For most art fans, Pablo Picasso's lovers are the women captured on canvas. But for Diana Widmaier Picasso, one of them is closer to her heart. Marie-Thérèse Walter was her grandmother.Two paintings in a new show at the National Gallery record the affair that started in 1927 when Marie-Thérèse was just 17, lasted more than eight years and resulted in the birth of Diana's mother, Maya, now 73.
Miss Widmaier Picasso, 36, hopes art historians may think again about her grandmother's inspirational role at a time when Picasso was reaching the height of his artistic powers.
"There hasn't been enough work done on Marie-Thérèse. I think it's a period when this love inspires a great creativity, a very intense fever. He sculpts a lot, goes back to prints, he's drawing a lot," she told the Evening Standard in a private tour of the show.
"When he met Marie-Thérèse, it's a period when he has reached this great maturity in his work.
"It's a combination of this great passion and being able to transcribe it in the best way. It's a very happy period, when he was rediscovering himself."
Yet, as the exhibition also shows, Marie-Thérèse was only one of a long line of women. Her own affair began when Picasso was already married to Olga Khokhlova. Within a year of Maya being born, Picasso had begun a new relationship with the photographer Dora Maar.
Miss Widmaier Picasso, who was born a year before her grandfather died aged 91 in 1973, is pragmatic about his prodigious sexual appetite.
"He depicted himself in all the pictures, through the women. He's a man of passion and every woman inspires him to a new vocabulary. He's true to his feelings. I think that Picasso's work is a diary. You can smell the sensuality," she said.
Miss Widmaier Picasso, herself an art historian, would love to have known her grandfather. "Of course," she said. "But looking at his work - perhaps this is a better understanding. I never really knew my grandmother either, so when I think of her, I think of exactly what is expressed in the picture, Sleeping Nude With Blonde Hair, 1932.
"Red was passion, purple was her favourite colour, green because of nature and the wonderful curvy shapes."
Yet even though another pensive portrait shows Olga as if already sad at the breakdown of her marriage, Miss Widmaier Picasso warns against being too reductive.
"Sometimes it's dangerous to link the art too much with his private life." The gallery hopes the exhibition will show that far from being an audacious rebel who broke with the past, in works like these Picasso showed he was rooted in, and deeply influenced by, the past.
It shows how the artist pitted himself against the great masters and transformed their themes and techniques into something of his own.
"We tend to see Picasso as the man who established Cubism, but I think this exhibition makes you think of a man who was a practitioner, just like his father was a painter," his granddaughter said. Each of the rooms takes a genre of the painting tradition, from nudes to still lives, and shows how Picasso handled it.
In some cases he pays tribute to the old masters with works clearly echoing those of Nicolas Poussin, Diego Velázquez, Vincent van Gogh and Edouard Manet. In others, he creates playful parodies.
He knew his predecessors well, copying El Greco in the Prado museum in Madrid as a teenager, hailing Poussin as "always magnificent", and painting himself as Goya. Miss Widmaier Picasso encouraged visitors not to be intimidated by art of the past.
"People tend to look at old masters with too much respect sometimes. They find it hard to establish an emotional or personal connection. If this exhibition helps people look at old masters that's what really matters."
Picasso - Challenging the Past, sponsored by Credit Suisse, opens tomorrow and runs until 7 June, with a charge.
Modern take on the old masters who inspired him
THE centrepiece of the exhibition is a room displaying series of paintings Picasso produced in the Fifties and Sixties inspired by key pieces from the past.
Diana Widmaier Picasso said you could see how her grandfather studied originals, such as Manet's Déjeuner sur l'herbe or Velázquez's Las Meninas, very closely.
"He is looking at the Manet and getting closer to the sensuality and the vibration of the space and the relationship between all the sitters and how to explore the subject," she said.
Not only did Picasso produce his own paintings of the famous Manet, but he even created cardboard cut-outs of the main figures, which were later made into concrete sculptures.
"Working on these cardboard figures, helps him to understand the Manet better. It's seriously playful."
She sees her grandfather as creating homages to the Old Masters, rather than copying what they did, she said.
"What is interesting in this exhibition is it shows this idea of the obsession he has when he is encountering Ingres or Velázquez and he's doing different studies, different paintings, drawings, prints.
He feels this connection, it's like the fingerprints have been left from the past."