Feet of Clay

Picasso's ceramics are like the little girl with the curl: Sometimes they're great, sometimes they're horrid

In the summer of 1946, while on holiday along the French Riviera, Pablo Picasso wandered to the nearby village of Vallauris, a Provençal town where artists and craftsmen had been turning out pottery since at least Roman times. Picasso was 65 years young, and somewhat at loose ends. Though he had continued to produce as much work as ever during the German occupation (as Picasso told one of his dealers, there "was nothing else to do"), the war had produced any number of disruptions. On the personal side, he had lost a number of friends. On the professional front, Picasso's main dealer between the wars, Paul Rosenberg, had fled the Nazis and resettled in New York. In the zone of politics, the painter often dubbed "Ol' Cojones" had recently joined the Communist Party, with which he would spend the next decade alternately quarreling and chairing committees. And last but certainly not least, his love life was in the usual turmoil: He had just left Dora Maar for the dark-haired Françoise Gilot, an artist 40 years his junior, who would bear the bull of the Cote d'Azur two more heirs before being replaced by the younger-still Jacqueline Roque.

Casting about for inspiration, Picasso found it in Vallauris' clay, a 30,000-year-old medium that appealed to Picasso's neo-primitivist shtick. Georges Ramié, owner of the Madoura pottery--the local atelier where ceramics were produced--later recalled that Picasso abandoned his holiday to play with clay and then disappeared to Paris, only to reappear the next summer with reams of paper. The artist had spent at least part of the winter drawing designs: anthropomorphic pots; pots in the form of bulls and birds and goats; platters and vases and bowls. Working with the potter Jules Agard, who threw the clay confections the great painter dreamed up, Picasso designed and decorated ceramics, creating at his usual warp speed.

For a few years in the late '40s, ceramics became Picasso's obsession. He threw all his energies into this three-dimensional medium, which led him in turn to take up sculpting again, which led him back to paint. In the span of a few years, he moved effortlessly from charcoal to clay to metal and back again to pigments.

"Plat long (scene tauromachique)" is one of the Picasso ceramics now on view at Pillsbury and Peters Fine Art.
"Plat long (scene tauromachique)" is one of the Picasso ceramics now on view at Pillsbury and Peters Fine Art.
"Tulips" (2000), one of David Bates' new wood constructions mounted on canvas
"Tulips" (2000), one of David Bates' new wood constructions mounted on canvas

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Runs through December 16. (214) 969-9410

David Bates' paintings, wood reliefs, and sculpture are on display through November 11 at Dunn and Brown Contemporary. (214) 521-4322

Pillsbury and Peters Fine Art

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Picasso loved the remoteness of the area around Vallauris at least as much as the clay. In 1948 he bought a house, La Galloise, on the outskirts of town, and in 1953 he purchased an old factory nearby, which he turned into a studio with rooms devoted to pottery, painting, and sculpture. Picasso's factory-studio, Le Fournas, also included a storage shed where the artist housed the results of his clay experiments. Picasso wasn't the only one who got something out of the deal. The little communist-governed town of Vallauris got an artist-hero and tourist magnet in the best capitalist tradition. Georges Ramié, owner of the Madoura atelier, got the subject for a book as well as a cottage industry, copying Picasso's originals and selling them in editions ranging from 25 to 300 or more.

Picasso seems to have been of two minds about this business. On the one hand, he acquiesced in the churning out of cheap ceramics for the tourist trade, a process that Ramié himself describes as an "incessant withdrawal of exhausted editions and the introduction of new ones." Picasso must have imagined he was doing his communist duty; as Picasso biographer Pierre Daix noted, he "was delighted to find a pretext--vis-à-vis his communist comrades--for creating objects which could be said to have some utilitarian application." Presumably, he liked the notion of a chicken in every kitchen and a satyr on every platter.

On the other hand, Picasso was famously stingy with the originals. Though he did give some away and occasionally sold one, most remained in the artist's studio under lock and key. A number of these original experiments are on display until December 16 at Pillsbury and Peters Fine Art, in a show titled Picasso in Clay: Three Decades of Ceramics From the Marina Picasso Collection.

Opinions of the hoarded clay treasures have differed wildly. Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, the dealer who ended up handling Picasso's post-war output, is said to have thought so little of the pottery that he refused to have anything to do with it. To be fair, Kahnweiler's reasons may have had less to do with aesthetics than with the daunting specter of Picasso's ceramic output. In 1973, when the 92-year-old Picasso finally gave up the ghost, his executor counted 2,880 original ceramics still in Picasso's studio. And, of course, there is the matter of those copies; you do the math. One can almost picture the German-Jewish Kahnweiler, who had by then survived two world wars and hostile French and German regimes that confiscated his inventory, reaching for the nitroglycerin in contemplation of the cataloging alone.

But Picasso has been gone nearly 30 years now, and historical revision has commenced. During the last two years, a few intrepid scholars have begun to wade into the problem of the ceramics. In 1998, the Royal Academy in London mounted an exhibition of some originals, and the show traveled to New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. And late last year John Richardson, the pre-eminent Picasso biographer, published a delightfully dishy book dealing tangentially with the period of Picasso's ceramics production. In an essay in the Pillsbury and Peters catalog, excerpted from Richardson's book, Richardson suggests they are important. Indeed, Richardson goes so far as to call them "talismanic," bearing "the same relationship to [Picasso's] sculptures that his drawings [bear] to his paintings." (Richardson also relates an amusing anecdote about visiting Picasso in the studio, only to be interrupted by the "famously awful" Madame Ramié. Apparently Mme. Ramié, "an iron-faced matron with the tin-pot air of a village postmistress," was angling to accompany Picasso and his guest into the storage shed, hoping to snag some new treasure for copying. As Richardson tells it, Picasso dispatched the interloper "with a sharp glance.")

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