One of the notable characteristics of the small still life canvases Picasso painted at Antibes is the technical treatment of the surface. Aside from artistic considerations, the specific features of this treatment may have been determined by an attempt to secure greater solidity and, by the same token, greater durability of the colors. These little canvases which seem covered with a glaze are only a step away from the use of clay tiles. Picasso took that step.
One still life in the museum at Antibes is painted on nine large tiles framed in wood; the muted shades of color (yellow, brown, green, black, and white) against the light brown background are divided within the tiles by incised contours, and the glazed, not entirely smooth, surface lends this ceramic painting greater animation. But this work has remained isolated; for Picasso was not so interested in the durability of colors and the special enhancement they received through the ceramic technique, as in a new method of combining painting with the third dimension. He did not want to produce ceramic paintings, but to decorate ceramics with paintings which possess an additional dimension and, by the same token, a higher degree of reality than the usual, flat picture surface. There was still another attraction, namely, that ceramics are, theoretically, objects of practical use.
On the memorable day of November 2, 1945, during a visit to Mourlot's workshop in Paris, Picasso had conceived a passion for lithography, the artistic and technical possibilities of which he extended by the most original methods. Similarly, after discovering ceramics, he devoted himself to it with undiminished enthusiasm. Picasso has never been interested in complicated techniques for their own sake, but only for the sake of their artistic possibilities. He discovered ceramics just as he had discovered lithography, almost accidentally. We know how this happened from an account by the Ramiés, manufacturers of earthenware.
In the summer of 1946, before moving to Antibes, Picasso visited the Madoura pottery at Vallauris, a ceramics center just behind Golfe Juan on the French Riviera. At that time Picasso amused himself by modeling a few little clay figures. On returning there a year later he became enthusiastic, and was soon "at home" in the workshop, operating the potter's wheel, firing the clay, and painting it. The companionable atmosphere of the workshop was a welcome change from the solitude of the studio. Picasso mastered the rudiments of the craft, and worked with various materials, from ordinary terracotta to soft-paste porcelain, glazed and unglazed. He had many new technical ideas and improvised continually, but without ever observing the rules: no potter at Vallauris could have employed him as an apprentice.
Even though the Madoura workshop was distinguished by its technical versatility, Picasso invented entirely new methods, particularly (as one might have expected) of coloring the ware. He used finishes of all kinds, from the simplest clays to silver (cristaux d'argent), often combining the most contradictory elements for the sake of certain coloristic effects. He was just as inventive in the employment of opaque colors and glazes. He used metal oxides and clays, but few enamel paints; on the other hand, he rediscovered a kind of half-enamel paint through which he could get very rich effects.
Picasso's experiments with ceramic techniques cast a revealing light on his general approach to art. Here, as always, he followed seemingly accidental impulses, regarding "the malice of things" not as a hostile force, but as a welcome stimulus. The treacherous intricacies of the firing process, for instance, were only a challenge to a fighter like Picasso: he drew new inspiration from every failure. For accident plays a far greater and more inevitable part in ceramics, which deals with colors that look quite different after the firing, than it does in the graphic arts. Picasso's productivity was increased by the continual excitement: one afternoon he painted twenty pieces so different in expression that they actually seem to reflect a whole gamut of emotions.
Painting is dominant in the oval plates (12? by 15 inches) and the round plates (7½ or 8? inches in diameter), which Picasso produced by the hundreds. In one year (ending in the fall of 1948) he manufactured six hundred oval plates, whose proportions offer the more favorable compositional opportunities. His total production reaches into the thousands, and nowhere do we notice a weakening of his inventiveness. Some plates may be less successful than others, but the same is true of his paintings—it would be unnatural were it otherwise. On these plates we find almost all the motifs Picasso treated in paintings and drawings during the last decades-primarily bullfight scenes and mythological figures, most of them in series of variations often containing ingenious new ideas.
The first experiments directly continue the sketching technique of his brush drawings and the corresponding lithographs: for instance, a large sheet of February 2, 1947, shows a centaur and a bacchante whose blacks and whites create a very "coloristic" effect owing to the broad brush stroke technique. Such a technique is particularly suitable for ceramic ware, whose absorbent base does not favor precise outlines. The comparison of the lithograph with a ceramic plate showing a faun holding a shepherd's stock and accompanied by a goat scarcely requires comment. For all their crudeness, the figures, painted boldly with the brush and without corrections, are extremely expressive. Characteristically enough they are not confined to the flat bottom of the vessel, but extend to the curved part and to the border, thus participating in the third dimension of the object itself.
