How Pablo Picasso Elevated the Ceramic Art

While most people know Picasso for his Cubist paintings, his innovative work in pottery and ceramics is increasingly gaining attention in the global art community. Park West Gallery Director Morris Shapiro walks us through the history of Picasso’s interest in ceramics.

The worldwide resurgence of interest in Picasso’s ceramic creations in recent years has fostered a deeper appreciation for this significant body of the artist’s herculean oeuvre, particularly as it was such an important part of his energies for decades, beginning in 1947 until the end of his life in 1973.

Numerous new and intriguing aspects about his works in clay have come to light as study has increased, museum shows have been assembled and amplified, and the public has enthusiastically embraced collecting these extraordinary works.

The Park West Museum collection of Picasso ceramics currently displays 98 examples of these imaginative, engaging, and beguiling creations by the 20th century’s most influential and prolific artistic genius. The collection incorporates a full range of his subjects, objects, techniques, and ceramic manifestations.

One also can discover multiple hallmarks of Picasso’s artistic personality in his ceramics: humor, inventiveness, fearlessness, and his unsurpassed ability to define simplicity in form, or “physiognomic abbreviation,” as it has been termed.

Picasso’s involvement with ceramics began with two artists and their mutual influence on the young Spaniard: Paco Durrio and Paul Gauguin.

When he was nineteen years old, Picasso met Francisco “Paco” Durrio (1868–1940), the acclaimed sculptor from Bilbao, Spain, at the infamous “Bateau- Lavoir” tenement building in Paris, at number 13, rue Ravignan.

Durrio admired the young artist and relinquished his shabby studio space to Picasso when he found another larger studio nearby, where he was able to install a kiln. Durrio encouraged Picasso to take up work in clay and gave him his first instructions in the medium.

Durrio was heavily inspired at the time by the post-Impressionist Paul Gauguin (1848–1903) and his creations in ceramic. In the late autumn of 1906, Durrio encouraged Picasso to follow Gauguin’s example and try his hand at ceramic sculpture.

Modern sculpture in the first quarter of the 20th century was primarily influenced by primitivism, which embraced Gauguin’s overall aesthetic message. The influence of Gauguin’s approach can clearly be seen in the first four works in clay Picasso created with Durrio.

It is interesting to observe how Durrio’s instructions with Picasso at such a young age, along with Gauguin’s primitivism, would one day become so deeply implanted in Picasso’s own aesthetic.

According to Sir John Richardson, in his Life of Picasso, vol. 1 (1991):

“Then as now Gauguin’s ceramics were underrated; Durrio was virtually alone in recognizing their importance and exploring similar techniques… The extent to which Durrio’s techniques helped Picasso revolutionize the craft of ceramics in Vallauris 40 years later has yet to be taken into account.”

What many artists and sculptors in these early years of modernism were seeking was an art form devoid of any nationality, a sort of nameless aesthetic, removed from any specific anthropological identity. This notion welcomed all perspectives, encouraging their combinations to complement and redefine one another. This was one of the lessons the young Picasso embraced, internalized, and developed in his early years that remained with him throughout his entire career.

Picasso never viewed his art in a linear manner. He moved effortlessly between mediums, finding overlapping relationships between painting, sculpture, printmaking, and eventually his ceramic works. Much akin to his invention, along with Georges Braque (1882–1963) of “papiers colles” (or, as we know the technique today, “collage”) in his cubist paintings, a new path was created for his exploration and reinvention that would forever change the art form.

Clearly, this path consumed him, as he created over 3,500 ceramic works in a period of more than 20 years. Much has been discussed about the relationship of sculpture to the ceramic arts and, in some ways, Picasso’s ceramic creations may be viewed as paintings or prints in three dimensions. Georges Ramié, the owner of the atelier in which Picasso created his ceramics, touched on this point in an introduction to a ceramics catalog published by the famed Spanish art house, Poligrafa:

“For Picasso, painting clay — above all if it was to be fired at high temperature — was like painting a fresco: the tensions which arise are similar. Clay, with its rather dusty surface, absorbs the mass of color or enamel very quickly; it does not allow repetition and even less any alterations in the strokes. Work on clay — like silverpoint or fresco — allows no hesitation; the hand must be sure and firm.”

Similarly, Picasso’s immersion in printmaking in his later years, particularly through his engravings and linoleum-cut prints, manifested itself in comparable techniques, applications, and approaches employed in his ceramics. These methods included scraping and gouging, using negative space, and removing areas of clay to create positives.

