A s the granddaughter of Pablo Picasso and Marie-Thérèse Walter, Diana Widmaier Picasso knows her grandfather's work inside out and is dedicated to keeping his legacy alive. To this end, she has written several books about her grandfather, including Picasso Sorcier, published last year. On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Pablo Picasso's death, she talks about the construction of his myth and his posterity.
Picasso is also the creator of the MENÉ jewellery brand, as well as working on the definitive catalogue raisonné of grandmother Marie-Thérèse Walter's own body of work. In this interview with Sotheby's she shares her eclectic taste for design and art - as well as her marked tendency for accumulating objects, just like her grandfather.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of Picasso's death. Of all the exhibitions paying tribute to this occasion, which ones are you particularly excited about?
There is plenty to marvel at, with a truly exceptional programme of 40 or so exhibitions around the world. To highlight just a few, 'Cubism and the tradition of trompe-l'oeil' at the Metropolitan Museum or Art, New York, 'Daniel Henry-Kahnweiler' at the Picasso Museum in Barcelona, 'Picasso/ Poussin/ Bacchanals' at the Musée des Beaux Arts in Lyon, 'Picasso and Prehistory' at the Musée de l'Homme in Paris, 'Picasso: Body and Matter' at the Picasso Museum in Malaga and the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, and 'Picasso and El Greco' at the Museo Nacional del Prado in Madrid.
You have written several books about your grandfather. In your book, Picasso Sorcier, you speak of how your grandfather attached symbolic meaning to objects. Could you choose some works from the Important Design sale in which you see a particular symbolic meaning?
Charlotte Perriand's works continue to be as striking as ever. They are a symbol of women's liberation, a manifesto of the freedom they aspire to through technical progress.
Your grandfather believed that things have an inner being, a magical secret soul. Which works in the sale speak to that idea in particular?
Perhaps the beautiful jewellery by Claude Lalanne, an artist who I am particularly fond of, because jewellery always carries stories.
In Picasso Sorcier, you write that animals play a major role in Pablo Picasso's life and work; he used animals to express the subjects that were essential to him, such as life, struggle, war, peace, sacrifice and death. His alter ego was the Minotaur and he also had a fascination with bones, skeletons, rhinoceros and goats, as well as certain birds. Which of the works by François-Xavier and Claude Lalanne in the sale appeal to you?
The work of Les Lalannes is extremely moving, and the animal motif is an essential part of their artistic vocabulary. Their entire oeuvre consists of provoking aesthetic encounters between various forms – mixing universal symbols, poetry and refinement. I particularly like Claude Lalanne's Crococurule stool, which brings the fantastical into a domestic space.
You also write that Picasso 'assumes the role of the sorcerer and sees every painting as a primitive work in the sense of a magical act'. Not only was Picasso fascinated by witchcraft but he had a passion for primitive art. What do you think of Alberto Giacometti's Mask with Snakes?
It is a fascinating work that refers to the myth of Medusa. She is known for her hair made of living snakes and her ability to turn people to stone with a single glance, a legend that has inspired many artists. While most representations of the myth are violent, Alberto Giacometti offers a beautiful and serene vision of the Gorgon, with sinuous curves. Originally intended as a wall lamp, it has been turned into a sculpture with a base.
Another favourite of yours is the Diego Giacometti's Table Carcasse à la chauve-souris?
The Carcass Table with Bat is an iconic, particularly poetic work. The material lends the object an extreme lightness and unites the power of architectural and painterly forms. The geometric lines and decorative details of the table evoke both the ancient world, as well as the plant and animal kingdom. The drawings of the bats seem to come alive. Diego Giacometti's work is something I really admire, with its dual decorative and functional dimensions, as he fulfils the role of a sort of sculptor-craftsman.
What are your other favourite 20th century design pieces in the sale?
The Campana brothers' armchair, Picasso's ceramics and the beautiful desk by Martin Szekely, a designer for whom I have boundless admiration.
Do you collect design? Who are your favourite designers and periods and why?
