The Editioned Ceramics of Pablo Picasso, 1947-1971
By Gerald Nordland
At the close of the Second World War in 1945, Pablo Picasso, at the age of 63, enjoyed his recognition as one of the leading painters, sculptors and graphic artists of the 20th century. He was hailed for his steadfast support of the French Resistance and his refusal to collaborate with the German occupiers. He had been acclaimed as a young romantic painter-- (Blue and Rose Periods); celebrated as a revolutionary formal innovator (Cubist painting and sculpture); lauded as co-inventor of open-form welded metal sculpture (with fellow Spaniard, Julio Gonzalez), recognized for having studied and mastered the encyclopedic collections of the Louvre, and praised as a prolific master of etching, drypoint and aquatint printing techniques. He was soon to enter into an ambitious series of lithographic studies--The Bull; Portraits of Francoise; Arcadian revels of centaurs and Bacchantes; and homages to Lucas Cranach, which would make it clear that he was equally resourceful and virtuosic in the lithographic medium. Picasso epitomized the Renaissance ideal of an artist, working in every medium with skill, intelligence and energy.
He vacationed at Golfe-Juan, on the Mediterranean in 1945 and again in 1946--his first visits since the war. In Summer 1946, while attending an exhibition of local handcrafts in nearby Vallauris, he met Georges and Suzanne Ramie, owners of the Madoura Pottery. He asked permission to make a few works and was willingly assigned a spot at the bench, where he shaped three pieces. In September, at Golfe-Juan, he complained to the Curator of the Musee d'Antibes (Grimaldi Palace), M. Dor de la Souchere, that he had never been offered a great surface to paint. On the spot, the curator told him that he could have a studio in the Museum. Picasso promptly ordered materials--sheetings of asbestos and plywood, and a supply of marine paints--(all that could be obtained at that post-war time). In less than four months--September through December--Picasso created all but one of the 25 paintings, 33 drawings, and 11 oils on paper, now on view at the Grimaldi-Picasso Museum, Antibes. His Mediterranean subjects included fish, urchins, squid, fishermen, hungry eaters of fish, and high spirited centaurs and faunsenacting and celebrating the Joie de Vivre.
When Picasso returned to Vallauris in Summer 1947, he was pleased to find his three earlier ceramic experiments, and he carried with him a packet of drawings which he thought might come to life in clay. His pleasure in working with clay and with the owners and staff of the Madoura Pottery resulted in a working environment familiar to him from his experience in etching and sculpture workshops.The Ramie's and staff were delighted to apply their knowledge and technical skills to help Picasso realize his projects. He devoted increasing amounts of time to the work, including a large part of 1947, and intermittently during vacations for 25 years, but never became capable of throwing a pot on the wheel, or solving the technical problems of glazes and multiple firings. He began directly with a lump of clay to model a bird, a pigeon, an owl, a dove. He was given advice and assistance with colors, glazing and firing.
He asked for a supply of Spanish Platters (rectangular plates with rounded corners), which he decorated simply in a long and inventive series of face plates treated like canvasses with sgrafito, colored fields, borders, and decorative reinforcements. He turned to common pignate (casserole forms) from stock, and decorated numbers of them with delightful friezes of dancing figures. He selected pitchers from stock to decorate--emphasizing their globular character with both the chosen colors and the decorative graphic geometry.
As he worked, Picasso learned to ask for more specific ceramic pieces: round and oblong dishes, plates both standard and turned, round, square, oval and round/square. He used vase forms, both standard and turned, floor tiles, wall placques in tile, and earthenware, round, rectangular and hexagonal, and occasionally inverted dishes to work on the reverse in shaping convex wall plaques. He came upon discarded fire bricks and occasional shards of broken pots which inspired him to recycle and redeem these suggestive forms in an unprecedented fashion. In his nearly twenty five years at Vallauris he produced, invented, and discovered literally thousands of unique creations.