The same is true of the colored picture space surrounding the figures which are kept in a dark tone of grayish-white tinged with red. Seemingly formless patches of color in warm tones against the azure-blue ground produce a kind of airy landscape around the figures; the ground plane is accented by emphatic spots of cinnabar red.
Some of the round plates are decorated with scenes whose treatment is even more "painterly," and whose stylistic origin in drawings and lithographs is even more discernible. The decoration of the flat vessels is generally in the figure style inspired by the Mycenaean cameos, which is used in idyllic scenes, combats of centaurs, and, particularly, in bullfight scenes. This highly individualistic language of forms, tending sometimes to realism, sometimes to abstract signs, appears everywhere, from the technically simplest grecqueries (Picasso's term for them) in black on red, to the bullfight scenes which are the most highly differentiated as regards technique and color. Just as these paintings were completed in a few moments, so the emphasis in these scenes is on the spontaneous action conveyed through the comma-shaped, discontinuous flecks of the brush. In this way the painter achieves both austere silhouette effects in black and white, and illusionistic effects in rich colors. In one of the most precious plates in the museum at Antibes—of a bull and picador in violet-blue against a sea-green background which has a purple-red border edged in black—Picasso has added depth by incising the contours.
By using these and related methods, Picasso created numerous plastic and spatial variations in, particularly, two large series of ceramics. In the series of plates whose inner surfaces are decorated, the faces —frequently of fauns—were often crudely cut into the soft clay, leaving ridges at the borders. Pupils and nostrils were pierced in similar fashion, or the features were modeled separately and then attached. Other effects were obtained by the smooth or rough treatment of the medium, and by the contrasts produced by combining relief-like elements and painted decoration.
Even more varied are the plates decorated with still life compositions. Here, with an inexhaustible richness of motifs, Picasso covers the whole span, ranging from graceful ornamentation to a plastic realism which recalls the method of the sixteenth-century Palissy ceramics, for which casts from nature were used. Marine animals, sausages, fried eggs, knives, spoons, and forks are modeled more or less in the round. Between these two extremes countless steps, combinations, and abstractions arc possible, and this possibility only increased the fascination of experimenting with different degrees of reality; and the fact that these are utilitarian objects provokes the artist to play with different degrees of reality. Picasso does not even reject perspective illusion; he paints a glass, its shadow, and a lemon so that they seem to be standing on the bottom of the plate. Such effects are even more striking when Picasso treats a plate as though it were a bullfight arena, and achieves a masterpiece of refined make-believe.
Picasso himself turned and molded his clay ware before matching the paintings to the molded forms. It is his ability to create such combinations that primarily accounts for his unique success in the field of ceramics. It is no exaggeration to say that except for the unglazed majolicas of the Italian Early Renaissance—the most outstanding of which can be placed beside antique ceramics-Picasso was the first to realize the unity of painting and pottery that had disappeared with ancient Greece. This higher conceptual unity is absent from all other examples of Western ceramics, usually as a result of the division of labor between the potter and the painter. Picasso competes with the great ceramic art of Antiquity—particularly the Cretan earthenware— and often approximates it in his own work. He knew these older works, but he did not imitate them. He discovered the artistic laws which govern them and proceeded independently, developing logically from his own earlier art.
What is particularly characteristic of Picasso is his tendency to give the shape of the clay vessels a representational meaning through the painting. A vase may be transformed into a female figure by identifying the parts of the woman's body with the corresponding parts of the vessel—the neck, the shoulder, the foot; the equation handles— arms is almost as natural. With his owl vases he took up an idea that Chinese potters had realized thousands of years ago; once again we see the bird's head, shoulders, belly, and feet identified with the corresponding parts of the vessel. Claws, wings, feathers are indicated in various ways by stylized dots; and beak, eyes, and eyebrows are added in paint as partly ornamental, partly animating accents. It is typical of Picasso that his rediscovery of a valid combination of motifs thousands of years old originates in an incidental and quite subjective experience—that of the little owl at Antibes.
