Ceramic production in Vallauris dates back to Roman times, when the area was a center of amphorae production thanks to its plentiful endowment of distinctive pinkish-red clay. After his initial encounter, Picasso returned to Madoura in 1947 and would continue to work there throughout the 1950s, initiating a passion that he would pursue until the end of his life. Pierre Daix extolled that "Picasso found in [ceramics] a plastic liberty without equal. But he took particular delight in the constantly renewed surprises of transmutation of oxides, ceramic slips and colours…he was able to jolt tradition, with his models as much as with his use of enamels" (Pierre Daix, Picasso. Life and Art, London, 1994, p. 298). This Grande vase aux femmes nues is an evocation of the master at his most elegant and antique: the simple "oikoumene" form draws attention to the frieze of entwined women that wraps around the vessel’s curved edges, drawing inspiration from the canonic Greco-Roman motif of the Three Graces. This piece is indicative of Picasso’s oeuvre around 1950, when his fascination with archaeology was at its peak.
Most often present in classical art of the second and first centuries B.C.E. as a flat motif carved into sarcophagi or realized three-dimensionally in sculpture, the Three Graces are here infused with Picasso’s characteristic eroticism. By transferring the image to a curved surface, the sensuous nudes both evade and engage the viewer in a coquettish dance, uniting form and content as the smooth indentation of the vase itself echoes the form of the female bodies depicted on its surface. Picasso’s experimentation in ceramics was therefore deeply enmeshed with his experience of working with the material itself. Using the earth-toned hues of rosy clay and white slip, he juxtaposes the alabaster hue of antique sculptural fragments with the apparent ruddiness of female flesh. As in some of his most daring ceramic work, such as Vase positif negatif (see fig. 1), Picasso manipulates the interplay between material and pictorial image, probing the vessel as a utilitarian versus decorative work of art and turning the relation between form and function on its head.
The clarity of the incised female forms demonstrates a painterly agility and ease of articulation unique to Picasso and revelatory of the playful simplicity of his most iconic works on paper. This piece—the first of an edition of 25—is among Picasso’s most sought after ceramic production, which as a whole has experienced a significant reevaluation in the last five years. Following the 2014 exhibition Picasso céramiste et la Méditerranée at the Musée national de céramique in Paris and Sotheby’s white-glove sale of the ceramic collection of Marina Picasso in 2015 (Picasso: Earth and Fire, June 25, 2015), Picasso’s ceramics have come to be understood as a critical aspect of his wider artistic output and a raw, unfiltered distillate of his creative energy. In particular, the Vallauris works from the early 50s featuring animate motifs and a natural color scheme are among his most desirable (see fig. 2), as they distill Picasso at both his most experimental and historically engaged.
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