Pablo Picasso's Grandson Talks Painter's Legacy, "The First Rock Star in the Artist World"

Zack Whitford/BFA.com
Olivier Widmaier Picasso at Berluti in Beverly Hills.

“Pablo had all the elements: He was short but he had a strong personality. He had power, talent, money, sex, love. All of this is making a good Hollywood character," said Olivier Picasso of his grandfather.

“He was probably the first rock star in the artist world,” said television producer and author Olivier Widmaier Picasso in reference to his grandfather Pablo Picasso. Now rock stars are Picasso collectors, including Beyoncé and Jay-Z, whose song “Picasso Baby” was released in 2013 with a video that included a cameo by Olivier’s younger sister Diana.

In Los Angeles to promote his biography Picasso: An Intimate Portrait (first published in the U.S. last October), Olivier Picasso sat down with The Hollywood Reporter at the Beverly Wilshire hotel to talk about his famous grandfather, one of the most influential artists of the 20th century. The next milestone is the 50th anniversary of Pablo Picasso’s death in 2023, with plans already underway for a major global exhibition.

Based in Paris, with a stateside home in Miami purchased last year, Olivier Picasso is the son of Maya Picasso (daughter of Pablo Picasso and Marie-Thérèse Walter, the artist’s companion from 1927-1944). While he did not ever actually meet his famous grandfather (to whom he bears a striking resemblance), his mother Maya was extremely close to her father until his final days; lovingly referred to him as “Papa,” she passed along the family stories and history. Olivier Picasso’s childhood home was peppered with Picasso paintings, yet the enormity of his legacy only became apparent at age 11 after his grandfather passed away on April 8, 1973.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Picasso en plein rangement du dimanche ? . Picasso aimait mélanger la vie quotidienne avec la vie de son atelier. Il était entouré en permanence de ses œuvres ou d’œuvres d’autres artistes qu’il admirait. . David Douglas Duncan, Pablo Picasso déplaçant le "Portrait de Jacqueline" du 13 février 1957 dans l'atelier de La Californie, Cannes, en été 1957, Photographie, 6 x 5 cm, Musée national Picasso-Paris, © Succession Picasso 2019 . #Picasso #PabloPicasso #art #instaart #culturegram #artlovers #musee #museum #woman #portrait #photography #modernart #atelier #life #Cannes #Duncan #DavidDouglasDuncan #photo #pic #picture #sunday

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His education as an attorney has proved useful in a battle against endless copyright and trademark infringements and unauthorized usage of Picasso’s name and works, from sauce pans to toilet paper. Yet the 57-year-old Picasso ended up working in television, tenaciously researching his grandfather’s life to accurately portray the man and his artistry in biopics and books (starting with Picasso: The Real Family Story in 2004). “I wanted to set the record straight about rumors, legends, everything I had heard since I was a child,” Picasso told The Hollywood Reporter, noting that there are over 4,000 books on the subject. “Being a lawyer helped me [locate] legal documents and archives, backed up by testimonies to explain his life.”

Pablo Picasso notably had his share of controversy, from a long string of female companions (spurring charges of misogyny) to his membership in the French Communist Party (barring his entry to the United States). “I have a lot of advantages and benefits and we have a lot of good things, but we have to be very precise about the truth for people. It's not a fairy tale, it's just an incredible adventure! But everyone was free,” said Olivier Picasso, using the phrase “modern family” in reference to his grandfather’s multiple, tangled relationships. “The private life of Pablo Picasso is represented by his artistic life; the man and the artist are the same person. Pablo Picasso was not into abstraction, he needed a model…Without them he would not have achieved all of this!”

While he never visited America, Pablo Picasso had many glittery friends including actor Gary Cooper, who presented him with a Western hat and a pistol after they met in Cannes in 1958. Ironically, art dealer Larry Gagosian hosted a dinner for Olivier Picasso last week at his Holmby Hills home, designed by architect A. Quincy Jones in the early ‘50s for Cooper. Prior to the party, Picasso held a book signing at Parisian menswear brand Berluti’s shop in Beverly Hills, the company that his grandfather frequented for his footwear.

Below are excerpts from our conversation. 

Your grandfather was such a prolific artist; how many total pieces did he create? 
We think there are something between 70,000 to 80,000 artworks; 8,000 paintings. And he kept 25 percent of everything because he had the idea to leave the world a testimony of his talents. I went to see the collection at LACMA three days ago and there were artworks I had never seen before. There was a big portrait from 1970 and, I was thinking, he was 89 [years old]; that makes me tired!

Among his many talents, he also designed ballet costumes and sets?
Yes, he contributed to something like 10 different ballets between 1917 and 1923, starting with "Parade" in 1917—and he designed that theatre curtain that today belongs to the Pompidou Centre in Paris. My grandfather was involved in sculpture, ceramics, engraving, painting, writing and designing for these shows. The only thing he was not into was music! My mother told me that he was not a good singer, and he was singing traditional Spanish songs from the 19th century.

