PICASSO THE MAGUS. Diana Widmaier-Picasso was born in 1974 and is an art historian, curator, and specialist in modern art. The maternal granddaughter of Pablo Picasso and Marie-Thérèse Walter, she is the daughter of Maya Widmaier-Picasso. Diana holds master’s degrees in law and art history and is based in Paris, where she recently published a book with anthropologist Philippe Charlier titled PICASSO SORCIER and curated an exhibition about her mother Maya with Emilia Philippot that is on until December 31, 2022 at Musée Picasso. She has also had a presentation during Couture Week in Paris of her other activity, which is jewellery. In 2017 she co-founded with Roy Sebag a company called Menē which specialises in 24 karat gold and platinum jewellery.
You can listen to the podcast of this interview here.
What is the book Picasso Sorcier about?
It is about beliefs, about superstitions, about a hidden face of Picasso that brings to light how religious he was, and how much of a believer he was in a supra-sensitive world.
Was he very superstitious?
He was from Andalusia, so there was a tradition of being superstitious. His mother believed that to get rid of bad dreams you can sleep with scissors open under your pillow. It comes from way back, from his roots, which are Spanish and – from his mother, from whom he took his name, Picasso – some Italian heritage from Genoa.
You also reveal that he used his urine to embellish the patina of his sculptures. Was scatology in his soul?
I don’t call it scatology. He was giving nobility to something very human. He was full of wonder for any material. Some people believed in silk or velvet, but he was even more fascinated by all the things rejected by human beings as Aragon recalled. He would collect things in the streets; old nails, old pieces of fabric, old pieces of wood. He realised that children who have been breastfed have excrement that is a very particular colour, a yellow ochre that is very difficult to find amongst pigments, so he dipped his cotton in my mother’s diaper and used it on a canvas to form an apple. It’s one of the most beautiful still lifes representing my mother and to my knowledge unique in his work.
How was it to live with such an avid collector of these many everyday objects?
In her book Life with Picasso Françoise Gilot – who is a dear, dear friend – gives some very good testimony of how it was to live with him. She was his partner when he was in Vallauris in the south of France, and the mother of Claude and Paloma. She witnessed some unusual situations. She says that Picasso didn’t want her to give away a torn old jacket full of holes, and he didn’t want to clean things, because he believed they were charged, part of him. In a way it brings you to primitive art, in which sculptures are often sacralized being covered with sweat, blood or dust. This sacrificial material is a spiritual protection for people who believe that art and life is charged. For Picasso it was not only something that protected him, but also that was so close to him that he didn’t want to depart from it or give it to anyone.
Was he obsessed by dust and never wanted to clean dust?
Yes. It’s the same with a work of art. Having lived in America for a long time I realise that they sometimes overclean works of art. The dust is part of the work of art, so it’s a pity.
“Children who have been breastfed have excrement that is a very particular colour.”
Pablo Picasso, Maternité, Paris, 22 Janvier 1938
Collection Particulière, © Succession Picasso 2022
You have also curated the extraordinary exhibition at Musée Picasso-Paris titled Maya Ruiz-Picasso, Daughter of Pablo?
Yes, and I also produced a documentary that I co-wrote with the noted art films director François Lévy-Kuentz. That’s another magical story. Maya is the daughter of Marie-Thérèse Walter, whom Picasso met in 1927. Eight years later, Marie-Thérèse gave birth to Maya. When she was born, they thought that she was dead. There was an accident. Picasso gave an extreme unction – he threw water on her face and, by doing this, he woke her up. Therefore she was born out of a miracle, and he decided to name her after his sister who died from diphtheria when he was 14 called Maria de la Concepción. That’s her original name. Later on, at school, she called herself Maya, because it was just easier to pronounce, and she is known as Maya.
Picasso met Marie-Thérèse Walter when she was 17, on a boulevard in Paris?
In front of the Galeries Lafayette. She was 17 and a half, and he was 45. She was buying a Peter Pan collar, a col Claudine. He saw her, waited until she came out of the shopping mall and came up to her saying, “I’m an artist. My name is Picasso and I would like to do your portrait.” She didn’t know who he was. He showed her a book where Picasso was written in Chinese so she couldn’t read it and laughed. He asked to meet her the following day, adding, “I believe that you and I will do great things together.” That’s how they met.
