March 3 - June 6, 1999
More than 170 rarely exhibited unique ceramic works by Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), created by the artist in the South of France primarily from 1947 to 1962, will be on view at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in Picasso: Painter and Sculptor in Clay, from March 3 through June 6, 1999. Although Picasso is acknowledged as one of the most revolutionary artists of this century, with an unquestioned reputation as a painter, sculptor, draftsman, and printmaker, this exhibition is the first large-scale examination of his ceramic oeuvre, which he commenced at the age of 66. Intimately related in theme and subject matter to Picasso's art in other media, the subjects of these works range from still lifes to bullfights and include a lively cast of characters: a mistress and a wife, lovers and clowns, dancers and musicians, centaurs and fauns, as well as birds and fish. These join many sculpted and painted ceramics that celebrate the female form — nude and clothed, standing and seated.
Two-thirds of the pieces have never been exhibited before, and the majority of them are being shown in the United States for the first time. Related drawings and two paintings, both oil on canvas, are also included in the survey.
The exhibition is made possible by the Iris & B. Gerald Cantor Foundation.
It was organized by the Royal Academy of Arts, London.
More about the artist
"Picasso is the most documented artist of our time," commented William S. Lieberman, the Jacques and Natasha Gelman Chairman of the Metropolitan's Department of 20th Century Art. "Surprisingly, however, his prolific production as a sculptor and painter in clay has not been significantly surveyed in exhibition or publication. This presentation brilliantly demonstrates how Picasso vitalized the medium with characteristic enthusiasm and originality."
Showing the different ways in which Picasso worked in clay, pieces in the exhibition range from pre-existing forms or found objects to inventive shapes created by local potters according to Picasso's designs and pieces modeled by the artist himself. Most works come from private collections, from the Picasso museums in Paris, Antibes, and Barcelona, and from the Museum Ludwig in Cologne and the Museo de Cerámica in Barcelona.
Picasso began to work in the ceramic medium in 1946 after visiting the Madoura pottery workshop in Vallauris, where the mineral-rich soil of this region of southern France had supported a ceramics industry since Roman times.
He had first experimented with clay in 1905, when he modeled a small group of heads, some of which were later cast in bronze. Vase with Bathers, of 1929, included in the exhibition, is an early effort that is remarkable for the ways in which the relationship of imagery and technique to the pottery form anticipate Picasso's approach to his later ceramics.
In the earliest stage of his work in ceramics, he focused on mastering the craft aspect of decorating fired clay objects, working on more than a thousand pieces at the Madoura pottery workshop in Vallauris during the first year alone. Quickly acquiring knowledge of the technical aspects of working with clay, he then set about reinventing them to suit his fertile imagination; the unorthodox manners in which he mixed glazes, slips, and oxides transformed the pieces in the kiln and became part of the creative process.
Early in his work at the Madoura workshop Picasso also took standard, press-molded plates before they were dry and, in a number of instances, gouged or incised the surfaces with still lifes, trompe l'oeil arrangements of food, or other objects, to create versions of the popular Spanish platos de engano ('plates to fool the eye'). Other times, he used the surface of the plates as settings for mythological scenes involving fauns, goats, centaurs, and other Picassoesque creatures.
Picasso soon began to draw sketches of three-dimensional objects made up of familiar pottery forms such as vases, jugs, and bowls. These pieces were thrown by Jules Agard — a local potter who was a friend of Madoura owners Georges and Suzanne Ramie — according to specification and then were assembled and decorated by Picasso. Ordinary thrown vessels were thus metamorphosed into purely sculptural shapes, rearrangements of traditional ceramic elements that robbed them of their original functions and turned them into art.
Among the most remarkable pots that the artist himself designed are the zoomorphic shapes he first conceived in the fall of 1947. By reassembling component parts of standard ceramic shapes Picasso created the bulls, goats, birds of his imagination, such as Bird of 1947-48. He continued to develop ideas along this theme by converting existing Madoura shapes into animal forms principally by means of painting. Man Riding a Horse (1950-51) and the related Mounted Cavalier (1950-51) make use of his own earlier bird form, but the neck and the handles of the vessel are turned into a rider whose horse is painted on the belly of the pot.
On other occasions Picasso simply altered traditional forms by hand, as in his tanagras, which usually were made by reshaping thrown bottles or vases and were so called because of their reference to Hellenistic terracotta figurines.
Picasso's enthusiasm for the bullfight was rekindled on a return visit to the Mediterranean, and the imagery of the corridas appears throughout Picasso's work in clay, with heads of matadors, picadors, and bulls often depicted on plates or bowls. In 1951, he turned a series of oval platters from Madoura's stock pattern into lively, colorful impressions of the bullfight, with the border full of spectators and the flat part of the dish becoming the sandy arena where the drama of the actual fight takes place. Included in this exhibition are three dazzling bowls from the 29-bowl Ceret series — named for a village in the foothills of the Pyrenees revisited by Picasso in 1953 — that show various scenes of the bullfight, and two platters created in 1957 that, like aquatints, were done simply in black on white.
Picasso also often transformed vases into still-lifes, creating a three-dimensional representation of the object painted on the vessel's surface. In Still Life with Yellow Tulips (1953), painted flowers and leaves occupy the top part of a jug, while the lower part is painted to represent the container that it is.
In the late 1950s and 1960s, he also painted on tomettes (earthenware floor tiles) and on ordinary square tiles, some of which relate specifically to his paintings of nudes and bathers. The tile mural Seated Nude Combing Her Hair (1956) was probably painted at about the same time as his 1956 painting Two Women on the Beach, now in the Musée National d'Art Moderne, Paris. The square format of the mural resembles that of a painting, although Picasso's use of slips and glazes produces a unifying, blue-green, watery effect that emphasizes its ceramic qualities. The mural Jeux de cirque (1957) — a circus ring filled with animals, clowns, a musician, an acrobat, and an audience above — consists of 66 painted tiles.
Picasso: Painter and Sculptor in Clay concludes with a group of objects that cover the years 1958 through 1969. Although Picasso was working at other studios by then, he continued to visit Vallauris, where his works were fired at the Madoura factory and where he often obtained undecorated pots made by the Madoura craftsmen. Among these, which he decorated in his studio, are two new versions of the large birds he had done originally in the late 1940s, and Bikini (1961), for which he took advantage of the large pot's curvaceous form by decorating it with a bright yellow bikini.
The subject of one of Picasso's final works is a musketeer, a principal character who appears in his late paintings, prints, and drawings. The tile mural Musketeer (1969) both recalls the golden age of Spanish literature and represents many levels of the artist's personal identification, showing one more instance in which Picasso acknowledged the traditions of his Mediterranean heritage in a medium imprinted with his own unique style.
The exhibition in New York was curated by William S. Lieberman, J. Stewart Johnson, Consultant for Design and Architecture, and Anne L. Strauss, Research Associate, of the Metropolitan Museum's Department of 20th Century Art.
A variety of educational programs will be organized in conjunction with Picasso: Painter and Sculptor in Clay, including films, lectures, and gallery talks.
A fully illustrated catalogue — containing more than 200 colorplates and essays by the artist's son Claude Picasso, grandson Bernard Ruiz-Picasso, and catalogue editor Marilyn McCully — is available in softcover ($39.95) in The Metropolitan Museum of Art book store.
January 11, 1999