Do you have any memories of your grandfather?
No, no. At the end of his life, he was totally devoted to his studio. His last wife Jacqueline [Roque], who has always been very nice to me, was in charge of protecting his privacy because he was so famous and he was very rich and so he was getting requests every day from people wanting to see him. It was crazy. And of course, he survived so late in good health because of his work.

My father was a navy officer and it's funny, he always kept his universe, so he was referring to Pablo Picasso as "the father of my wife" and that probably helped my brother and my sister and me to be normal by putting us on the right track…I always wanted to do as other people, [thinking] "How do you succeed in life without Picasso?"…I was a boy playing soccer and going to school, so I was not into this. It was funny for a child to see those paintings with a nose and the eyes on the same side. But that day he died I realized what's really important because [it was] on television and in magazines and newspapers all over the world. And suddenly I discovered the family story…so it became larger than life.

But your mother was very close to him and called him “Papa”?
She's the only one in the world who says, "I'm going to the Museum of Papa!" Even Paloma is calling her father "Picasso" and I say "Pablo" so my mother is the only one to call him Papa. I was thinking, it's like Jesus calling God ‘Papa’. I mean there's only one person who can do it. So my mother is 83 today and she's extremely energetic and has kind of a Spanish attitude, always speaking and talking to people, and she has a very good memory. And Pablo had her as a confidant. So every time he was drawing something special, he was calling her to see it in the studio and say, "Look what I've done last night."

She said that he was a tender father —you can see the tenderness in the drawings and paintings — but he was very careful about people around him. He was living to be alone in the studio, because he achieved everything alone. In fact, I [discovered] that he was not a difficult person. But it was not easy. No one easy will do what he has done.

How did your grandfather meet your grandmother?
He saw her through the windows of the Galeries Lafayette [department store] in Paris. She was 17 and he was 46 and he was carrying a book about himself in Japanese. When she came outside, he said, "Mademoiselle, I would like to draw your portrait. I am Picasso," gesturing at the book. She didn't have a clue who Picasso was at that time, and she said, "Maybe I’ll see you tomorrow for another appointment here at the same place." So he came the day after and she said many years later that he was a charming man and he had a beautiful red and black tie. He gave us that tie and she is buried with it in her coffin.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

EXPOSITION PICASSO 1932 | Il y a quarante ans, le 20 octobre 1977, disparaissait Marie-Thérèse Walter, dont l’image marqua de la plupart des œuvres créées par Picasso en 1932. Les toiles colorées et voluptueuses de 1932 qui couvrent les cimaises de l’exposition « Picasso » de la galerie Georges Petit : « Femmes au fauteuil » ou « Nus couchés », donnent à penser qu’une nouvelle muse est entrée dans la vie de l’artiste et que son existence nourrit la fièvre créatrice de Picasso et le renouvèlement esthétique opéré pendant cette année cruciale (ou particulière). Son identité ne sera cependant dévoilée qu’avec la publication de la monographie de Roland Penrose en 1958. Crédits: Marie-Thérèse Walter, Juan-les-Pins, 27 juillet 1932, 12,7 x 8,9 cm, © Archives Maya Widmaier Picasso, © Succession Picasso 2017 #Picasso #PabloPicasso #musée #museum #exposition #expo #exhibition #art #photography #archives #souvenir #remember #Picasso1932 #onthisday #cejourla

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What would you say is the most surprising revelation in the book?
Probably his generosity. With time, because he needed his personal time, but also I discovered that he was giving money to the former women in his life and the children, to friends, and also to Spanish war refugees. He was helping the Communist party to the point that he said "Stop, I'm not going to fund the Communist party in France!" And he was very discreet. There were wide rumors of him being greedy that came up in the ‘80s and I discovered with proof that he was spending the equivalent today of $2 million per year just to pay the bills. When he died, he had 11 mansions in France. But they were not to enjoy; they were warehouses like company vaults. And he knew [exactly] where every piece was; he had a room full of sculptures and he was calling them "my little family."

