York Art Gallery are currently showing the highlights of the Attenborough Collection’s extensive range of Picasso ceramics. Whilst Picasso is most often known for his Cubist canvases and sculptures, it is worth noting that it was only at 65 that he began his experiments with clay. During this late period he focused almost exclusively on pottery producing over 2,800 ceramic works. Picasso saw pottery as his return to the origins of art, often replicating ancient models, as his interest in pottery began as a child in Malaga, the ceramics have a clearly Spanish influence with their picadors, bullfights and lank silhouetted figures resembling the blueprint of a Quixote. The ceramics also show the mixed influences on Spain itself of the Greeks and Romans as well as the Moors who held Malaga for 700 years.
Picasso’s imagery in these ceramics is heavily influenced by the subconscious and the passions of man. His Spanish plates show bullfights, his Pâtes blanches show fauns and bacchanalian musicians and he returns to the forms of the brutal Aztecs. Along with these themes, Picasso exhibits the critical use of modern styles of framing and composition, for example his bullfight is enclosed by the plate’s rim becoming the arena.
Elsewhere Picasso shows wry wit – his Pitcher with Vase is simply a painting of a vase on a pitcher – or he subverts the purpose of the medium itself. By painting a still life on a plate, the wildly famous master makes sure the plate is never again used as a plate and now is “art”. All these works in the ancient medium of pottery follow Ezra Pound’s maxim to ‘make it new’ through the mixture of styles and cultures. This is best evinced in the most famous work on display, Heads of Women, which is a vase of Aztec design featuring a women’s portrait painted four times with interlinked features and the handle of the vase doubles as a hair braid. Here the duality of an ancient design with modernist style creates an independent work from disparate sources.
The collection on show covers the majority of Picasso’s ceramic themes and is surrounded by ceramic work from over 600 artists including founders of the British Studio Ceramics movement presented in the Centre of Ceramic Art (CoCA).
Picasso: Ceramics from the Attenborough Collection will be running until the 5th November 2017 in the York Art Gallery. See their website here.