A book of family memories paints the artist as doting dad, rather than the callous, ageing womaniser depicted by others
Dalya Alberge -The Guardian
Pablo Picasso with his daughter, Maya, right, and the French actress Vera Clouzot in 1955. Photograph: Bettmann/Bettmann Archive
Pablo Picasso was still married to the former ballerina Olga Khokhlova when he became captivated by a 17-year-old girl outside the Galeries Lafayette in Paris in 1927.
He was 28 years her senior, but Marie-Thérèse Walter soon became his muse for voluptuous portraits and gave birth to his daughter before he moved on to the next of his many relationships, with Dora Maar, the surrealist photographer and painter.
That daughter, Maya Ruiz-Picasso, now 84, has spoken of the women in her father’s life and her own close relationship with the artist for a new book edited by her daughter, the art historian Diana Widmaier-Picasso.
Picasso and Maya: Father and Daughter, published next month, explores Picasso’s depictions of Ruiz-Picasso and the relationship between a father and his eldest daughter.
The painting Marie-Thérèse with Red Beret with Pompom is said to be a combination of two of Picasso’s lovers, Maya’s mother Marie-Thérèse Walter and Dora Maar. Photograph: © Succession Picasso/DACS, London 2020
Interviewed for the book by her daughter, Ruiz-Picasso says the way Picasso depicted her mother was “very sensual. I’m struck by how accurately she is represented. She had voluptuous curves and her breasts were particularly round, but she was also very passionate and athletic.
“When he met her, I think my father found his fit in a way, like some sculptures in which the feminine and the masculine sexual organs are intertwined. That’s why he depicted her so often, especially in sculpture.”
She singles out the 1931 painting Still Life on a Pedestal Table, in the Musée National Picasso-Paris: “Through the image of a still life, my father depicted my mother’s curves, especially her breasts as fruit, as well as her straight blond hair. Those elements translate my father’s feelings toward her.”
Maya’s existence, like her father’s affair with Marie-Thérèse, was initially kept secret. Within months of her birth, Picasso had embarked on an affair with Maar.
Ruiz-Picasso observes that, when Picasso was torn between her mother and Maar, he combined the features of his two lovers to the point of merging them in his 1937 portrait, Marie-Thérèse with Red Beret with Pompom.
“My father … never tired of drawing [my mother], painting her, sculpting her, engraving her. But in this painting, it’s a combination of my mother and Dora Maar. It’s my mother’s hair and eyes, but the nose and tones recall Dora Maar, who entered his life in 1936, shortly after I was born,” she says.
Yet the book will undoubtedly face criticism for depicting the relationship between Walter and Picasso in such a positive light. In the wake of the #MeToo movement, Picasso’s treatment of women has been reassessed. In 2018 Jock Reynolds, the director of the Yale University Art Gallery, described Picasso as “one of the worst offenders of the 20th century in terms of his history with women”, and asked: “Are we going to take his work out of the galleries?”
In her Netflix show Nanette, the comedian Hannah Gadsby described her horror at reading about Picasso’s relationship with Walter. “Picasso said, ‘It was perfect – I was in my prime, she was in her prime.’ I probably read that when I was 17. Do you know how grim that was?”
Anecdotes about Picasso’s relationship with women, wrote Julia Halperin, the editor of Artnet, have often been “told in service of the romantic narrative of an obsessive, passionate, difficult artist whose tumultuous relationships with women were the necessary match to light his creative fire”.
In the new book, Ruiz-Picasso recalls posing for Picasso from the age of seven to 18: “We would be sitting at the table and suddenly he wanted to immortalise an expression or attitude. He told me, ‘Do not move!’ and he rushed off to find some paper, pencils, a board or notebook.”
Of his tender 1938 portrait of her as a toddler, First Snow, she says: “It was the day that I took my first steps… I was wearing little pink booties that my father kept his whole life.”
She recalls that, when her father asked her to pose for him, “he insisted that I not smile”. But she recalls Picasso’s “great sense of humour” and toys he made for her during the war, including “a family of small characters in fabric with heads made of chickpeas”.
In 1977, four years after Picasso’s death, Walter took her own life at the age of 68.
Picasso and Maya: Father and Daughter will be published on 1 September by the Gagosian Gallery and Rizzoli Publications