'It's bizarre to see my grandmother on the walls," Olivier Widmaier Picasso says.
Marie-Therese Walter, who was Pablo Picasso's lover and muse from the late 1920s until the mid-1930s, features prominently in the upcoming show Protean Picasso at the Vancouver Art Gallery. Her grandson will share a personal account of her relationship with the iconic painter in a lecture on Oct. 13.
But it will be an emotional trip down memory lane for Olivier, who researched his grandparents' history for the book Picasso: The Real Family Story, published last year. "We visit our grandparents at museums and see the past with beautiful colours, when the world we came from is black and white," he says. "Marie-Therese wasn't a grandmother, not really a mother -- only a muse and her only love was Pablo."
Walter met Picasso in 1927 at the age of 17. He was 46, already a famous painter, married to Russian ballerina Olga Khoklova and a father for the first time. But Khoklova's bourgeois lifestyle stifled Picasso's bohemianism, as did his renown. So, with Walter as his secret lover and muse, Picasso lashed out against the constraints of polite society, producing numerous paintings of her and the Vollard Suite of 100 drawings, 56 of which are on display at the VAG.
The Vollard Suite intimately captures a difficult era in Picasso's life. Produced for Paris art dealer and publisher Ambroise Vollard, they read like the furious diary scribbles of a man breaking free of the taboos of stuffy French culture.
In them, Picasso explored two primary mythical obsessions: the beastly minotaur and Pygmalion, portraying himself both as a predatory man-beast and an intellectual artist obsessed with his model. As for his obsession du jour, blond, blue-eyed Walter is front-and-centre in compromising situations ranging from child to bullfighter to bull to rape victim.
In reality, "she was maintained in a golden cage, obliging herself to be available," Olivier says. And in 1935, Walter became pregnant. Khoklova stalled divorce proceedings and by 1936, Picasso found a new lover and muse in photographer Dora Maar. The affair with Walter ended after their daughter Maya was born.
"He always needed fresh inspiration. . . . The only thing he was faithful to was creation," Olivier says of Picasso. "Ultimately, in the studio, he was alone."
Picasso died in 1973, still grappling with themes of creation and destruction, beauty and beastliness. His dying words were "Drink to me," a striking contrast to Walter's -- "Forgive me" -- written on a suicide note to her daughter.
"She had no problems with money, was living peacefully in the South of France," Olivier says. "But she was alone, back to the ordinary life. Jacqueline [Roque, Picasso's final wife] killed herself too, in 1986. They lost their link. They had the same destiny."
The destiny of Picasso's living heirs has been varied. "Our parents kept us away from the Picasso universe," Olivier says. "But I have benefited from his fame and financial fortune and choose to live with his magic, accepting the big puzzle with pieces missing."
Olivier has filled in some of those pieces researching his book. "But only more exhibitions will truly help put the puzzle together," he says. "I'm supposed to be the cowboy, so I don't cry like some of my family when I see his work. But I am breathless."