He and Marie-Thérèse had a very long but secret love affair?
Yes, because he was married when he met her, to Olga Khokhlova, a ballerina who was working for Sergei Diaghilev’s troupe. The marriage was already not doing so well.
When he finished his story with Olga why did he never marry Marie-Thérèse?
She was secret. There is an excitement when a relationship is secret, for anyone. So from 1927 until 1932 he cherished this moment where he had this burning fire inside of him, sharing it with Marie-Thérèse. Then, in 1932, on the occasion of his first retrospective at the Galerie Georges Petit in Paris, the presence of Marie-Thérèse would explode on the walls.
Because he did many portraits, paintings and drawings of her?
Yes. You see this naked, voluptuous, blonde woman invading his art. You cannot deny that, even though Olga did try to deny for a long time that a new woman had invaded his life. It was only in 1935, when Maya was born, that Picasso decided to separate legally from Olga and asked for a divorce. Because he was so superstitious he didn’t make a contract when he got married (and by the way he never made a will either) so it was very complicated. He started making an inventory of all his belongings, but that period was so traumatising for him that he stopped painting for nine months and devoted himself to drawings and poetry. It was a big conflict; he had to part with a lot of artworks and Olga made things difficult.
But he didn’t stay with Marie-Thérèse either, because then he met Dora Maar?
He met Dora Maar a year later, in 1936, but he didn’t leave Marie-Thérèse. When he left Dora Maar he was still with Marie-Thérèse, who I met when I was very little. Then, I would say in 1941 or 42, they started to be a little more distant, and then he would meet Françoise Gilot. He only actually remarried after his first wife Olga passed away in 1955, so he only married twice.
He was extremely attached to your mother Maya, and your exhibition shows an enormous amount of drawings, letters and paintings about her. Was he obsessed by Maya, both as a child and later as a young woman?
Yes. His biographer John Richardson, with whom I spent a lot of time when I was living in New York, was really enchanted by the tenderness of the early drawings that he made of Maya. She’s the daughter, a magical mix of him and Marie-Thérèse. She’s blonde with blue green eyes, but she has dark skin like him and the features look like him too. Even aesthetically it’s an interesting mix, one that he would explore in his art. Then Maya learnt Spanish and became familiar with Spanish literature thanks to Jaime Sabartès, so that was also a very deep bond, because his roots are definitely in Spain. He sent her out to meet with the Spanish family in Barcelona, to whom she became very close and she studied at the Lycée Français in Madrid, so all of that also made them closer.
Maybe Maya was the child he was closest to, but then she wanted her own life and met your father?
When she was around twenty. I curated an exhibition in 2015 with Didier Ottinger at the Grand Palais in Paris called Picasso Mania, about the impact of Picasso on contemporary art. That allowed me to study how his fame developed in the fifties in particular; Maya met a lot of interesting people like Charlie Chaplin, Cocteau, Brigitte Bardot, Yves Montand or Simone Signoret, because everybody was visiting him. It’s quite amazing to see that this man – the most prolific of all time in art history – was still able to socialize, but I believe that fed him in his human observation.
And Maya was part of this life?
She was part of this. He would be on the cover of Life Magazine along with Marilyn Monroe and on the cover of Paris Match sometimes in his bathrobe, which is one of reasons I have all these photographs that my mother was not aware of. I had to bring something new because in those days there were a lot of paparazzi – on the beach, in the restaurants, everywhere. It’s not as common these days, but there was really a moment when there was this need to have insight about his private life. She might have become tired of that and wanted to develop her own life.
Was he angry with that?
Yes, he was angry. He was also angry when Françoise Gilot left. She said I want to have my own life. He was very upset by that, and also because she wrote this book Life with Picasso, probably one of the reasons that sadly he didn’t want to see Claude and Paloma. There is a temperament of fire that explains this.
“Picasso’s genius is a universal knowledge that he wants to share.”
As an independent person yourself, how do you combine your Picasso knowledge and heritage with your own life and work?
