Right after World War II, Pablo Picasso decided take a break from the limelight and become a humble pottery apprentice in a French workshop. Six decades later, the distinctive ceramic works he made there are finally getting their due from the art market.
This article originally appeared in the September issue of Art & Antiques Magazine as “Feats of Clay.”
Stop any 10 people in the street, ask them to name the first artist who comes to mind, and at least seven will say, “Picasso.” The Spanish master’s life and work has spawned seemingly uncountable number of books, articles and gallery and museum shows. With such fame, it’s hard to fathom that the world somehow overlooked a whole section of Picasso’s career, yet that is exactly what happened to his ceramics. Only in the last 15 years or so has his output with the Madoura pottery in southern France, a relationship that began in 1947 and lasted almost until the artist’s death in 1973, started gaining the visibility and respect granted his creations in other media.
The sale at Christie’s London of Picasso ceramics from the Madoura Collection in late June confirmed that they would never slip off the radar again. Alain Ramié, son of the late founders of the now-defunct pottery in Vallauris, consigned the pieces that the facility kept from each Picasso edition it released. They numbered more than 500, were in pristine condition and spanned the length of Picasso’s involvement with Madoura. Most, but not all, bore marks indicating that they had belonged to the Madoura house library, and each were part of limited editions of varying sizes. None were from editions of fewer than 25, and some editions were as large as 500. Christie’s officials anticipated that the auction total might climb as high as £2 million (about $3.1 million). They were wrong—and were happy to be so. The two-day Madoura Collection sale raked in over £8 million ($12.5 million), four times its total presale estimate, and was 100 percent sold by lot and by value. “We did have a good indication that it would go above the estimate, but not to that extent,” says India Phillips, a specialist in Impressionist and Modern Art at Christie’s London who orchestrated the Madoura sale.
The top lot, a 1950 vase titled Grand vase aux femmes voiles (Large Vase with Veiled Women) set a new record for Picasso ceramics at auction by fetching £735,650 ($1.1 million) against an estimate of £70,000–10,000 ($109,000–155,000), becoming the first Picasso ceramic produced in multiples to command more than a million dollars at auction. It soundly beat the previous auction record, set at Sotheby’s Paris in December 2010 by a pair of Grand vases of a different style that together fetched €625,500 ($825,000) against an €120,000–180,000 ($145,000–217,000) estimate. (Because the vases were numbers 18 and 19 from the edition of 25, and because they were purchased by the same bidder, Sotheby’s regards them as having sold as a pair.)
The most startling results comprise the back half of the Madoura Collection sale’s top 10. Number 7, a Gros oiseau (Big Bird) sculptural vase from March 1953, sold for more than £109,000 ($170,000) against a £25,000–35,000 ($39,000–54,000) estimate. It was from an edition of 75. The Number 8 seller was a Grand hibou (Great Owl) vase from 1951 that garnered almost £100,000 ($155,155) against an estimate of £6,000–8,000 ($9,000–12,000). It belonged to an edition of 200. Numbers 9 and 10 were, respectively, an eight-piece tableware set from 1959 with a bullfighting theme, produced in an edition of 50, which sold for £97,000 ($151,000) against an estimate of £30,000–50,000 ($46,000–77,000); and a pitcher, Taureau, painted with the image of a black bull charging straight ahead, created in March 1955 and released in an edition of 100, which sold for £97,000 ($151,000) against an £18,000–25,000 ($28,000–39,000) estimate.
Picasso made unique ceramics at Madoura, as well. The June 2011 Impressionist and Modern Art day sale at Christie’s London included several Madoura-stamped pieces previously owned by the late Swiss art dealer Ernst Beyeler. Among the strong performers was a 1947 Taureau plate that garnered £115,250 ($187,000) against a £18,000–22,000 ($28,000–33,000) estimate and Visage brun/bleu (Face brown/blue), another 1947 plate with a face painted and incised in its center that sold for £205,250 ($332,916) against an estimate of £25,000–35,000 ($38,00–53,000). But to see so many of Picasso’s editioned ceramics vault the five- and six-figure thresholds at the Madoura Collection sale is extraordinary. “So much of the success has to do with the provenance, but it’s fair to say that three years ago, this would not have happened,” says Phillips. In specifying three years, she is referring to the fact that she and her colleagues at Christie’s South Kensington branch started giving Picasso ceramics special attention in 2009. “We put a lot of effort into the market, into education, teaching people why they were made, and why they are important,” she says.
Christie’s recent auctions in London have been critical to raising the profile of Picasso’s ceramics, but they aren’t the sole influencer. Other factors, including prominent shows at museums and galleries, and the dealers and collectors who loved the editions since they were issued made a difference, too. But to understand the Picasso ceramics story, one must go back to the beginning, to the summer of 1946, when the artist was staying in the south of France and chose to visit a pottery fair.
