“Picasso Paint and Sculptor in Clay”

As each aspect of Picasso’s work has come to be reexamined, his late ceramic output was bound to have its day. There have been earlier shows devoted to this corner of his maverick output (some pieces were tellingly present in the Tate Gallery’s “Picasso: Sculptor/Painter” in 1994) but the Royal Academy’s “Picasso: Painter and Sculptor in Clay” is the most carefully selected and comprehensive to date; it boasts, as well, an excellent catalogue. Picasso’s pots and plates and small sculptures have not always garnered good press. Derided as inglorious fooling-around or as a commercial spin-off, the ceramic work is, to be sure, not solar-plexus Picasso, but the fear that it might be unadulterated kitsch is misplaced.

What exactly are we looking at, given the ambiguous title of the exhibition? Most of the works in the show date from a single decade, 1947 to 1957. Almost all of them are in clay; most are painted in slip and glazed. They range from commercially available objects decorated but not formally altered by Picasso to unique sculptures entirely designed or produced by the artist—modeled, carved, incised. The works’ origins in domestic utensils like plates and vessels are obvious in all of the pieces, no matter how far Picasso’s imagination pushes them. First came large plates used as more or less flat surfaces for depicting heads, fauns, or food. But Picasso’s three-dimensional impulse was so strong that he swiftly began to add objects in relief: eggs, fish, cutlery, and, startlingly, a diner’s pink hand resting on a tablecloth—macabre, twitching with life. By 1948-49 Picasso was in full flow. His invention, based (as is evident in the show) on incredibly precise drawings, is remorseless: handles, spouts, and full-bellied jars are brought to play in priapic transmogrification. After the Paris war years came the release of working again in the south of France, close to the pulse of his Mediterranean sources. The effect is everywhere apparent in the work, as is a ludic twist lent by the proximity of his and Françoise Gilot’s two young children, Claude and Paloma, whose presence was even more crucial for his larger sculpture of the same period. Owls, doves, insects, and fish take their place beside the elongated tanagra figurines inspired by Françoise. These Riviera goddesses, beginning in Cycladic simplicity, quickly move to a combination of Aegean fertility with the enveloping draperies of High Gothic grace. They end, alas, in a pot painted with a yellow bikini, not one of the artist’s better jokes.

Throughout his life Picasso needed a secondary occupation, away from the mainstream of easel painting but related to it: theater design, writing, sculpture, ceramics. They cannot, of course, be clearly separated; imagery and materials inevitably cross-fertilize. Working in the pottery at Vallauris certainly generated ideas that became trademarks of Picasso’s late painting style—a swift, loose handling, impatient of finish, presaging those linear head-and-shoulders portraits on plain backgrounds that would come a few years later. The comparison with children’s paintings of heads on white paper is obvious, but it should be said that Picasso never confused his aims: The lightness and quick humor of the ceramics were specific to that medium. Rarely is he in somber mood.

Most of the works on exhibit belong to l’epoque Françoise; there is then a break between 1953 and 1956–57 when, at the start of l’epoque Jacqueline, Picasso worked again in sustained creative bursts through to the ’60s. The later pieces evince no new formal ideas; for inspiration he seems to have looked again at Peruvian pots, a second but bloodless Spanish conquest. There are some plates painted with simple, fairly savage faces and, from 1961, a mask of a bearded man, eyes gouged out above a grimly smiling mouth—a foretaste of the self-portrait heads of 1972.

The overall mood of this show is a characteristic Picassian mixture of aphoristic play and Catalan harshness. There is no lovingly sensuous decoration or craftsmanlike detail. He goes straight to the point, overturning ceramic convention, pulling, molding, and refashioning, his unfumbling hand bringing about maximum formal potential with minimal means. If this were the retrospective of a ceramic artist’s life’s work, it would be impressive enough; that it is just one corner of the elderly Picasso’s activities astonishes. It is easy to see why much of the work was greeted with indifference or contempt as the commercial effluent of indiscriminate old age: high-class souvenirs from the Côte d’Azur. Its supposed vulgarity was pointed up by the numbing purity of postwar Scandinavian ceramics and subsequent art-pottery—most of it neither pottery nor art—made essentially by craftworkers. Picasso never fell into that trap. His was the most liberating alternative position to Northern puritanism and, as is easily verifiable today, the one that has prevailed.

Richard Shone is associate editor of Burlington Magazine and a regular contributor to Artforum.