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1931-1962 Made of earth

In the south of France, Picasso became fascinated with the local tradition of ceramics. Like the artists of the contemporary School of Altamira, he looked back to the prehistoric cave painters who used earth, bones, and fire to create art. Other paintings recorded the houses and landscapes that cradled his late work.

“Ceramics works like printmaking. The firing is the printing process. It’s only then that you discover what you have actually made. When you receive the finished print, you are no longer the same person who etched the plate. You’ve changed. You have to go back to the printing plate. But with ceramics, there’s no going back.”

[Pierre Daix. Le nouveau dictionnaire Picasso, 2012]

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Picasso began his activity in the age-old medium of ceramics at the Madoura factory in Vallauris, the ancient pottery centre where he and Françoise Gilot acquired a villa in 1949. He was attracted to the place, with its old buildings and traditional wood-fired kilns, and to the opportunities and facilities that the owners, Suzanne and Georges Ramié, offered him at their factory. Working alongside the craftsmen, he undertook a variety of ceramic experiments, utilizing the plates and jugs that were in regular production, as well as realizing some of his own designs with the master thrower Jules Agard. Beginning in 1950 he also collaborated closely with Suzanne Ramié on the shapes that she designed. She was particularly interested in researching ancient or traditional pots, which she then recreated, often on a larger scale than the original sources, for modern decoration. The pot-bellied vessel with six handles (three on either side) and a lid, which is the inspiration for Insect, is known in Provence as a gus, and its purpose was for storing vinegar or water. A rope would be looped through the handles, so that the vessel could be hung on the wall.

Picasso had a knack for seeing the potential for transformation in ceramic shapes, and, in the case of this Insect, he had the idea of turning the whole vessel into a creature by painting the lid as a head with eyes, the handles as arms with little hands extending onto the main body of the pot, while legs are painted at the bottom. Similar features are depicted on either side of the pot, so that the creature actually has eight legs in all. Picasso chose straightforward techniques of decoration, including painting blue slip directly on the white earthenware pot and incising some of the decorative motifs through the blue to reveal the white beneath.

Text: Marilyn McCully “Insect”. In Catalogue Museo Picasso Málaga. Collection, 2010, p. 42

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In the summer of 1946, Picasso visited the Madoura ceramics workshop in Vallauris, on the French Mediterranean coast. During this first visit, he made some test pieces, and the following year he returned in order to focus his efforts on ceramics with particular dedication.

This important facet of Picasso’s artistic production represents a reunion with the centuries-old tradition of vernacular Mediterranean craftsmanship. Picasso always maintained links to this tradition: not only through the motifs he chose, but also through his interest in the mysteries of ceramics, in which the intervention of fire results in the physical and visual transformation of the materials, thereby producing a kind of metamorphosis of the subject matter.

Plates decorated with mythological characters, birds, still-lifes, scenes with bulls, jugs shaped liked heads or decorated with figures, large receptacles… they all form part of the astonishing variety of shapes that comprises Picasso’s ceramics production. This activity continued until the artist’s final years, and over the course of his career he produced some 4,000 unique pieces from fired clay.