This mystical side of Picasso allows me to think that he is a complex person to absorb, so even though I have been working on his sculptures for 17 years – I am working on the catalogue raisonné – and even though I’ve written many essays and curated many exhibitions, you can still discover something new. Everything brings you back to the works. We need to pay more attention to the works, and we need to, of course, embrace all the knowledge we have about Picasso and his life, but have a deeper connection, maybe a connection with the universe, that forgets about these biographical studies. Picasso’s genius is beyond that. It’s a universal knowledge that he wants to share. He was probably aware of the strengths that make his work so relevant today. It’s not because of his portrait of this or that or even what I see through Maya. I see Maya, of course, I see my mother and I’m particularly moved by the sketchbooks that I presented for the first time where he works with Maya, teaching her how to draw.
What is Maya doing?
She’s drawing, she’s trying to copy the father’s teaching. He learnt everything from his father and now he’s passing it on to his daughter, which is a very beautiful moment, but when I see the drawings, when I see the paintings in particular, I see that he’s raising her as an icon, almost a religious icon. Most of the works are like Madonna and child. Maybe that was this mystical approach that he had to this relationship. The relationship with Dora Maar was different, with Maya there is something mystical and religious and he doesn’t want to affect any of this.
What is your relationship with your mother Maya?
My mother is also a complex person, very protective of her father. She was generous enough to share not only those works of art that she owns, but also knowledge. I interviewed her and she gave me some insights, but all the people close to Picasso want to protect him, like a demiurge. It’s very interesting how the myth has been preserved, so you need to be very careful what you write. When I wrote my book Picasso Sorcier she said, “Do you think deeply about Picasso?” Almost like, “Are you connected?” It’s almost that we are continuing this spiritual protection, but we also want to share these insights.
Has it been difficult for you to be Picasso’s granddaughter, to carry such a name?
There is an aura about Picasso that is bigger than life, and so I always felt there was a responsibility in sharing the work that we are fortunate to preserve, and working on developing and giving more access to his work. I happen to know a lot of descendants of important families, but despite some families where there’s something negative, I think Picasso is very positive.
You are very much involved with and have your own life in the art world. Did you inherit this passion?
I was always an art lover. Early on I played the piano, I played cello, I loved dance, I was doing theatre when I was a teenager. I’ve been really embracing different sides of art, and, in fact, the reason why I am closer to museums is because some of the art that I love is very difficult to collect, like video art and performing art. I find it more interesting to support museums.
MoMA PS1, Kunst-Werke Berlin and the Metropolitan Museum. Now that I live in Paris again, I am very close to the Picasso Museum. What I’ve always been interested in is supporting artistic education for the underprivileged, like in the suburbs of Paris. I used to do this in New York and it’s something I want to continue.
You are also co-founder and Chief artistic officer for Menē, a company that makes jewellery. What is the idea?
It’s a brand new concept. We are disrupting the world of jewellery because we are presenting jewellery and precious objects in 24 karat gold and platinum, and they are being sold by weight, so the price is transparent. It’s the weight according to the day’s price, and we add a margin that is 20%. I started this company five years ago with my friend Roy Sebag, a successful young entrepreneur and founder of the precious metal investment company Goldmoney. Our customers who bought five years ago have seen the jewellery raised in value by 60%, because gold went up 60% in the last five years. It allows me to develop my creative side, which maybe I was always holding back. I design the jewellery myself with my friend Sunjoo Moon, our creative director.
Why did you call it Menē?
It means money of exchange in the Aramaic language, because there used to be an intrinsic value in jewellery so people would exchange it. Today that’s not always the case, so we want to restore that value. Also for me, it’s nice to work around the material of gold and platinum and democratise it, because a lot of people have never seen something in 24 karat because normally jewellery is diluted to 18 karats, 14 karats, sometimes even less. Having worked on sculptures, I’ve always loved all kinds of jewellery. It’s a great opportunity to be part of this adventure, which is successful. It’s been a public company on the Toronto Stock Exchange (TSX) for three years and we sell more and more every year.
Do you have shops?
No, it’s online because we have a very small margin so we need to stick to our profile, but last year we sold $30 million worth.
Do you have clients all over the world?
We sell in 50 different countries, mostly in America and Canada. Next year we will have a distribution centre in Europe, so that will be an opportunity to develop the brand more in Europe.
