Appreciating the plastic and technical possibilities of three-dimensional forms, Pablo Picasso approached ceramics as more than surfaces to be painted. His 1948 ceramic creation, Nature morte sur une sphere, a highlight of Sotheby’s Picasso Ceramics Online sale (8–21 June, Online), is a remarkable and significant example of the artist’s experimentation with medium.
Over the course of two decades, Pablo Picasso created over 3,500 unique and editioned ceramic works fired in clay. Vases, pitchers, jugs, plates and zoomorphic and anthropomorphic sculptural forms abound with animal and classical imagery, mythological creatures, still lifes, playful and whimsical faces and explorations of the human figure. Picasso’s ceramic works were rarely studied or appreciated during his lifetime. However, in recent years his ceramics have enjoyed broader recognition for their inventiveness and originality, showcased in museum exhibitions, sold at auction and collected with fervent enthusiasm. Picasso’s ceramics combine elements of his different practices, fusing painting, printmaking and sculpture. But for Picasso there was something singular about the opportunities that working with clay provided for his creative process. Recalling his father’s work in ceramics, Claude Picasso has said:
“Working with the primal elements fire and earth must have appealed to him because of the almost magical results. Simple means, terrific effect.”i.
PABLO PICASSO, NATURE MORTE SUR UNE SPHERE, 1948. STARTING BID $160,000. © 2018 ESTATE OF PABLO PICASSO / ARTISTS RIGHTS SOCIETY (ARS), NEW YORK.
In 1946 while vacationing with his lover Françoise Gilot at Golfe-Juan in the South of France, Picasso met Georges and Suzanne Ramié, the owners of the Madoura pottery studio in the nearby town of Vallauris. The Ramiés welcomed Picasso into their workshop where the artist created three ceramic objects, a head of a faun and two bulls. While Picasso had experimented with clay almost 40 years earlier, this encounter at Madoura so captivated his interest that the artist returned a year later, sketches in hand and his head brimming with ideas. He began working at Madoura daily, completing over 1,000 unique pieces between 1947 and 1948. This was the start of a friendship and creative partnership with the Ramiés that would last until Picasso’s death.
One of these early unique pieces was Nature morte sur une sphere, completed on 18 February 1948. Unlike painting on canvas, ceramics allowed Picasso to paint in the round, using volume as an integral element of the work. Nature morte sur une sphere is one of a group of ceramic spheres with which Picasso experimented with the notion of volume, spatial perception and depth. In 1948, Picasso said to the sculptor Henri Laurens:
“You ought to go into ceramics! It is amazing! … Well, you can look at it from all angles, it’s flat. Of course, it is the painting that makes it flat… I made it appear flat from all sides by painting it. What does one expect and look for in a painting?: depth, and as much space as possible! With a sculpture one must try to make it flat for the spectator, seen from anywhere. I also did something else: I painted rounded surfaces. I painted balls. It is surprising: you make a bottle. It escapes you: it turns around the ball.”ii.
In this work, Picasso illustrates a bottle of wine and a table top as if on a flat plane, but wraps them around a curved surface, resulting in additional readings of illusion and reality and allowing the work to be read as both painting and sculpture.iii. Claude Picasso notes that the spheres allowed Picasso to play with a fourth dimension, as a sphere does not allow for an instantaneous view but rather demands to be seen in the round.iv. With these spheres, Picasso experimented in innovative and unexpected ways that pushed the boundaries of centuries old ceramic traditions. The ancient Mediterranean tradition of pottery was one of the aspects that most enticed Picasso about the medium and is reflected in his ceramic oeuvre in both form and imagery, at times explicit and at other times more subtle. According to Marilyn McCully, the notion of painting something flat on a curved surface transported “an age-old pottery form into the realm of cubism.”v. By making use of a pre-existing form, decorated in his distinctive style, Nature morte sur une sphere exemplifies the dialogue between ancient and modern that would characterize his ceramic oeuvre for the next two decades.
[i.] Claude Picasso in Picasso: Sculptor/Painter, Exh. Cat., Tate Gallery, London, 1994, p. 223
[ii.] Picasso and Ceramics, Exh. Cat., Musee National des Beaux-Arts du Quebec, 2004, p. 225
[iii.] Marilyn McCully, Picasso: Painter and Sculptor in Clay, Exh. Cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1999, p. 37
[iv.] Claude Picasso, ‘Je ne Cherche Pas Je Trouve’, Picasso: Painter and Sculptor in Clay, Exh. Cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1999, p. 37
[v.] McCully, p. 37