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 time.

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 pictures?

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 out in Young Picasso, the latest instalment in British documentary-maker Phil Grabsky’s film series, Exhibition on Screen.

Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, 1907. Oil on canvas. Acquired through the Lillie P. Bliss Bequest (by exchange) © Succession Picasso_DACS, London 2019

Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, 1907. Oil on canvas. Acquired through the Lillie P. Bliss Bequest (by exchange) © Succession Picasso_DACS, London 2019

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.’

Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), La Vie, 1903. Oil on canvas. Cleveland Museum of Art, OH, USA. Gift of the Hanna Fund, Bridgeman Images © Succession Picasso, DACS, London 2019

Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), La Vie, 1903. Oil on canvas. Cleveland Museum of Art, OH, USA. Gift of the Hanna Fund, Bridgeman Images © Succession Picasso, DACS, London 2019

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 and Barcelona.’

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.’

Pablo Picasso aged 22 in 1904, the year in which he settled permanently in Paris. Musée de Montmartre, Paris France. Archives Charmet, Bridgeman Images © Succession Picasso, DACS, London 2019

Pablo Picasso aged 22 in 1904, the year in which he settled permanently in Paris. Musée de Montmartre, Paris France. Archives Charmet, Bridgeman Images © Succession Picasso, DACS, London 2019

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 the latter.’

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, often.’

Sign up today

Christie's Online Magazine delivers our best features, videos, and auction news to your inbox every week

Subscribe

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.’