In January of 1927, outside the Galeries Lafayette department store in Paris, Picasso met Marie-Thérèse Walter, a striking 17-year-old, whose bourgeois family hailed from Maisons-Alfort in the city’s suburbs. The artist and notorious womaniser, who was then married to his first wife Olga Khokhlova, was instantly enchanted. “You have an interesting face,” he said to her. “I would like to do a portrait of you. I am Picasso.” Walter was not familiar with the name, but the artist was a man of great charm, and within a week the pair began a secret and ardent love affair that would last until 1941, with Walter going on to inspire some of Picasso’s most iconic artworks (three figures in Guernica were based on her) and bearing him his first daughter on September 5, 1935. The couple named her Maria de la Concepcion – Maya for short – after the artist’s beloved sister, Conchita, who died of diphtheria when he was 14.
Picasso was, somewhat surprisingly, a very devoted father for the first ten years of Maya’s life during which time she became his favoured subject, featuring in numerous, affectionately observed drawings and paintings. “It’s interesting to see how an artist reacts to a child,” says art historian Diana Widmaier Picasso, Maya’s own daughter and the curator behind the new Gagosian Paris exhibition Picasso and Maya: Father and Daughter – the first display to explore Maya’s childhood through Picasso’s work. “Maya was his first daughter, and I just had my own daughter, and it’s amazing to see how he could draw the details that you perceive as a mother – even the hair – in a very tender way. It’s surprising for a monster like Picasso.”
For the show Widmaier Picasso, who also curated the Gagosian New York’s 2011 exhibition Picasso and Marie-Thérèse: L’Amour Fou, tracing the complex love story between her grandmother and grandfather, went through a painstaking process of scouring the globe for relevant works, spanning candid portraits of Maya and Marie-Thérèse from the 30s and 40s, documenting their happy life en famille, as well as sculptures, prints and small paper cut-outs created for his daughter’s delight. “I looked all around the world for pieces representing her,” the curator explains of the gargantuan task. “Some works were obviously portraits of her, but in others it’s a projection of Picasso through her mother so it became more complex to identify her.” Maya, now 82, has herself contributed letters, photographs and personal trinkets to the show, something Widmaier Picasso explains she had previously been reluctant to share. “I had to be very patient with her; patience works,” she laughs. “My mother has been very generous and very open.”
Maya had a complicated relationship with her father by the time he died, her daughter expands. “When he passed away he’d been living with his last wife [Jacqueline Roque] for a long time and she kept him secluded; my mother hadn’t seen him for a few years. All of these works of art revive memories. [They’re like] a biography, a diary, which is beautiful in a way, but also almost violent, for his child, because you see exactly what he was thinking. There’s no filter.” Maya herself said of the paintings and drawings, in 1996, “These pictures are unbelievably true to life. Everything’s here: my little girl’s clothes, my hair, even my toys and yet…” This quote, used within the show, seems to embody, in the manner in which it trails off, many of the themes that Widmaier Picasso is seeking to explore. The artworks were a literal embodiment of a joyful time in the artist and his family’s life, but, as with all of Picasso’s oeuvre, they are embedded with multiple layers of meaning.
One such theme is that of “Maya as a witness to the time in which she was born,” says the curator. “I think that reflects the complexities [of parenthood] – of wondering what your child’s future will look like. There are very strong paintings from 1937, included in the show, which are not just of the child but of the world at this time. This was the year he did Guernica, and it’s a moment when Picasso makes choices; he chooses to live in Paris, for example, when everybody was escaping because it had come under occupation, so he’s living in a climate that’s very anxious. But for him there’s this child that’s innocent and happy so you feel the contrast, which brings more density to the works.”
In another distinctly Cubist portrait, Maya à la poupée et au cheval (1938), which Widmaier Picasso notes clearly shows the features of both mother and father in the young girl, Picasso portrays her with “the maturity of a 60-year-old”. This his granddaughter notes is a demonstration of one of Picasso’s greatest strengths as a portraitist – the ability to capture “the essence” of his sitters on paper. “My mother said that as a little girl she was surprised to see this portrait, but then she realised that, very early on, he perceived her personality. He had this mirada fuerte, as you say in Spanish; he looked at you and you were totally undressed. There’s a famous anecdote by Gertrude Stein, who looked at the portrait that Picasso had just done of her and said, ‘It doesn’t look like me.’ And my grandfather said, ‘Yes but you are going to look like it.’ And she did!”
Alongside the many artworks on display are video footage and various photographs, depicting Picasso and Maya as the latter grew from small child to young woman, which again Widmaier Picasso spent much time and energy tracking down. “Most of them I didn’t even know existed – it was a real discovery,” she enthuses. Did any particularly move her? “Yes! My mother always told me that she’d taught my grandfather how to swim, but I found it hard to believe. But then I found a whole series of photos of them in the water in Antibes, where she’s obviously teaching him to swim, which I love.” It is the deeply personal and nuanced nature of the exhibition that Picasso’s granddaughter is most excited about sharing. “I hope it helps people to understand that what makes art history such a fabulous topic is its many different layers,” she says. “Picasso is excited, he’s had a daughter, his first daughter, with his long-time lover, and you feel that and so much more. I hope they will leave the show charged with emotions.”
Picasso and Maya: Father and Daughter is at Gagosian Paris until December 22, 2017.