Theoretically this transformation of the abstract parts of the vessels into natural forms can be accounted for by the tendency to proceed from ideal form to a new autonomous objectivity, which Juan Gris formulated in terms of painting, as the path from the cylinder to the bottle. Starting from the ovoid form of the vessel, Picasso arrives at a bird, and once again the beak of the bird becomes the "beak" of the vessel, and the handle can be interpreted as a wing or tail. While the structure and contours of the vessel are spirited, harmonious, and functional, the decoration avoids naturalism. In other examples, the form of the vessel suggests less obvious interpretations, and the painting is more suggestive, as in the "transformation" of an ibex in repose, whose limbs, marked in black on light brown, in conjunction with the turn of the head, produce an impression of utmost animation.
Picasso did not immediately understand the technical requirements of ceramics, as is shown by the numerous small sketches for a Bull drawn at Antibes as early as September 13, 1946, where he is not sure whether he wants a vessel with one foot or two feet. Later he produced a ceramic bull with two feet (open at the bottom); the small, asymmetric face with horns is sketchily "assisted" with paint. As compared with the other clay animals, we feel that a bull constructed in such away does not conform to the technical requirements of the potter's wheel. In other instances, Picasso succeeded in combining several ceramic bodies on one foot in a manner that does justice to the medium, and once more proved himself unsurpassable in the art of solving complicated problems of equilibrium.
Except when he deliberately intends to make clay statuettes, his objects always retain the character of vessels, even though this functional character is sometimes strongly overshadowed by other elements.
For instance, certain pot-bellied flasks with ring handles, obviously influenced by ancient Peruvian models, are decorated as heads of satyrs, whose horns end in inconspicuous spouts—a brilliant blending of representation and function. The transition from "female" vases to statuettes of women which are inspired by Mediterranean votive figurines is a fluid one. Here the modeling of the form no longer obeys the law of the vase, but that of the figure. The proportions and formal characteristics of the statuettes betray their Antibes origin; some of their details—the S-loop that outlines the breasts—seem due to the ornamental habits the painter contracted in decorating vases.
In our last example, the symmetric design and the closed contour follow the structure of the vase; in other instances, Picasso proceeds more freely. The body of the vase is distorted, and the female forms are obtained by light pressures on the soft clay. The heavy arms are modeled separately and attached, the spout is bent inward and is no longer functional. The black-and-red decoration becomes a "dress," and the "arms" reach up to the painted necklace (page 444). The decorated "gazelles" result from curved clay bricks which had served as supports for the ware in the kiln, and had become extremely hard through repeated firings. Picasso often decorated such narrow bricks with caryatid-like, full, or half-length figures, transforming the simplest things into the most magnificent objects. This is no mere "imitation" of primitive accomplishments; rather, the artist here spontaneously rediscovers the fundamental laws of primitive art.
By this renewed contact with the art of the most remote past, Picasso emerges as a rare example of a regression which is at the' same time highly creative. And he is capable, too, of the most modern refinements, as can be seen from a group of large vases decorated with back views of female figures. When we examine one of these works, we find it difficult to decide what was predominant in the artist's imagination: the vase which is slender at the top and flares out at the bottom, or the female figure whose broad hips and slender waist suggest the curves of the vase. This figure, with its incised contours, was originally conceived as a nude. The vessel seemed to be finished, but long afterward Picasso repainted it, covering the nude figure with an ornamental garment as delicate as a veil, which enhances the sensual effect of the forms and integrates them even more completely in the third dimension of the vase.
Pablo Picasso, Cubism, Pablo Picasso Biography, Picasso Paintings, Picasso Drawings, The Blue Nude, Don Quixote, Enamel Saucepan, Evening Flowers, Femme A La Fleur, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, Spanish Art, The Dream, The Pigeons, Guernica, Musse, Bull with Bullfighter, Mediterranean Landscape, Nude and Still Life, Toros y Toreros, Mother and Child, Girl with Red Beret, Frau Mit Turban, The Bathers, The Lesson, The Old Guitarist, Three Bathers, Violin and Guitar, Lovers, Evening Flowers, The Kitchen