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Diumenge tanquem l’exposició #PicassoCeramica amb una selecció de fotografies que mostren Picasso en la intimitat del seu taller de Valàuria. #últimsdies ES- El domingo cerramos la exposición #PicassoCeramica con una selección de fotografías que muestran a Picasso en la intimidad de su taller de Vallauris. #últimosdías EN - On Sunday closes the #PicassoCeramica exhibition with a selection of pictures that show Picasso in the intimacy of his workshop in Vallauris. #lastdays David Douglas Duncan. “Picasso a La Californie pintant Natura morta amb dos peixos”. Canes, abril 1957. Còpia moderna digital per injecció de tinta. 60 x 50 cm [73 x 55,5 cm]. Fons David Douglas Duncan. Museu Picasso, Barcelona

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What did you think of Ken Biller’s Genius: Picasso National Geographic TV series last year and other on-screen portrayals of your grandfather?
Pablo had all the elements: He was short but he had a strong personality. He had power, talent, money, sex, love. All of this is making a good Hollywood character! Antonio Banderas is a friend, and it was his dream to play Picasso. It was quite well done and the production was giant. Antonio invited me to Budapest, where they were shooting. When I came from the plane, he was in a hotel, which was supposed to be a hotel in Paris, with a lot of extras. Suddenly a man came up to me in a gray suit, saying "Hey, how are you?" It was Antonio with a fake nose, fake teeth, and the gray hair like Pablo had in 1935. There was a scene when he was talking to a French writer saying, ‘My life is hell. I'm going to divorce Olga, I want to marry Marie-Thérèse.’ It was bizarre, because I was hugging Antonio Banderas and my grandfather.

So I told him, "You must speak with my mother, Maya, because she's very excited." So we dialed her number and it was like the Spanish tornado. It was crazy, like putting life into fiction. I said, "Did you speak to my mother or your daughter?" At dinner, I had Antonio as Picasso at age 70 on one side and on the other was [Alex Rich], playing the young Picasso, and they had this crazy discussion where Alex said, "I just married Olga in 1918" and Antonio said, "Oh, she died yesterday."

Anthony Hopkins played Pablo in [James Ivory’s] Surviving Picasso in 1996 but the story was wrong. It was all about the "bad Picasso" so you had a man but not the genius. My uncle, the administrator of the estate, refused to grant authorization to reproduce artwork.

What would your grandfather think about the art world today?
He went through a lot of different moments in the art market, because he contributed to the creation of it. Today the difference is that artists are aware of marketing, of the importance of image, of contributing to social networks. For sure, Andy Warhol was a pioneer. But Pablo Picasso was a fact; he was marketing himself without knowing it and he probably realized it [was part of] his success. Today, Jeff Koons knows how to do this. Pablo would probably find his space, but it’s more difficult.

How did he feel about America and his influence here?
He knew that America was very important, the freedom of America. In 1932 just after the MOMA was created, the director Alfred Barr did the first exhibition about Picasso. He was a symbol of modern art, so he was already famous among collectors, but at that moment Picasso became a celebrity. And then in 1939 they did another exhibition, which saved big paintings like Guernica, because they were in America, and so Pablo has always been extremely thankful to the American people and to the people in the art world in America. But he never traveled to America because he was declined a visa by being too close to the Communist party.

When he couldn't come to the opening of an exhibition in the ‘50s, Pablo drew paper ties and sent them to MOMA saying, "I am sorry not to be with you, but if you want to, wear the ties." So they wore the paper ties over their ties. And when I visited the MOMA archives, they showed me the ties that had little drawings on them. It was very charming.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Durant le Festival de Cannes 1956, Picasso et Brigitte Bardot font l’évènement. Le film « Le Mystère Picasso » de Clouzot est présenté lors du festival. Quant à Brigitte Bardot, elle vient défendre son film « Et Dieu créa…la femme ». Ils se rencontrent en marge du festival, dans la villa de la Californie à Cannes (la résidence-atelier de Picasso) sous le regard du photographe Jérôme Brierre qui immortalise la rencontre de ces 2 mythes pendant toute la journée. . Jerome Brierre, Pablo Picasso et Brigitte Bardot dans l’atelier de Picasso à Cannes, Getty images, © Succession Picasso 2018 . #PabloPicasso #Picasso #Bardot #BrigitteBardot #BB #art #artist #actress #FestivaldeCannes #star #Festival #Cannes #Cannes2018 #movie #film #glam #instalike #photography #photo #pictures #cinema #artlovers #photo

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Are you working on any new documentaries?
I’m starting a new project [based on] the idea, "What is a master work?" Through the centuries, there has been an evolution of the taste and importance of a master work. It's very interesting and I will have a lot of contributors from many museums. A masterpiece is in fact not only the talent of the artist, but it’s also the permanency and timelessness of the artwork. Is Jeff Koons a master artist or is it only a Raphael or a Leonardo da Vinci?

How would you describe the value of art?
When you have 10 cars, five houses, a boat, a plane, everything, you go back to art because art is an emotion. You want something unique and you are giving a price to this emotion. So you’re ok — It can be 1 million, 5 million, 100 million. It’s the pleasure of having something that’s giving you an emotion that nothing else can give you. And I think it’s really interesting because it goes back to humanity. When you buy a ticket to go to a museum, you [again] buy an emotion because there’s nothing to compare between an artwork and a book because of the size, the color, the subject. And I think Hollywood is [also] an expression of this by giving you emotions and humanity so I think it’s very important.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.