Picasso's Ceramics at the Tacoma Art Museum: A New World Awakening (through 1/19/99)
By Matthew Kangas
From the moment the news spread that Picasso had become a potter, a new world suddenly awoke. . . All of a sudden, this imp of a man took it into his head to devote himself heart and soul to this form of plastic expression and take an interest in all its possibilities.
So wrote the man who facilitated Pablo Picasso's endeavors in clay, Georges Ramie, in a style typical of the hyperbole and inaccuracy associated with tributes to Picasso during his lifetime (1881 - 1973). Thanks to "Picasso: Ceramics from the Marina Picasso Collection," a spectacular exhibition at the Tacoma Art Museum (on view through January 10, 1999), viewers can not only see the only North American showing of this definitive survey of one-of-a-kind Picasso ceramics, they can learn the truth about the Spanish artist's fascination with ceramics over a lifetime.
To top it all off, TAM director Chase Rynd and chief curator Barbara Johns have also organized "Picasso's Studio: Drawings and Prints," loans from private collections, Spanish and U.S. museums. The Pacific Northwest has not seen a Picasso survey like this since the William S. Paley collection was shown at Seattle Art Museum in 1992 and "Matisse, Picasso and Friends," also at SAM, opened in 1997.
Contrary to the repeated proclamations that Picasso fortuitously stumbled into Ramie's Madoura ceramics workshop in Vallauris, France, on July 21, 1946, after visiting an annual local pottery show, Reina Sofia National Museum of Art curator Kosme de Barañano discovered that the young Spaniard took an interest in making ceramics as early as 1906. His first artist-mentor in Paris, Basque artist Francisco Durrio, exposed the 25-year-old to Paul Gauguin's ceramics which were--and still are-- greatly underappreciated. Despite a downgrading of ceramics as an artform in the 19th century, Picasso saw how a "minor" material like clay could be turned to greatly expressive and highly aesthetic ends.
Although not exhibited in Tacoma or Madrid (where the show originated at the Reina Sofia), Picasso's first ceramic sculpture, Woman Combing Hair, was made in 1904, followed by, among others, Man's Head, in 1907. Later, Picasso's bronzes were frequently modeled first in clay before casting so his control over and love of clay were well established by 1946.
From Gauguin's example, Picasso learned how the clay surface could be treated like a painting. From Durrio, who gave Picasso his own studio in the "Bateau-Lavoir" building in Montmartre, Picasso learned to turn functional objects like pots, jugs and vases, into figurative sculptures. Add to that the significant place ceramic jugs already played in Picasso's still life paintings, both before and after the revolutionary breakthrough to Cubism that he pioneered with studio mate Georges Braque, in 1910.
All the same, that fateful summer of 1946 in Vallauris, really was a watershed season for an artist who explored so many materials besides clay. Perhaps remembering the kindnesses of Durrio and the older artist's enthusiasm for ceramics, Picasso quietly went off into a corner of the Madoura workshop, made a few figures from clay scraps, and left them there, not to return for a whole year, until the following summer's annual local exhibition. This time, he arrived with dozens of drawings and ideas, setting to work immediately and continuing steadily throughout all of 1947. Having rented a house in the Golfe-Juan neighborhood of the town, Picasso vigorously encountered the medium, paradoxically, as usual, learning all he could from the workshop staff and then constantly breaking rules to push his own undertakings to each possible limit.
According to Ramie, the great Picasso, now 65, was humbled
by the unpredictable vagaries of the wood-fired kilns, frequently disappointed by accidents and failures. Ever the sycophant, artist Jean Cocteau eagerly scooped up the failures, saying "at Vallauris, even the flops are hits!"
In Tacoma, the "flops" have been swept aside in favor of the successes -- largely unique, uneditioned pieces. Again, contrary to Ramie, though he may have claimed to have seen Picasso seated at the potter's wheel, it is highly unlikely Picasso threw his own pots, wisely depending on the expertise of the Madoura staff to create the basic building blocks of his ceramics output: jugs, platters, plates and vases.
Often, the Spaniard would deliberately mismatch or reposition handles or spouts in order to ingeniously create facial or anatomical features. Other times, he would pick up discarded scraps of unfired clay to create seated or standing female figures. This was in keeping with his open attitude toward found or recycled objects that he would transform into art with a few deft strokes. Along with Ramie's technical tips, Picasso used unconventional tools for surface patterning such as kitchen knives or perforated cooking utensils.
After Gauguin and Durrio, other modern artists besides Picasso also explored ceramics in France before the Vallauris breakthrough. Raoul Dufy, Marc Chagall, and Joan Miró all worked closely with the Catalan ceramist active in Paris, Llorens Artigas. But it was Picasso's matching of his rapid-fire brushwork to the necessity of working quickly with fast-drying glaze and clay that suited him so well and brought the appearance of unprecedented spontaneity to a time-consuming craft.
Switching to one of the first electric-powered kilns on January 21, 1953, Picasso proceeded to work even faster. As seen in Tacoma, the dominant themes became: the face; still lifes; bucolic scenes evoking a mythical Mediterranean past; bullfights; and animals like birds and fish. In short, many of his life-long interests conveniently found new expression in the medium Picasso returned to in old age. This is reinforced for visitors who can compare treatments on clay with nearby drawings and prints of equally superb quality.
Northwest potters are attending in droves in order to see the extraordinary range of clay bodies, glazes, surface treatments and firing techniques. Other artlovers will also be astounded by the surprising humor in many of the pieces. A pitcher's unpunctured handles, for example, are the white "wings" of a nun's headdress. Visual and sexual puns abound.
Although all of 1947 and most of 1948 were devoted to ceramics, Picasso undertook major bodies of work in clay in 1963 and 1969, too. He even made a wedding gift of 13 dessert plates to actress Rita Hayworth when she married Prince Aly Khan.
Now that we know ceramics were a lifelong, integral part of his achievement with great personal meaning, his extraordinary career seems even richer, more inclusive, and tolerant. In breaking down the prejudices against ceramics and embracing clay so thoroughly, the greatest artist of the 20th century set a brilliant standard for the 21st: it doesn't matter what the art material is; it's how you approach it that counts.
MATTHEW KANGAS, independent curator and art critic, spent the fall lecturing at art schools in California and New England. He lives in Seattle.
Picasso: Ceramics from the Marina Picasso Collection
September 27, 1998 - January 10, 1999
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