LONDON - Renowned expert in Pablo Picasso’s ceramic works Harald Theil gave his insight into the significance of this important body of work, which will be the subject of a lecture at Sotheby’s London to co-incide with the sale Important Ceramics by Pablo Picasso on 7 May.

A photo taken on October 22, 1961 shows Spanish artist Pablo Picasso painting a potery at the Madoura studio in Vallauris. ANDRE VILLERS/AFP/Getty Images.

What drew Picasso to the
Madoura Pottery in Southern France and does his work from there coincide with a particular period of his personal life?

Ceramic materials and techniques offered Picasso a new expressive potential and the daily life of the artisan attracted him greatly. In ceramics he discovered an authentic medium with a long tradition, specific techniques, like the work with slips and glazes, the transformations of colour and materials by the firing process and specific utilitarian forms which he liked to deconstruct and reassemble to create animal or human shapes. It coincides with Picasso’s move to the Mediterranean with his young mistress Françoise Gilot and their son Claude, born in May 1947, as well as his desire for a renewal of life and art after the dark war years he spent in Paris. This is reflected in his ceramics through a lightening of the colours, by the using and transforming of vessel bodies with the inherent symbolism of fertility and rebirth as well as by narrative scenes with themes inspired by Greek mythology. 

How do Picasso’s ceramics tie into his work in other media?

There are connections concerning his working methods in series and variations, concerning his approach to formal design such as the use of preparatory drawings as well as in technical, thematic and conceptual aspects. There are connections to be made with his work of the Cubist and Surrealistic period as for example the interrelation of volume and painting, the use of polychromy in sculpture, the transformation of found objects into works of art or sculptural assemblages.

Picasso, however, respected the inherent properties of the ceramic medium using genuine ceramic techniques and possibilities, such as incisions, engraved or relief designs or specific adapted painting methods. He was working with plaster dies and molds in order to create multiple ceramic art works in series. He then transferred these experiences in other media. Thus there are many connections between Picasso’s ceramics and etchings, linocuts as well as with his metalwork and sculptures he made in the 1950s and 1960s in parallel, or after, his main ceramic experiences.

A selection of the ceramics in the Important Ceramics by Pablo Picasso sale. Estimates range from £1,500 to £80,000.

Are there any particular motifs or themes that Picasso uses in his ceramics and how do they develop over time?

Picasso ceramics are reflecting the thematic reorientation his art underwent since the painting La joie de Vivre of November 1946 in Antibes. Arcadian and Dionysian themes such as fauns, centaurs, nymphs, goats, bulls, birds, woman vases mostly representing Françoise Gilot and the fish motif as well as still lifes are predominant in the beginning of his ceramic work. In the 1950s and 1960s his preferred themes are his second wife Jaqueline, owls, jesters, masks, bullfights and many other narrative scenes corresponding to Picasso’s iconography in other medias.

Is there any particular work in this sale that has a personal appeal for you?

My preferred work is the Chouette, the owl, a shape designed by Picasso in a series of sketches in 1947 of which four differently painted versions are in this sale (lots 223, 352, 353 and 354) and which he used for representing the head of Jaqueline as well (lot 221). The ceramic owl’s body is shaped by a vase assembled in an oblique way standing on a vase neck representing the feet and a second vase neck signifies the head. Picasso owned an owl after 1946, which he found in his studio one night and identified with because of the piercing glance corresponding with his own famous eyes.

Petra Kwan is a specialist in the the Old Master, Modern & Contemporary Prints department, Sotheby’s London.

Harald Theil will be giving a lecture on Picasso’s ceramics at 2pm on 4 May. To attend please email:

Important Ceramics by Pablo Picasso
London, 7 May 2014
+44 (0)207 293 6416