You are the artistic person and you don’t manage the company. Most of your time is spent in museums, in research, doing charity and things like that. Was it difficult to put together these exhibitions?
It’s more and more difficult, because people are reluctant to lend. I understand them and then also I’m very specific in what I want. It’s not easy. You have to be very persistent. You have to locate the works.
You are one of many children and grandchildren, each one of whom probably has some paintings or drawings. Do you share them when you have an exhibition?
Yes, if they have it. We try to work together. It’s very important.
Because Picasso left an enormous amount of work and it can be very difficult to find?
Yes, but again, he left no will, so everything was divided between the four children and his last wife, Jacqueline. There were different houses. That’s another interesting aspect. He would move from one house to another, leaving everything behind and he would close the door and never go back.
So that dust will come?
So dust will come. Exactly.
Marie Thérèse-Walter, Pablo Picasso and Maya, Clinique du Belvedere, Boulogne Billancourt, 6 September 1935
© Archives Maya-Ruiz Picasso © Succession Picasso 2022.
Marie Thérèse-Walter, Picasso in his atelier, Le Tremblay-sur-Mauldre, 1937
© Archives Maya-Ruiz Picasso © Succession Picasso 2022.
Marie Thérèse-Walter, Pablo Picasso and Maya with their dog Riki, boulevard Henri IV, Paris, 25 August 1944
© Archives Maya-Ruiz Picasso © Succession Picasso 2022.
“Ultimately I feel French with an Italian touch.”
How many houses did Picasso have?
Villa La Californie, Vallauris, Notre Dame de Vie and Vauvenargues. So four houses, and also Boisgeloup which he left to his first wife.
What about his famous study in Rue des Grands Augustins with all the pictures by the photographer Brassaï and by Dora Maar?
That’s a house he rented. He was kicked out in 1955 and all the things in Rue des Grands Augustins came to the south of France. Otherwise, he would have just left it.
Why were you born in Marseille?
My parents were living in Paris, and my father is from Brittany but he was in the navy and was always travelling, so for a time they lived in Marseille.
Your grandfather loved the corrida. What about you?
There are different readings of the corrida. I was fortunate enough to have a dear friend, the writer Mario Bois, with whom I went to Arles and who knew so much about the mythology behind corrida. He made me see it as a spectacle of life.
Your family still has many of your grandfather’s paintings and drawings but he also sold works, both to museums and to private people. How much was sold and how much did he keep, and why?
I need to be precise in my answer, and we need to do a particular study. There was a book by Michael FitzGerald, Making Modernism: Picasso and the creation of the market in 20th century art. I think further research has to be done to understand exactly, but we do know that he was aware of his legacy and he was aware of the dealers who would help him place his art in the right collections. Of course, the Americans and the Germans were very influential at that time, but he played against Ambroise Vollard, Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, Paul Rosenberg. He would take some works of art and present them but they were not allowed to come and pick whatever they wanted.
And he kept many things?
Yes, he kept many things that were the essence, because he lived with a lot of works of art.
Both his own works of art or also works of other artists that he bought?
His own works of art, the works of others, primitive art. Also with his works of art there were installations. We see the guitar in early photographs in the studio, and the way the guitar was placed was like an installation. That’s an aspect of his art that is sometimes neglected, the way he was placing things next to each other.
Was he interested in money?
He wanted to bring money to the bank but he was not keen on taking it back. He worked with Max Pellequer, a collector and French banker from BNCI (future BNP) with whom many artists worked. Once it was in the bank, he would leave it there, so he was not a businessman in a traditional sense. But he did change the course of the art market.
Was he investing his money?
He was investing but he refused to receive dividends. He would buy gold and he had a lot of gold. He bought houses, real estate.
Did he lead a very expensive life?
I don’t think so. He never travelled, he lived in the house. The houses were like storage. But he was always very generous with people.
He never went to America, for instance.
No, because he was so very busy and focused on his work. He went twice to England, but that was because of the Communist Party, he had to attend some meetings. He went to Italy, of course, to Rome, to Pompeii. He never went back to Spain because of Franco.
But still, he was very attached to Spain.
Same thing with my mother. He never saw her again, but he was very attached to her. There is this internal conflict.
What is it about art and artists that fascinates you?
