26 SEPTEMBER 1998, Page 52


Picasso: Painter and Sculptor in Clay (Royal Academy, till 16 December)

Acceptable gifts

Martin Gayford

A friend of mine once asked a distin- guished artist to his wedding. The artist did not come, but sent word that he would be presenting a gift. Until that promised pre- sent arrived, the friend went around remarking, 'Please God, don't let it be one of the ceramics' (in fact, it was a splendid print). That was perhaps a little ungrateful, but the friend had a point. Very often the ceramics, of which many 20th-century artists have produced quite a lot, are the bottom end of the oeuvre. It is with this in mind that one approaches Picasso: Painter and Sculptor in Clay at the Royal Academy. Was Picasso, who defied so many generali- sations, able to buck that trend too?

The answer is, by and large, yes. Up to now, these ceramics have been treated as a footnote, or addendum, to Picasso's major works (this is the first full-scale exhibition to be devoted to them). This remains a just assessment; there are no major master- pieces here, no `Guernica', no 'Night Fish- ing At Antibes'. But their lack of majorness is part of their charm, these are not so much footnotes as hors d'oeuvres to the huge banquet of Picasso's art.

As good hors d'oeuvres should be, they are characterised by joie de vivre and light- ness of spirit. There are no dark or tragic notes here, as there are so often in the paintings. You get the feeling that Picasso was having fun when he made his pots (or, more strictly, decorated them; turning clay on the wheel was an art he never mas-. tered). And part of the fun, doubtless, was the scope that the limited range of pottery forms — vase, plate, jug, for example, gave to his protean inventiveness.

How many metamorphic identities can be found for, say, a water-jug? He trans- forms it into a bird, with spout for neck, a bull, a head, a fish, Priapus (with another function for the spout). Just as many varia- tions are constantly rung on the style of the decoration — neoclassical, Goyaesque, archaic Greek, schematic, cubist, all the diverse Picasso modes. So this array of crockery becomes another medium for making one of his basic points: that the same image can be made not just in one way, but in innumerable different fashions (this is one of the reasons why Picasso is modern).

Some of the appeal of pottery for Picas- so, one suspects, lay in its unassuming, humble nature. He turned to it at a point, in the late Forties, when his art was in tran- sition. Many of the works in the exhibition come from the very early Fifties, when he was not only between styles — it is one of the flattest periods of his whole career as far as painting is concerned — but also between women. The epoch of Frangoise Gilot was ending, that of Jacqueline, who became his second wife, had yet to begin. Here was a wonderful way to keep the imagination spry, a sort of creative five- finger exercise.

Pottery also represented a return to his Mediterranean roots. 'It's strange,' he remarked in Antibes in 1946, 'in Paris I never draw fauns, centaurs or heroes from mythology, it's as though they live here.' Neither, during his years in Paris, had he produced any pottery (with one or two exceptions). But, after his move to the south of France in the late Forties, he started to produce it in tremendous quanti- ty, and carried on, less prolifically, until the end of his life. Quite often, the two came together — the fauns, nymphs, shepherds and centaurs appearing on the pots.

Of course, Provence is classical soil, just as is Picasso's childhood home of Andalu- cia. In his pottery, Picasso quite naturally, in fact, playfully, takes on the whole Mediterranean past (something, one imag- ines, that no one will ever be able to do again). There are figurines that suggest bare-breasted Cretan goddesses of the sec- ond millennium BC, and others that put one in mind of the spare Cycladic sculp- tures made in the Aegean a thousand years later. There are pieces that resemble Athe- nian black-figure and red-figure ware; there is a long series of bull-fight scenes on plates with curly-scalloped edges that have a strong 18th-century feel. But none of this comes across as pastiche, more a private Picassoian game with his own past and identity.

On many pots there are fish — a food of huge symbolic and gastronomic importance to Mediterranean peoples — often they are in relief on plates in the manner of the 16th-century French ceramicist Bernard Palissy. An amusing sequence of pho- tographs in the catalogue shows Picasso neatly eating a fish for lunch so as to keep its skeleton intact, then impressing these bones into a slab of clay.

The drawback of this exhibition is the presentation. The grand galleries of the Royal Academy are all wrong for these artefacts which are not only light in spirit, but also domestic in scale and intimate in feel. One's first reaction, on seeing rank upon rank of small plates and vases in these large formal, otherwise empty spaces, is to feel thoroughly daunted. It is only when the ceramics are inspected at close- quarters that it becomes apparent how jolly and vivacious they are.

It would have helped to break the rooms up into smaller sections, and also to have reduced the sheer number of exhibits, which is huge. This installation is far too solemn and heavy, perhaps because the Bird, by Picasso, 1947-48 Still-life with Six Fish and a Slice of Lemon, by Picasso, 1953 Owl and Head of a Faun, by Picasso, 1961 organisers felt that everything connected with Picasso is axiomatically tremendously serious and important. These pots are not that. This is minor Picasso, fancy-free and relaxed — that is its charm. Not all of it is terribly significant — I'm not sure those fish on plates, for example, would necessar- ily stand out in a Mediterranean craft shop. But Picasso passes the ceramics test — as Joan Miro, another great Spanish artist and bulk producer of pottery, does not. Miro's ceramics, of which there was an exhibition in Barcelona a few years ago, quickly became wearisome. Picasso's, in compari- son, are far more various. Almost any piece in this show would make a most acceptable wedding gift.