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PICASSO: Painter and Sculptor in Clay

Although Picasso is acknowledged as one of the most revolutionary artists of the 20th century, with an unquestioned reputation as a painter, sculptor, draftsman, and printmaker, at 66, using clay, he began creating some of his most unusual and spectacular works. Intimately related in theme and subject matter to his art in other media, the subjects of these works range from still lifes to the bullfight 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.

Among the outstanding international institutions presenting these works, it was the masterful exhibition that took place in 1999 at New York’s, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, organized by the Royal Academy of Arts, London, that awoke worldwide interest.

"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 was not significantly surveyed in exhibition or publication until our show at the MET. This presentation brilliantly demonstrated how Picasso vitalized the medium with characteristic enthusiasm and originality."

Showing the different ways in which Picasso worked in clay, pieces in the exhibition ranged 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 came 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 first experimented with clay in 190 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, was an early effort that is remarkable for how the relationship of imagery and technique to the pottery form anticipates 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 foundry Picasso also took standard, press-molded plates before they were dry and, in several 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. 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 components of standard ceramic shapes, Picasso created the bulls, goats, and birds of his imagination. 

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 and 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 the MET exhibition were dazzling bowls that show various scenes of the bullfight.

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 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 subject of one of Picasso's final works is a musketeer, a principal character who appears in his late paintings, prints, and drawings. The musketeer tiles recall the golden age of Spanish literature and represent 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 number of internationally revered private and public collections of Picasso’s ceramic works is too lengthy to name but includes many of the most highly recognized museums, public institutions, and world-class collectors throughout the world.


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