I've been collecting design for a long time and as I've moved around a lot in Paris and New York, I've had to continually renew my style. In Paris, I used to live on rue de Grenelle, not far from the late, great Hubert de Givenchy, whom I often visited. At that time, I mainly had design from the 1970s (Maria Pergay, Roger Tallon, Hiquily, Jean-Paul Vitrac, Pierre Paulin) but also some pieces from the 1950s, like Jean Prouvé or Charlotte Perriand and some lamps by Lalanne. In my office, I had pieces by Martin Szekely. In New York, I lived in the West Village and then in Gramercy Park in an old house. I felt the need to be surrounded by 19th century furniture that was juxtaposed with my metal furniture. I also discovered Italian furniture like Gio Ponti, Carlo Molino, Gae Aulenti. At the moment, I have a new project in Venice and I'm looking for antique furniture from the 17th and 18th centuries. Let's just say I'm a bit eclectic!
How do you live with design? Do you tend to accumulate things, like Picasso?
I tend to accumulate, like Picasso did. I find it very difficult to detach myself from things. I like to surround myself with all kinds of objects that I often put together in cabinets of curiosities, which tell a story. I don't have a strictly defined style, and I like to vary the genres.
What young or emerging designers have you noticed lately?
As a dynamic and constantly evolving figure, Gaetano Pesce with his project at Bottega Veneta has definitely charmed me. When there is a creative spirit, there is always a youthful spirit! Otherwise, among the younger generation, trends and ideas related to sustainable, eco-responsible design are the most interesting to me. All the ideas that focus on extending the life of a piece of furniture and avoiding the depletion of resources.
If you could create an imaginary museum, which designers and artists would you put in it?
The artists in my imaginary museum would be Picasso, Giotto, Van Eyck, Paolo Uccello, Pontormo, Poussin, Antonello Da Messina, Johann Heinrich Füssli, Philipp Otto Runge, Caspar David Friedrich, David Hockney, Gerhard Richter, Ian Cheng, Rachel Rose, Anicka Yi, Isa Genzken, Elizabeth Peyton, Faith Ringgold, Arthur Jafa, Ed Ruscha, Wolfgang Tillmans, Bruce Nauman, Richard Serra, Bill Viola.
And the designers in my imaginary museum would be Pierre Chareau, Jean Michel Frank, Pierre Paulin, Charlotte Perriand, Diego Giacometti, Jean Prouvé, Georges Jouve, Roger Tallon, Robert Mallet-Stevens, Line Vautrin. And if I had to have just one, it would probably be a lacquer work by Eileen Gray.
You created your jewellery brand, MENÉ, after meeting your partner Roy Sebag in New York. Why did you decide to express your creativity through jewellery?
In 2017, I founded MENÉ with my friend Roy Sebag, born out of the realisation that the modern jewellery industry is mistreating the intrinsic value of gold and platinum by employing artificial chemical alloys that do not allow the precious metals to let their exceptional natural properties of indestructibility and radiance flourish.
Much more than a brand, MENÉ is a concept of 24-carat gold and platinum jewellery sold by weight, with a transparent price and profit margin (15%) and ethically produced materials. This exciting adventure is based on a simple, ancient and innovative concept, inspired by Asian models. MENÉ has led me to reconsider the importance of precious materials, and to re-evaluate the fundamental work of craftsmen. This is jewellery designed to endure, and to be passed on from generation to generation. The brand also offers an innovative dashboard to track the value of its collection in real time.
How would you define the style of your brand?
The jewellery designs are timeless and can be worn by women or men. There is a wide variety of designs and inspirations (over 600 models). Primitive shapes without embellishments that get straight to the heart of it, simple lines that embrace the body, bracelets that resurrect the sacredness of the immemorial, chains that evoke the Renaissance or Holbein's paintings. I like symbolic jewellery, such as religious medals and charms. We also have precious objects: a gold and platinum chess set, spinning tops, four-leaf clovers. Finally, original collaborations with artists such as Louise Bourgeois or Inez & Vinoodh, to feed the imagination.
Were there any works created by your grandfather - be it paintings, drawings, sculptures or jewellery - that inspired you?
Picasso himself called on the know-how of craftsmen to give shape to his innovations, I am thinking in particular of his collaborations with Julio Gonzalez for iron, and Joseph-Marius Tiola for cut-out sheets.
What new facets of your grandfather's work do you hope the exhibitions marking the anniversary of his death will bring?
Picasso left us invaluable 'artistic documentation', through his archives, the writings of his biographers, photography and also cinema. He was fully aware that he was building his posterity and the Picasso 'myth', by giving us access to an understanding of the creative process of his works. Today, the art market can sometimes distract us from the qualities of the man Picasso was: his kindness and his affinity for sharing. He left behind a dazzling body of work of diversity and novelty, that has shaken up both the art world and many other sectors.