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

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."

She began inspecting one of Picabia's densely layered "transparency" paintings, talking about them loosely in terms of Disney cartoons, before turning to an etching by Picasso showing a rather sympathetic faun with a lover. In the 1936 print, Picasso clearly casts himself in the role of the faun, an old goat-like creature from Roman mythology, while casting Marie-Thérèse in the role of a youthful sleeping beauty that he hovers over. 

 But it's no simple drama of the young beauty and the old beast, suggested Widmaier-Picasso.  Age is "very slippery or elastic" for Picasso, she noted. "In one of his very first self-portraits he's depicting himself as an old man, while in the 1930s he tried to make himself look younger."

 She walked to the end of the gallery, which features a famous 1921 painting, "The Source" from Picasso's neoclassical period. It shows an enormous woman in a toga-style gown, spilling water from a jug in her lap. While her limbs are huge and appear as smooth as stone, her more realistic-looking face is relatively small.

 Does Widmaier-Picasso know anything about the model for that painting? "No, we don't recognize the face," she said. "We know that some of his friends did pose for him, but sometimes he also represents people before he knows them. When he sees Marie-Thérèse for the first time, he's already been drawing a woman who looks like her for several years. He was already thinking of a certain ideal of antiquity."

 She describes drawings Picasso made as early as 1924 showing a woman with a strong Grecian nose. That series predated his meeting Walter by three years.

 Still, that chance encounter was a game-changer.  It was 1927: Picasso was 45, Walter was 17, and they would be lovers for the next decade, reinvigorating the artist and his work.

As New York magazine art critic Jerry Saltz wrote, reviewing the Gagosian show, "Not only was she his submissive sexual conquest, artistic muse, psychic victim, and mother of his daughter; she's the fleshy subject of some of his juiciest paintings. Picasso said she saved his life. And it's true that from the moment she appears in his work, in early 1927, his art gets plusher and more immediate, catapulting him out of Cubism, paving the way for all his subsequent efforts. Marie-Thérèse is the fertile inspiration that made Picasso Picasso after Cubism."

 "Renewal was a central theme of the Gagosian show," the artist's granddaughter agreed. But she said the show was also designed to reveal how Marie-Thérèse played more than one role in his artwork. "There was more depth and power in her personality that inspired Picasso, and led him to represent her as a Greek goddess, beyond the obvious physical features."

 Widmaier-Picasso believes his series of monumental heads of Marie-Thérèse also illustrate her complexity as a muse. He began them in 1931 shortly after buying the Chateau de Boisgeloup in Normandy and converting the large stables into studios for sculpture and printmaking.

 "She looks stronger here than you would think — and more melancholy," said Widmaier-Picasso, standing beside the head at this point. "But it is definitely the most classical example from the series. Later, we see Picasso combine his own features with hers."

 From one angle, the art historian could be looking at a mirror — the resemblance, in the cheekbones and jaw line in particular, is that strong. "It is a bit weird to stand right in front of her," she admitted. "The head is so much bigger than mine."

 But she says studying these works is not awkward, as she finds herself in an ongoing conversation with her ancestors not unlike the one Picasso had with the ancients. "I never met Picasso," she said, "so I am always getting to know him through the works of art."

jori.finkel@latimes.com

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