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Artland Spotlight on: Pablo Picasso’s Ceramics

Anthony Dexter Giannelli

With his founding role in the creation of Cubism, the iconic Spanish painter Pablo Picasso has changed the course of modern art forever. Seemingly every aspect of his work and practice has been studied and carefully analyzed by art historians, with painting being his most prolific and groundbreaking medium. However, having secured his place in twentieth-century art, a 1946 encounter with Suzanne and Georges Ramié from the Atelier Madoura in Vallauris, France, would usher in one of the most prolific phases of Picasso’s career. His late-life ceramic practice was built upon his symbolic language, with features from his most recognizable works such as Guernica appearing on “functional” vessels, bowls, or plates. 

A journey through pottery

The investigation into ceramic production took the later 25 years of the artists’ life while living in South France. Enamored of the idea of producing affordable objects that would combine aesthetic and functional value, Picasso started modeling, scratching, carving, and distorting, ultimately producing a massive body of earthenware and ceramic work. He was driven by the curiosity towards clay’s pliability and stimulated by the technical challenges of an unexplored medium. Still characterized by highly technical execution – seen especially in the glazing process – this art form freed Picasso from the stringent technicalities of painting thanks to the work of the artisans producing the final works at the Madoura facilities.

Created in the sunny and warm atmosphere of South France, Picasso’s vases, pitchers, and plates show a different side of the artist that many are unfamiliar with, one that expresses a sense of playfulness and joy. The impact these works had on the fine art world’s path of reconciliation with craft is undeniable. Ironically, the culmination of the career of the revolutionary cubist who had spent years reversing the dominant representation style in the West to flatten the form away from realism took eventually the path of three-dimensionality.

Pablo Picasso, Pichet Boule "Taureau". 1957
Pablo Picasso, Pichet Boule “Taureau”, 1957. Bailly Gallery Geneva/Paris. AVAILABLE FOR PURCHASE HERE.

The Language of Picasso Ceramics

Picasso’s visual language was ripe with symbolism and the figures presented in his ceramics reinforce the characters at play throughout his visual world. His approach to line work and form took on influences that far exceed his own cultural sphere, also interpreting the world over to make commentary on the instability of Europe and Spain during his time.

The bull and the bull fighter

Perhaps the most prevalent and explored motif in Picasso’s oeuvre is that of the bull and bullfighter, which went through numerous changes throughout his career. A strongly associated symbol of Spanish culture, it is well known that Picasso employed the creature particularly with the horse in scenes as statements against the dangers of ramping Fascism and nationalism throughout Spain. In examples such as the Pichet Boule “Taureau” vessel, the rather simplistic and flat single color bull embodies a movement and imposition that’s head on towards the viewer, aligned and emotionally charged as his oil on canvas brothers. Other examples show even more novel examples of a type of elongated, silhouetted form little explored in his painting practice but reminiscent of the simple, bold black shapes of his well-known Don Quixote sketch.

Pablo Picasso, Picador 1955Bailly Gallery Geneva/Paris
Pablo Picasso, Picador 1955. Bailly Gallery Geneva/Paris. AVAILABLE FOR PURCHASE HERE.

Birds

Also a common appearance in Picasso’s work, his characterization of the owl is perhaps best and most thoroughly explored through his ceramics. Birds as a whole, particularly the dove, were heavily utilized as messengers of peace and knowledge in his paintings and print work.  Particularly through vases, he was able to explore the form and presence of these symbolic creatures to new ends. Infatuated with the owls’ gaze and legendary knowledge, the form of Athena’s bird was repeated in numerous variations and melded well with Picasso’s renewed investigations into mythology.

Pablo Picasso, Hibou, 1953 Bailly Gallery Geneva/Paris
Pablo Picasso, Hibou, 1953. Bailly Gallery Geneva/Paris. AVAILABLE FOR PURCHASE HERE.

Mediterranean mythology

Many other works continued his visual language but began to further incorporate his environment and surroundings in the south of France and the Mediterranean at large, with references to Greek mythology, classic still life with local flora, or even references to Mediterranean artifacts. While still fully within Picasso’s established visual realm, Picasso used inspiration from the leisurely and relative melodic existence he was able to enjoy in contrast to the political instability of his surroundings that defined and had an incredible impact on his earlier work. Inspired by the muse of the love found in his second wife, Jacqueline Roque, Picasso also started exploring the female form in a lighter way than his previous investigations. Even his animal works such as the bull or goat reflected more playful centaurs and Minotaur of Greek and Mediterranean mythology.

Visage works

The staple forms such as his many faces, masks, or Visage series embody Picasso’s Cubist origins like no other. These works are telling of his early infatuation with West African mask work and figuration – usually described as the artist’s ‘African period’ – and show his playful and expressive exploration of the human face through clay.

Pablo Picasso, Mask. 1956
Pablo Picasso, Mask, 1956. Bailly Gallery Geneva/Paris. AVAILABLE FOR PURCHASE HERE.

Where to buy Picasso’s Ceramics?

Picasso’s experiments with various ceramic materials, oxides and glazes would produce a huge body of work consisting of around 4,000 pieces that are today part of major public and private collections. Even though the artist created these pieces in large series to be affordable, his position as an embraced fine artist allowed his ceramic objects to reach auction prices never reached before, with his piece Le Hibou – an exceptional owl sculpture – reaching the whopping price of $2.4 million at Christie’s in 2016.
An outstanding selection of ceramic works produced by the father of Cubism is available for purchase on Artland’s marketplace, explore it HERE.

Relevant sources to learn more

For other ‘Artland Spotlight On’ articles, see:
Artland Spotlight On: Black and White Photography
Artland Spotlight On: Korean Artists
Artland Spotlight On: Nigerian Artists

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