Picasso was a quick worker, decisive in mind and hand, who remembered the Ramiesí teachings and suggestions, and began to communicate in their ceramic language. He devoted long hoursto developing ideas and multiple variations upon them. Soon he began to find among his accumulating works, pieces which embodied a vitality which he felt might be produced in an edition. He discussed with the Ramies how such editions might be made, and as a result they evolved a series of positive stamps for the underside of such works, which proclaimed the work as an original, an authorized copy, or a numbered and/or signed example of "Picasso Editions" made from a plaster original plate, and imprinted in the manner of an edition of multiple original etchings. The Ramies developed technical procedures to insure precision of form and accurate rendering of the drawn designs and colors. A genuine replica of an original by an accurate model of the exact contour and coloring, created by hand and using materials and methods of which very precise reference notes were made, at the time the original piece was created. The successful work received the proper impressed stamp of authenticity. Picasso retained most of the unique works, making occasional presents to friends and to the Muses d'Antibes, along with a few major sculptures. After his death an important gift of ceramics was made to the Picasso Museum, Paris, with the remainder divided between his heirs.
Picasso soon learned that he could cap a tall vase or bottle and freely manipulate its shape into proportions reflective of a female figure--amplify a hip, squeeze a waist, shape the breasts and throat, prior to color-glazing and firing. He named these lyrical female figures "Tanagras," with reference to the elegant 3rd century B.C. ceramic female figurines in flowing robes found at that location in Greece. His "Tanagras" were, of course, unique and retained for his own collection. His next innovation was to assemble wheel thrown elements to produce new un-pot-like pieces such as Wood Owl Woman, 1951, Vase with Two High Handles, 1952; --King, 1952 and --Queen, 1953, with figure balancing handles, Ice Pitcher, 1952, and Large Bird (Picasso), 1953. These "assembled works" were hardly different in kind from his Cubist assemblages, his found-object bronzes, or bike seat and handlebar Head of Bull. He then built even more extravagant works such as Vase: Femme a I' Amphore, 1947, Grey and Black Bird. 1947, Large Roosting Bird (Four elements), 1947, a long series of Owls, 1952, a Centaur, 1953, Animal Form with Handle and Four Feet, 1954, and countless owls, bulls, kids, condors, and invented animals, which sprung to life under his hands,
The pottery student requested that a large pitcher form be turned and modified to his specifications. He then launched a series of designs--sometimes inscribing a contradictory form, such as a slender vase of flowers in color upon the outer surface, so that the pitcher's silhouette and the vase-and-flower image were set in constant dialogue. In other pitchers he inscribed calla lilies, parrots, a landscape with a two-story building, a series of four nude or clothed figure set out upon the pitcher's four faces, Arcadian scenes with centaurs and fauns, male and female heads. These turned and formed volumes offered irregular convex surfaces for his imagination as well as a memorable pitcher profile. In many cases these works were never used in domestic service, but were displayed on a sideboard, table, or vitrine, as prestigious collectorsí items. Oftentimes he would sign them boldly and/or inscribe the work's date--day, month and year. There can be no doubt that Picasso valued these inventive pieces as enduring works of art.
Recognizing that in utility some shoppers for ceramics might seek sets of plates for serving a table of guests, he worked to form a service of twelve "black plates," twenty fruit plates, and twenty-four fish plates, plus related serving platters and tureens. Many of his forms tended toward the three dimensional and are therefore in part non-utilitarian: plates decorated with a whole fish in relief; three sardines in high relief; half a watermelon with knife and fork; or a breakfast of two eggs, bacon and black pudding. In many other cases, when the depicted subject is not in high relief, Picasso would nevertheless decorate the surface with patterns of ridged lines and bumps, as in the two plates titled Goatís Head in Profile, 1952, Hands with Fish, 1953. Big-Eyed Face, 1954, the white on white Disheveled Woman, 1963, and many dancers and birds in relatively low relief. It must be remembered that many of the works which we may know by a single example actually are part of a short series of three or more variations. Picasso focused all of his knowledge from all of his arts on his ceramic outpourings, and found numbers of ways to re-examine a given design: a blind stamp into red terra cotta: a blind stamp into terra cotta after a white glaze, a number of differing color-glaze treatments, which might result in a series of four or more quite different plates derived from a single image.
