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Diana Widmaier-Picasso on art through the ages at Getty Villa

As the granddaughter of the famed artist and contributor of a piece to the Getty Villa's 'Modern Antiquity' show, Diana Widmaier-Picasso has a unique insider's view.

December 04, 2011|By Jori Finkel, Los Angeles Times
  • Diana Widmaier-Picasso contributed a bronze piece depicting her grandmother Marie-Thrse Walter.
Diana Widmaier-Picasso contributed a bronze piece depicting her grandmother… (Kirk McKoy, Los Angeles…)

Looking at the larger-than-life bronze head of Marie-Thérèse Walter, which currently presides over a gallery at the Getty Villa like a Greek goddess, you would never guess how much Picasso labored over it.  

A touch more pensive than many of the sunny images of his young, athletic lover, whom he famously picked up outside a Paris department store when she was a teenager, this sculpture has a classical symmetry and grace. And like so much of Picasso's work, there is a formal confidence or brashness that makes the work appear effortless.

But art historian Diana Widmaier-Picasso, 38, has a keener sense than most that a struggle shaped this work: It is an image of her grandmother made by her grandfather that is owned by her family.

Picasso was trained academically as a painter, Widmaier-Picasso said, "but he was a self-taught sculptor. You can see here how he's a painter teaching himself to sculpt."

She described revisions to the head and hair in nearly perfect English with a light French accent. "We have seen X-rays of the plaster original, and they show the difficulty of making these monumental heads," she said.

She was talking about her grandfather's work — and her own role these days as a scholar researching and writing about it — while walking through the current Getty Villa exhibition "Modern Antiquity: Picasso, De Chirico, Léger, Picabia," which includes over three dozen works by these modern giants mixed together with a sampling of Greek and Roman antiquities.

Her only connection to the show, she said, was that she lent the one work to it. "Other than that, I'm here just to show my enthusiasm," she said. "I wish I had antique sculpture to lend, but that is not my field of collecting."

She mainly collects 20th-century design and Old Masters drawings — by Domenichino, Jacopo Ligozzi, and Taddeo Zuccaro, among others. Born and raised in Paris and now based in New York, Widmaier-Picasso was the first person in her family to train as an art historian. She completed her master's thesis at the Sorbonne on the 17th-century art market in France before working in the Old Masters drawings departments at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and Sotheby's London. She now sits on the International Council of the Tate and on the board of MoMA's PS1.

 But today she is best known for her work on her grandfather, who died the year she was born. (Her grandmother died a few years later.) Last year, she co-curated with Picasso biographer John Richardson "Picasso and Marie Thérèse: L'Amour Fou" for Gagosian Gallery in New York. And for eight years she has been preparing the catalogue raisonné of Picasso's sculpture — meant to be the most comprehensive and definitive scholarly resource, including all of the artist's authenticated work. She expects to publish the first volume, covering 1902 to 1927, in 2014.

She also works closely with her mother, Maya Widmaier-Picasso, who has been authenticating Picasso's drawings and paintings for many decades. One of Diana Widmaier-Picasso's big contributions has been to spearhead the creation of a database of 25,000 paintings and drawings that includes ownership information when available.

(And, yes, she knows who bought "Nude, Green Leaves and Bust," another image of her grandmother by her grandfather, for a record $106.5 million at Christie's last year, but she's not telling. "He's a friend of mine," is all she would say.) The painting was sold at auction after the death of its longtime owner, the late Los Angeles art patron Frances Brody.

"What I like about this show," she said, entering the first gallery of the Getty exhibition, "is that it's not academic. It doesn't try to prove that one artist saw one work [from antiquity] during one year." 

Yes, she said, it's known that Picasso visited certain archaeological sites like Pompei and Herculaneum in Italy. But he also had access to a wealth of archaeological discoveries through reproductions and word of mouth, from friends such as the Greek author-publisher Christian Zervos and the French poet Guillaume Apollinaire. "We can see through this show how a number of artists looked at the world differently because of archaeological discoveries. This immense world opened up, and these artists were engaged in an ongoing conversation, a real spiritual dialogue, with their ancestors."

"I feel like you're lost in time here," she said near the entrance of the show. "It's like Picasso said: There is no present or past in art. If a work of art does not exist in the present, it must not be considered at all."

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