adds: “I believe what Diana is doing is the fruition of what started with my father and Marie-Thérèse. I think the exhibition is a successful attempt to represent this sacred spirit which ties us all together.”
When Maya was born, Picasso had, for a time, stopped painting and devoted himself to poetry: a notebook of his surrealist-inspired writing will be included in the Musée Picasso show. Other highlights include photography by Edward Quinn showing a 20-year-old Maya with her father on the set of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Le Mystère Picasso, and previously unseen sketchbooks, some combining the penmanship of father and daughter. “I’m also co-writing and co-producing a film about Maya that will be shown at the end of the exhibition,” says Widmaier Picasso. Another room will be dedicated to what she calls “memorabilia”. “These are the things that Picasso kept, that my grandmother kept, that my mother kept. There are some clothes, some shoes, but also some hair and some nails.”
These personal effects relate to Widmaier Picasso’s book. Researched and written alongside French anthropologist Philippe Charlier, it presents, she says, “a brand new angle” on her grandfather as someone deeply embroiled in superstitions and spiritual beliefs. Someone who kept his nail clippings to ensure they couldn’t be used to cast a spell on him. Someone who attached significance to everyday objects and would throw nothing away. “Even dust!” exclaims Widmaier Picasso. “Picasso was obsessed with dust; he didn’t want it cleaned up because it was a way for him to know when objects had been moved around, but he also saw it as a layer of spiritual protection.”
The book paints a picture of Picasso as a “magician, in the strict sense of the term”, says Charlier, an expert in forensic research who has examined the remains of Richard the Lionheart and Louis IX. “His art was packed with magical processes in its creation, using all the elements of the human body as raw material: blood, urine, hair, nails, even excrement!”
“The excrement is very interesting,” says Widmaier Picasso. “Picasso used some of it on one still life to create an apple. He turns it into a noble material.” The painting is Nature Morte au Pichet et à la Pomme, created on 19 February 1938; the excrement courtesy of young Maya. It will be on show at the Musée Picasso.
Not all of Widmaier Picasso’s endeavours are associated with her grandfather. She’s a trustee for MoMA PS1 in New York and on the board of the KW Institute for Contemporary Art in Berlin, and is also involved with the Tate and the Met. Another sideline is the jewellery brand Mene, which she launched in 2017 with entrepreneur Roy Sebag. The premise was to create a classic range of 24ct-gold and platinum jewellery that functions as investment as well as adornment. “On our website, customers can buy, sell and exchange their jewellery by weight at the prevailing daily price for gold as quoted on the international bullion markets,” explains Sebag.
The brand went public soon after its launch and has since been growing at 50 per cent year on year. Widmaier Picasso’s design team is headed up by former Kenzo and Missoni creative Sunjoo Moon. Playful charms and pendants are offered alongside classic chain bracelets, necklaces with oval links or woven rope-like cords, and serpent-shaped stud earrings. There are a few Picasso references – a Minotaur, for instance, and a dove, and he loved gold. Yet when Mene launched an artist edition in 2019 it was not with him but with Louise Bourgeois, translating her famous Arch of Hysteria and Spider sculptures into pendants. Doing something unassociated with the family name clearly feels good. “And it’s successful!”
Her grandfather’s work retains a certain hold, though, and she has no problem with that connection. “I think in my family, and in the world, everybody has their own Picasso in themselves,” she says. “The name is associated with talent, genius and freedom. I have no reason not to be proud.”
Maya Ruiz-Picasso: Fille de Pablo is at the Musée National Picasso-Paris from 16 April to 21 January. Picasso Sorcier is published by Gallimard in French in April (€19). An English translation will follow later this year