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Spotlight: Maya Widmaier Picasso

It might like there is little new to see in Picasso’s work, says VIV GROSKOP. But a current exhibition focuses on an unusual angle… his daughter as muse

It’s easy to imagine that you’ve seen everything Picasso ever created. The Picasso industry is so huge and there are so many international exhibitions dedicated to his work every year that sometimes I wonder if you could ask most people in the street to reproduce a rough copy of any Picasso work that they can see in their mind’s eye and they wouldn’t do a bad job of it. I mean this not as an insult but as a compliment: few artists have inserted themselves in our consciousness in quite the way he has.

And yet. There is more work out there that hasn’t been seen yet – astonishingly. A new exhibition in Paris, curated by his granddaughter, has just opened to rave reviews.

Diana Widmaier Picasso – whose mother Maya is the daughter of the artist and his model Marie-Thérèse Walter – has collected some of the most intimate works from an influential time for a show at the Gagosian Gallery in Paris. Picasso and Maya: Father and Daughter, opened last month and is on until December 22.

It is a celebration of family life and of his relationship with the child who – out of all his children – featured most frequently in his work, Diana’s mother, Maya.

Diana, a Picasso scholar as well as part of the family, is studying for a PhD at the Sorbonne and was recently interviewed for Spanish Vogue about the exhibition: ‘My mother was born just before the Second World War, and for Picasso she symbolised hope and innocence at a time of great uncertainty.’ The collection of works she has assembled explains an important and fruitful time in Picasso’s artistic life and also gives a window into his emotional life as a father: ‘She [Maya] was a constant subject in her father’s drawings and paintings. He observed with fascination and tenderness her mental development,’ Diana writes in the exhibition notes, ‘Out of all of Picasso’s children, Maya was most frequently depicted – a muse in the image of her mother.’

Many of the items in the exhibition have been rarely seen and are from the family’s personal collection, including intimate portraits of Maya and Marie-Thérèse, sculptures and little paper cut-outs which Picasso made to give to his young daughter. There are also unpublished photographs, films, letters and poems.

Diana’s mother is still alive, aged 82, and has vivid memories of Picasso. She has given moving accounts of what it was like to sit informally for him as a child and how she feels about the paintings years later. In 1996, she said of the paintings inspired by her: ‘These pictures are unbelievably true to life. Everything’s here: my little girl’s clothes, my hair, even my toys and yet…’ That ‘and yet…’ is important.

Most of these paintings represent her in a Cubist style. Only a few sketches were more naturalistic. It would have been frightening to see these paintings as a child. The most famous, Maya a la poupee (Maya with her doll), shows her with pigtails and frilly-necked dress in typical Picasso style of the time: one eye high on the forehead, the other low on the cheek, both seemingly looking in different directions. And yet, despite its disarming style, it is somehow tender, natural and beautiful.

Maya Widmaier Picasso was born in Boulogne-Billancourt in September 1935. She became a muse for her father even as a baby and inspired a large number of paintings between 1935 and 1944. Her mother, Marie-Thérèse, was Picasso’s ‘companion’ from 1927 to 1935. Picasso met her near Galeries Lafayette in Paris in the mid 1920s. From the moment they met until they parted, she was his inspiration whilst he was exploring cubism.

Marie-Thérèse was the subject of numerous sculptural studies which Picasso undertook at their home in Normandy. The pieces clearly show her face. Their relationship is also understood to have inspired some of Picasso’s most joyous works: Le Reve and Nu au plateau du sculpteur (both from 1932). By the mid 1930s, though, he moved on to another muse, Dora Maar, and some paintings from this time are said to represent a ‘fusing’ of the two women – or at least a depiction of them in similar poses.

This exhibition feels very timely. Not only because of the theme of ‘hope and innocence during a time of global uncertainty’ (which is indeed what Maya seems to represent in many of the paintings), but also because of what it represents for our understanding of Picasso.

In recent years, the extended Picasso ‘family’ has had a lot of ups and downs over his legacy, both artistic and financial (because there were many mistresses and muses and many children).

This exhibition represents a happy, uncomplicated time: ‘Maya was a child of love,’ says Diana, ‘And there’s one work based on the mythological family, where he’s recreating an ideal he thought not possible. There’s a lot of lightness and beauty within the show despite the context in which he was living in 1935, a kind of dramatic period when he was going through a divorce from his first wife, Olga, [his wife when he met Marie-Thérèse], and with the war coming and a climate of anxiety.’

Maya, she says, represented a symbol of salvation and the possibility that everything was going to be alright. ‘You see her face in Guernica. And he’s always using her face and body in terms of someone who can save the world. It’s very beautiful when you use it this way, as Maya being the daughter of someone who is saving the world.’

Diana, who never met her grandfather, is thought of as bearing a strong physical likeness to Picasso. Clearly this exhibition has been a labour of love for her and her mother, not least as Maya found many photographs she had never seen before. She previously thought very few photos of her as a child existed. ‘Then she discovered all these works by Man Ray, Andre Villers, Lucie Clare…. All the greatest photographers surrounded Picasso because he was a kind of superstar,’ Diana told WWD.

Her mother, Maya, experienced a visceral reaction to the final exhibition. ‘She was very moved and surprised. She came on Sunday [just before it opened], quietly, just as I’d finished installing it, because I wanted her to be the first to discover the selection: things she knew, and things she didn’t know that we gathered from all around the world over almost a year.’

Diana’s favourite work? The artist’s Two-and-a-Half-Year-Old Daughter with a Boat. ‘This is an incredible portrait. When you see the works in real life, the colours are so surprising, almost fluorescent,’ Diana said. ‘It’s striking to see the colours are still so fresh today. They were shocking in his time, and they’re still kind of shocking today.’

Picasso and Maya: Father and Daughter is at the Gagosian, 4 rue de Ponthieu, Paris 75008 until December 22

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