The moment Picasso ‘had to face up to himself in the mirror’
How did Picasso arrive at his creative tipping point in Paris in the early years of the 20th century? As a new film explores the period leading up to this pivotal moment, Christie’s meets the artist’s grandson, Olivier Widmaier Picasso
Pablo Picasso was 19 when he held his first solo exhibition
in Paris, in 1901. It wasn’t a runaway success, but the paintings
— a mix of street scenes, pictures of women and landscapes
— met with enough favourable reviews that he felt ready to
make his way in the city, then the capital of the art world.
He rented a studio on the Boulevard de Clichy the following
year, where he began the process of moving his art in new
and startling directions. The story of what happened next
— his great dismantling of the traditions of Western painting
— has made Picasso one of the most famous artists of all
How he reached that tipping point, though, is much less familiar.
How, for instance, did an unknown teenager convince a gallery
showing established painters such as Manet and Renoir to
take a chance on his then mostly representational, sombre
The transformations that Picasso’s art had already been through,
the thousands of hours he had already put into perfecting
and then rejecting established techniques, have been fleshed
Young Picasso, the latest instalment in British documentary-maker Phil
Grabsky’s film series, Exhibition on Screen.
Young Picasso, which covers the Spanish artist’s early
life in Málaga, Madrid and Barcelona, along with his Blue
and Rose Periods in Paris and culminating with Les Demoiselles d’Avignon — the 1907 painting now widely regarded as ground zero for
Cubism — has been made with the support of Picasso’s grandson,
Olivier Widmaier Picasso (son of Maya Picasso, the daughter
from Picasso’s relationship with Marie-Thérèse Walter), who
spoke to us about his interest in Picasso’s formative years.
How does an understanding of the early years affect our understanding of Picasso’s later, more famous work?
Olivier Widmaier Picasso: ‘When you look at
those paintings, you realise that in every later period you
are connected to his state of mind; that he was always reflecting
on the wall what he was experiencing in life. In 1901, for
instance, he was mourning the death of his friend [the artist
Carlos Casagemas], and it was not an easy time for him. He
had gone from being a little king among his family to a nobody,
with no money. It was cold, he was often very hungry. All
this is reflected in his Blue Period.’
How was Picasso influenced by his father, firstly in terms of his being an art teacher, and also the way in which Picasso eventually broke away from and rejected that teaching?
OWP: ‘You have to understand that the end
of the 19th century in Spain was a very traditional period.
A drawing teacher such as my great-grandfather would
have expected that his son would be a teacher too — if he
was lucky, the director of a museum. Very quickly he realised
that the student was going to be bigger than him; that Picasso
was gifted. But instead of being jealous, which he could
have been, he understood that he had to help the young boy
in every way he could. This is how Picasso’s uncle came to
pay for his studies at the school of fine arts in Madrid
So even though he far outdid his father, and rejected the traditional way of painting that his father had taught him, it wasn’t a case of Picasso losing respect for him?
OWP: ‘His father remained an influence on
him all his life. Later, Picasso said to [his girlfriend]
Françoise Gilot, “When I think about the figure of a man,
I think about my father.” And my mother [Maya] has a painting
of Don José that was painted by Picasso on the wall in her
bedroom that she is very attached to, precisely because it
was special to her father.’
When you look at Picasso’s works, at what point do you begin to see him questioning things and bending the rules?
OWP: ‘In Paris. At first he is absorbing other
influences, but then you see him creating his own language,
his own vocabulary, and that it is linked to his personal
life. For the first time in his life things were really difficult.
I have always thought that this was the moment he had to
face up to himself in the mirror. Understanding that he could
make work from that became a source of immense inspiration
to him, one that he employed for the rest of his life.’
Do you think Picasso was quite clever about his friendships — the way he seems to have always found the right people to progress his career?
OWP: ‘I’ve thought about this myself. The
names of the people he is with throughout his life are classic
names of culture, and I don’t know if he was lucky to have
met the right person at the right moment or whether he identified
some people and went after them. I think in Paris it was
How old were you when you realised Picasso was more than just your artist grandfather?
OWP: ‘At home we had his paintings, his sculptures
— Picasso was very generous towards my grandmother and my
mother — but I was more interested in playing soccer and
my schoolwork. But the day he died [in 1973, when Olivier
was 12] I learned it from television, and I like to say that
that was the moment he was born to me.’
‘Pablo Picasso belongs a little bit to me and to the family, and a lot to the rest of the world’ — Olivier Widmaier Picasso
What was Marie-Thérèse like?
OWP: ‘She had that same blonde, short-cut
hair she has in the paintings. To me she seemed very noisy:
she had a very noisy laugh, she spoke with great confidence.
But I discovered that was not the truth, because really she
was like a little bird in a gold cage. She met Picasso when
she was 17, and since then he had always taken care of her,
provided for her, so she never had to worry about anything.
Even after they split, she stayed in contact and that was
not always the case with Picasso and his women. I think the
reason she killed herself [in 1977] was because after he
died, life must have seemed empty.’
Did she ever talk about Picasso with you?
OWP: ‘Not to me, but with my mother, yes,
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What about your mother, how was her relationship with him?
OWP: ‘She is the only person in the world
to refer to Picasso as “Papa”. So she says, “I’m going to
see an exhibition of Papa’s”, for example. It shows you that
their contact was real. They spent a lot of time together
when she was little, and he used to talk to her about the
paintings. For her, they are souvenirs; she doesn’t like
to talk about their value. I think that helped me to have
a normal relationship to him: I was never, “Listen, I am
the grandson of Picasso”; I have never said that in my life.’
Even so it must be strange to see the world so adoring of Picasso, and thinking of him as your grandfather at the same time?
OWP: ‘I’ve learned to remind myself that Pablo
Picasso belongs a little bit to me and to the family, and
a lot to the rest of the world. Pablo belongs to everybody.’