Picasso's Ceramic Menagerie

Open for bidding from 19–28 September, Sotheby’s London’s Important Picasso Ceramics Online sale is crawling with curious creatures, both realistic and mythical.

Picasso’s Gros Oiseau Picasso
Picasso’s Gros Oiseau Picasso (A. R. 185), 1953, Estimate £80,000-120,000. © Succession Picasso/DACS 2018.

Imagined and created in collaboration with the Madoura pottery in sunny Vallauris, the Master’s ceramic oeuvre boasts a diverse range of flora and fauna including cooing doves, sprightly goats, and mighty bulls. Had he been born in another age, the artist’s whimsical earthenware specimens would befit the Royal Menagerie at Versailles.

Of the zoomorphic designs, Picasso’s mighty Gros Oiseau Picasso (A. R. 185) rules the roost. The majestic avian vessel is Picasso’s grandest ceramic tribute to his favourite animal: the bird. The artist kept an aviary in his Paris abode and, sometimes to the chagrin of his partners, took pleasure in rescuing injured and orphaned fledglings.

One feathered friend, affectionately named Ubu, fortuitously stumbled upon Picasso and photographer Michael Sima – or vice versa – with an injured claw outside the Musée d’Antibes. The artist bandaged his limb and carried him home to the city, where Ubu settled in comfortably with the canaries and pigeons nesting in his kitchen. “He smelled awful,” Picasso’s then-partner Françoise Gilot has lamented, “and ate nothing but mice.”

Picasso’s Visage et hibou
Picasso’s Visage et hibou (A. R. 407), 1958, Estimate £15,000-20,000. © Succession Picasso/DACS 2018.

The owl, which soon became a staple throughout Picasso’s ceramic work, also held significant meaning to his adopted community in Southern France. The revered bird was the ancient emblem of Antibes and its environs, admired for its associations with Athena, the goddess of wisdom. Like the ancient potters of Antipoli, Picasso appreciated animal subjects for their metaphorical potential. Sometimes beautiful and sometimes grotesque, Picasso’s ceramic creatures represent every facet of human nature.

Picasso’s Tarasque (A. R. 247), 1954, Estimate £25,000-35,000. © Succession Picasso/DACS 2018.

Straddling the beautiful/grotesque line, Picasso’s Tarasque (A. R. 247) is a great example of the artist’s ability to craft allegory out of clay. The hulking hybrid represents the legendary dragon-like creature that is said to have wreaked havoc throughout medieval Provence. Equal parts lion, ox, tortoise and scorpion, the scaly giant purportedly destroyed everything in its path before meeting its match in the townspeople of Nerluc. With his humorous grimace, however, Picasso’s Tarasque appears to be a more benevolent beast – reminding viewers that everyone has a soft side.

On view alongside Prints & Multiples at the New Bond Street galleries from 22–25 September, the Master’s ceramic menagerie remains a novelty. His playful twist on ancient and medieval conventions revolutionized a traditional medium and its associated iconography. Breathing new life into an ancient practice, Picasso made it his own.

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