How they all connect and dialogue in a spiritual manner. I like old master drawings very much. Of course, I’m fascinated by the talent of being a master-draughtsman, but I like the material, the fact that it’s so intimate.
Drawings witness the quality of the artist?
Yes, but we know that Caravaggio didn’t make many drawings so there are a few exceptions, but usually I’m very keen on great draughtsmen. But then I have a lot of prehistorical things, like stones or little sculptures, so my house in Paris is a large cabinet de curiosités.
Are you interested in contemporary art?
I am, and I’m happy to support friends or contemporary art museums, but I’m not really a collector. I collect everything else, Indian, Greek, Roman or Egyptian, but a lot of things that I like in contemporary art are very difficult to collect, either they are too gigantic or they involve performing art, video art or a combination of everything like the work of Bruce Nauman or Joseph Beuys.
When you look at the photographs that you have at the show in the Picasso Museum, or are in John Richardson’s books, do you think the artists’ world then was very different to today?
They didn’t travel as much. I’m afraid that today they might be a bit too distracted. There’s still a big concentration in cities, and I understand that Picasso was happy to live in Paris because there was so much excitement, and the same thing is happening today. It seems that artists always need to find places like this, although some like to be in the countryside these days, they need to isolate from the turbulence. Picasso bought a castle in Boisgeloup (a village in Normandy) in 1930 when he was with Marie-Therese. Some artists find this equilibrium nowadays, like Matthew Barney, Marina Abramović, Thomas Demand, Katharina Grosse, Doug Aitken or Danh Võ.
In your grandfather’s time not only artists, but also poets, writers, movie people, all worked and lived together. Is it less like that now?
A little bit, but I was just with Patti Smith and she’s very close to many artists, and writers. It’s probably the same.
Ultimately do you feel French?
Ultimately I feel French with an Italian touch. My mother says it’s because of Picasso’s mother, who had some Italian origins, but I’ve always been fond of Italy and have always spent a lot of time there. I used to spend a lot of time in Rome, but these days I have been spending a lot of time in Venice. I also like to visit small villages, and I’m always cruising around Italy. I am a great admirer of the historians Erwin Panofsky, Jacob Burckhardt and Daniel Arasse, who always contribute to enlighten my journeys in Italy.
What is your next project?
I’m going to write a book about Marie-Thérèse. There have been some attempts at a biography, but no one has explored all the documents that we have access to.
Why did Marie-Thérèse accept being in the shadow of the great man for so many years?
I don’t think she felt she was in the shadow because she was existing in his eyes so I don’t think she felt she was in a shadow.
But he never officially lived with her?
He did when my mother was born, in 1935. When you are in this passionate love affair you don’t really care about the outside world. It was just something between the two of them.
How was the relationship between your grandmother Marie-Thérèse and your mother Maya?
It must have been difficult, because they separated. He met Dora Maar soon after my mother was born. It must have been difficult for Marie-Thérèse to accept that.
Your grandmother Marie-Thérèse and your mother Maya once went to his studio in Rue des Grands Augustins during the war, and Dora Maar was there. There was a big fight between your grandmother and Dora Maar. Why? Was there jealousy?
Of course. The real question is, did Picasso know that they were going to be together at the same time in the same place.
You think he liked that?
I am afraid he knew that this was going to happen, but maybe I’m wrong.
There are many mysteries left. When is your book on Marie-Thérèse going to be published?
I’m hoping in 2024. I just started. The dynamic with Picasso is fascinating. We have lots of documents and letters that have never been explored. Probably some of the most interesting erotic correspondence in art history.
John Richardson says that he was hiding Marie-Thérèse in many paintings, in different shapes.
Again, it’s almost religious. It goes back to this religious medal that she would wear all the time.
He was very sexually involved with her and, at the same time, had this Madonna idea. It’s a great contrast.
But the Madonna is really when Maya was born, which makes me think that when she becomes a mother he sees her differently. That’s my interpretation. That’s what art is about.
What is art about?
The mind flows. You can explore and go deeper. It’s crucial to let the mind flow and explore different directions and always be challenged by the art.
That’s what Picasso did all his life?
ENJOY THIS INTERVIEW? SHARE IT WITH A FRIEND.
Portrait of Diana Widmaier-Picasso, photo by Gilles Bensimon