Picasso and the Ramiés in the Valley of Gold

By Dr Marilyn McCully
Ahead of Sotheby's upcoming sale of Picasso Ceramics, Picasso’s Menagerie: A Collector’s Legacy on 9 April, Picasso Scholar and ceramics expert Marilyn McCully explores the artist's work at Madoura and his relationship with the Ramié family.

P icasso and Françoise Gilot were at the beach on the Côte d’Azur one afternoon during the summer of 1946, when they were introduced to Georges and Suzanne Ramié, who extended an invitation to them to visit their nearby pottery in Vallauris. The antique associations of the place – named ‘valley of gold’ by the Romans because of its pinkish-red clay – was a centre for ceramics, which had been produced there for centuries.

The Romans had made amphorae for the export of garum to all parts of the Mediterranean, including Spain and North Africa, and photographs reveal that in the early 20th century, the locally produced pignates (pottery cooking vessels) were still exported abroad in large numbers from the port at Golfe-Juan. Over the years, however, once metals and plastics had replaced the demand for ceramic domestic ware, many of the old factories had been abandoned.


In the late 1930s, the Ramiés had taken over one of the disused potteries, which they called Madoura – a combination of the first letters of Maison, Douly (Suzanne’s maiden name), and Ramié. Their aim was not only to revive the flagging industry but also to produce modern studio ceramics, which, for the most part, Suzanne Ramié herself designed.

On his first visit to Madoura, Picasso was impressed. The old buildings, with their ceramic-tiled roofs, sturdy wooden-beam porches and exposed ceilings inside, reminded him of Spanish village architecture. He also liked the fact that Georges Ramié still made use of a Roman-style kiln. This outdoor fixture would soon be supplemented by electric kilns inside the building, but the wood-burning oven, which was fired for many hours, accommodated far more objects per firing than the smaller, electric ones. In the following summers (1947-48), the artist began to go to Madoura on an almost daily basis.

There, working alongside the craftsmen, he learned traditional techniques of decoration and other aspects of ceramic production. Dominique Sassi, who later worked at the pottery, remembers that the artist was especially happy in Vallauris, because, apart from Georges and Suzanne Ramié, in those days no one was aware of his international reputation. The workers at Madoura simply accepted his presence as a novice artisan among them. In exchange for the use of the facilities and materials, Picasso made an agreement with the Ramiés that Madoura would issue reproductions based on his models, and these would be offered for sale as Picasso Editions.

In 1949 Picasso acquired the villa La Galloise in Vallauris, and its proximity to Madoura allowed him to establish a regular work routine at the pottery. His activity moved ahead with great energy on all fronts. For one thing, he expanded the types of pots that he selected for decoration to include many of Suzanne Ramié’s own designs. Her advanced studies at the Musée de Sèvres had acquainted her with ancient ceramics, and she drew on these, as well as traditional Provençal vessels, as prototypes for her modern interpretations. Her 1950s taste for simplified large ceramic vessels, which were thrown on the wheel, extended to their decoration: they were generally dipped in an overall white or coloured glaze.

When Picasso appropriated her pots for decoration, he violated that taste by transforming them into paintings in the round, often drawing out humorous associations with the different parts of the forms themselves. Vases could be painted as heads, with hair piled on top of the upper handles (lot 136), while the whole pot itself could be turned into a bull, testicles and all [lot 35] In other cases, Picasso’s own designs for composite pots, in which traditional elements, including necks, handles and bodies were reassembled into zoomorphic forms, were also replicated (Lots 4-8).

The close collaboration between Picasso and Suzanne Ramié in the manufacture of his pots is evident in an account (1953) by a visiting Turkish artist, Abidin Dino, who recalled Picasso’s amazement at watching Suzanne duplicate his forms: ‘miraculously, almost without looking, without seeing, she is Picasso when she is copying him. Picasso watches her doing it, stunned, he sees himself working, he sees himself making it’. Georges Ramié claimed that the copying process was so successful that Picasso himself often mistook a replica for his original. In addition to the editions, a new method of producing ceramic multiples was undertaken by Picasso and the Ramiés working together.

The empreintes originales (original impressions) were made from plaster moulds taken from plates or vases: this part of the process was carried out by Jean Ramié (Georges’s son). Specially prepared clay would be placed onto the mould, and Picasso would incise or sometimes build up the clay before an impression was taken. Like a printing plate, the mould could be used over and over again to produce editions. The empreintes could be left without decoration or painted with ceramic colours. (lots. 26-30, 56, 82-83).

The gregarious Suzanne Ramié would also play a part in Picasso’s personal life. In 1952 she introduced him to a young, Spanish-speaking French woman called Jacqueline Roque Hutin, who worked in the shop at Madoura. After Françoise’s departure from the artist’s life (1953), his relationship with Jacqueline blossomed and they moved to Cannes together to the Villa La Californie in 1955.

Picasso continued working in ceramics at the villa, and the pieces he decorated were driven back and forth by Jean Ramié to Madoura for firing. Later, after the couple married in 1961, they moved to Notre-Dame-de-Vie in Mougins, not far from Vallauris, and the artist began once more to visit Madoura on a regular basis. (lots 116, 115)

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