In addition, the “alchemic” process of working on a copper printing plate, and then waiting for the inked proofs to emerge from the press, mirrors the application of glazes and enamels in ceramics and waiting for the results through firing in the kiln.

According to Georges Ramié, who, along with his wife Suzanne, founded Madoura Pottery in Vallauris, France, Picasso dropped into their studio one day in the summer of 1946 and asked to make something. The Ramiés were, of course, thrilled to oblige, and Picasso created three small sculptures in clay — a faun’s head and two sculpted bulls.

As Ramié recalls, when he and his wife returned to see the works and continue their visit, Picasso had vanished without a trace. Despite the artist’s departure, the Ramiés allowed his sculptures to dry and be fired several times. Twelve months later, Picasso unexpectedly returned, completely unannounced. He was shown the sculptures and immediately asked to “get back to work.”

Ramié recounts Picasso’s return to the ceramics studio in the introduction to his catalog raisonné of Picasso’s ceramic editions, Ceramica de Picasso, (Barcelona, 1984):

“He no longer behaved like an amateur… he turned up laden with the sketches he had accumulated of all (his) promising meditations. When Picasso took up an issue, he immediately went beyond normal procedure. He had brought a cardboard box full of drawings, and these were laid out, commented on, discussed and admired. This time, it would seem, he was in earnest: here the great adventure began. From that moment on Picasso belonged to our workshop.”

Picasso remained aligned to the Madoura studio for over 20 years. There, he could re-engage his connection to a medium that returned to the beginnings of human civilization and reunite himself with an art that sprung from the Mediterranean tradition and his own Mediterranean roots. Picasso clearly regarded the Ramié studio as a kind of home. Certainly, he loved the large open spaces, the cool, dark atmosphere, and the camaraderie of the Ramiés and the technicians with whom he learned and worked.

But it has been suggested by Kosme de Baranano in the exhibition catalog, Picasso el Dialogo con la Ceramica (Fundación Bancaja, 1998), that while working at Madoura, Picasso also experienced a form of “déjà vu.”

Picasso always linked his work to art history, believing it was his responsibility to reach back into time and bring the art of the past into his own time and move it forward. Here, in the Madoura studio, he could link himself to the ceramic art of the Etruscans, Greeks, and Iberians.

Speaking of Vallauris and the area in which the Ramié studio existed, Picasso once famously said, “ceramics have been made here for centuries.”

Ramié was also responsible for embracing Picasso’s revolutionary idea of creating ceramic editions and bringing that idea to fruition. Picasso was thus able to create unique, ceramic sculptures and also create multiple examples of his designs in ceramic, in numbered, limited editions to reach a broader market, just as he had done with his printmaking.

As with his prints, however, no diminishment in quality or artistic rigorousness was permitted. Georges Ramié (in his introduction to the catalog raisonné, 1984) describes the technique for creating the editions thusly:

“It was essential to apply to ceramics the method already used in graphic art, but for this new application, the basis of reproduction in engraving had to be constructed on different principles. This particular difficulty was resolved by adopting two methods with different techniques:

1. Making a true replica of an original by repeating exactly volumes and decoration.

2. Transferring an image engraved on a hardened plaster matrix onto a sheet of damp clay.”

Once the editions were completed, each work was marked with the Madoura Pottery stamp and affixed with an edition number on the reverse or the bottom of the object.

Picasso’s ceramic works — created both in editions and unique forms — are now recognized as an important part of his enduring artistic output. Like his paintings, drawings, sculptures, set, stage, and costume designs, and graphic works, they reflect an unquenchable artistic curiosity and the artist’s mandate to place his own timeless stamp on an art form that has existed since the beginnings of human history.

In an essay he wrote in 1971, published in a catalog issued by the studio in 1984, Georges Ramié reveals one of the most poetic and intimate glimpses into the environment at Madoura:

“Picasso entered the workshop like a humble villager. Subsequently he penetrated our daily life, our family life and our friendship. However, all this feeling grew gently, without complications, as if this unforeseeable, warm and so precious reality was completely natural; all aspects of his presence became as essential, familiar and necessary as a sweet, daily habit.”

Morris Shapiro has been the Gallery Director for Park West Gallery for over 35 years. He studied at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design and previously worked at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and Chicago’s Merrill Chase Galleries.

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