It seems fair to conclude that Picasso's ceramic adventures had profound influences, enlarging his field of invention, stimulating his imagination, and enriching his painting, sculpture and graphic output in the post-war period. The turned pitcher form with a series of four females derived from plant forms, with petal-heads and breasts (1948), was arrived at after his painted portrait of his new love, Francoise Gilot--Femme-Fleur, 5 May 1946. His series of light-hearted Arcadian subjects appeared in ceramics shortly after those in the Grimaldi paintings and drawings, and soon found expression in subsequent etchings and lithographs. In some cases ceramic experiments influenced the artist's next works in bronze. Picasso was so broadly experienced in two and three dimensions that he succeeded in achieving his powerful effects with minimal means, moving back and forth with ease. His esthetic effects are complex, combining intellectual daring, technical skill, economy, and impish humor.
As early as 1951 Picasso devised a sculptural pot-form which involved a spherical pot body, a short neck, an equally short pedestal, plus a secondary cylindrical "pigtail" protruding from the base of the body. He utilized this form, in many witty variations, to create Wood Owl Woman, 1951, Mat Wood Owl, 1958, The Wood Owl, 1969, among others. In the first named, he used a white glaze and simple black calligraphy to evoke a woman's head. In the "owl" pieces he found new integrations of the neck and tail feather elements to form owls with knife engraving in black on red in the first, and a layering of black, white and red in the second--all from the identical form. In Ice Pitcher, 1952, he chose a globular pitcher form with a small filter-spout and a large mouth to the rear of the handle. Decorated with oxide colors and engraved in blue on white enamel, it became a female portrait. Vase with Two High Handles, 1952, and 1953, have the same foundation shape in earthenware, but the glazes and engraved decorations tend to differentiate them until seen side by side. Large Bird, Picasso, 1953, is a memorable and imposing abstract pot sculpture, which offers a form which the artist revisited over a number of years. Each viewer enjoys discrete experiences in studying these ceramics which draw upon a wide range of ceramic forms. Woman's Head Crowned with Flowers, 1954, is strongly sculptural, begun from a pitcher form but shaped to emphasize the brow, cheek bones and hair. The example included is rendered in stark white, with the only embellishment Picasso's bold signature beneath the Woman's left ear. It is a tour de force in editioned ceramic art.
Picasso's ceramic oeuvre may seem frivolous to some, particularly where the emphasis upon his painting and sculpture has tended to keep his long involvement in ceramics in the shadow of his other work. His ceramic activity has been extremely ambitious and encompassing. It embodies his imagination and wit, his enthusiasm for making much from little. It employs his understanding of the mytho-poetic power inherent in simple table utensils as they serve their role in the sacraments and ceremonies of daily meals taken en famille. As exemplified by capacious and generous serving dishes, bowls and pitchers, Picassoís splendid forms relate to the comfort and reassurance one finds in oneís warm hearth and to the physical well-being associated with the pleasures of the table. It is his ceramic oeuvre that fostered the artistís witty variations on the religious and mythic tales of Godís use of clay to create a human likeness and all the birds and beasts; to transform one form into another, as bird into spirit, God into bull; and to relive the magical realization of plates that are never empty and jugs that are always full.
Gerald Nordland Chicago, Summer 1998
Mr. Nordland is an independent curator and noted author.
He was previously Director of the San Francisco Art Museum, The Milwaukee Art Museum, The Wight Gallery, UCLA, and the Washington, (D.C.) Gallery of Modern Art. He has authored books on Gaston Lachaise, Frank Lloyd Wright and Richard Diebenkorn and others. Mr. Nordland has also curated numerous exhibitions including an exhibition of 20th Century Master Ceramics for the Milwaukee Art Museum.
Suggested reading list:
Picasso / His Life and Work, Roland Penrose. N.Y.: Schocken Books, 1958
Picasso in Antibes, Dor de la Souchere. London: Lund-Humphries, 1960