On July 21, 1946, Picasso was staying with the engraver Louis Fort in Golfe Juan, the next town over from Vallauris, when he heard about the annual fair and decided to swing by. He happened upon a booth maintained by Madoura, a concern cofounded in 1938 by Susan and Georges Ramié. (They concocted the name by taking the first two letters of the word “maison;” three from Susan’s maiden name, Douly; and two from Georges’ surname.) In his account of the fateful meeting, Alain Ramié doesn’t identify what Picasso saw in the Madoura stall that he found so enchanting, just that the works on display “captivated him.” Picasso accepted the Ramiés’ invitation to come back to the kilns, where he fashioned a bull and a faun head out of clay. A year passed before he and the Ramiés met again, but they were eager to pick up where they had left off. The Ramiés greeted Picasso with the bull and the faun head, long since fired and finished. Picasso presented the Ramiés with a folder full of sketched ideas for ceramics that he wanted to try making. They granted him space at Madoura, and the partnership was off and running.
Madoura gave Picasso much more than a place to experiment with yet another artistic medium; it satisfied his emotional needs. Picasso longed to abscond from Paris, where he had endured the German occupation of World War II. Vallauris was relatively remote and hard to reach at the time, and granted him a respite from the distractions and burdens of international fame. Though he could not return to his native Spain, which suffered under the dictatorial rule of Francisco Franco, Vallauris’ Mediterranean climate delivered a decent substitute. “For his dealers, it was a bit puzzling,” Phillips says. “He was going to live as a pottery apprentice when he was the biggest artist in the Western world. He was a celebrity at that point. It was an escape to a type of lifestyle that he couldn’t get any other way.”
While Picasso was not a novice to ceramics (he had made a few pieces on occasion earlier in his career), by 1946 he grasped the potential of an art form that let him explore sculpture and painting at the same time. “Ceramics were a new challenge, and I think he enjoyed mixing the qualities of the two,” says Marilyn McCully, an independent scholar who has been involved with several exhibitions of Picasso ceramics, including guest-curating a show that opens next month at the Museu Picasso in Barcelona on Picasso’s birthday. “He turned plates into heads, for example—turning a domestic object into something analogous to a head and hanging it on the wall as if it were a painting.” Robert Ubillus Adelman of Masterworks Fine Art, an Oakland, Calif., gallery that deals in Picasso ceramics, also notes the shape-shifting quality of Picasso’s work in this medium: “Picasso had a unique ability to envision his subject within the shape of the ceramic, seeing what other artists would perhaps miss. A vase becomes a woman and a pitcher transforms into a bird under his brilliant eye, as the shapes of the ceramics effortlessly echo the forms of their subjects.”
Picasso’s chance encounter with the Ramiés occurred when he was months away from turning 65 and mulling his place in art history. Pottery was the main industry in Vallauris and had been since Roman times. Artistically innovative though it was, Madoura’s pottery nonetheless based itself on traditional forms such as plates, vases and pitchers. These connections to the past inspired Picasso, who saw them as a means to secure his immortality. Madoura ceramics will look the way Picasso intended them to look thousands of years after they emerged from the kiln; his oil paintings won’t, and can’t.
Another bonus Picasso received from his relationship with Madoura was its match with his political ideals. As a loyal Communist, Picasso relished the chance to labor in a factory alongside skilled locals who barely knew who he was and would admire him only if he displayed the same dedication to their craft as they and their forefathers had. “He loved being an artisan and had a good time mixing with the other members of the staff,” says Rose Watban, senior curator of applied art and design at the National Museums of Scotland and the driving force behind the 2007 exhibit Picasso: Fired with Passion. “Susan Ramié taught him a lot, but he also went to the chemical factory close by to find out how the different glazes worked. He found out a lot by himself, and he could easily chat to them (his artisan colleagues) in the language of ceramics.” And the Madoura limited editions gratified Picasso by placing his art within reach of those with modest means. “He felt ceramics were more accessible,” Watban says. “When he agreed to the editions, from his point of view, he had the idea that ‘Wouldn’t it be funny if everyone could have a Picasso?’” McCully says, “I think Madoura offered him something he hadn’t really found before. He was taking on a new material, and taking advantage of the expertise around him.”
Picasso’s ceramic output was typically impressive. In addition to the 500-plus pieces that he permitted the Ramiés to release as editions, he created thousands of unique works. “Picasso was very prolific in this as he was in other things,” says Charles Mathes, director of the Jane Kahan Gallery in New York, which has long dealt in Picasso ceramics. “He could do a dozen in a day, or in a week.” The artist never actually threw a pot; photos showing Picasso seated at a potter’s wheel were staged for the camera. His efforts took several forms. He painted blank plates, vases, and other bread-and-butter Madoura products. Sometimes he altered the clay blanks by gouging, pinching, and prodding them while they were still pliable. Other pieces were collaborations that demanded the technical expertise of the master potters and reimagined the shapes of the traditional wares. “He enjoyed working with the clay and making forms that made the potters say, ‘You can’t do that,’” Watban says. “There was always the risk of something going wrong. He did have disasters, but in the main, most worked, to the amazement of the potters.”
Madoura would prove to be a source of personal happiness for Picasso. He depicted his then-partner, Françoise Gilot, in oxides and clay. The two welcomed a son in 1947 and named him Claude, which happens to be the name of the patron saint of potters. And Picasso met his second wife, Jacqueline Roque, at Madoura, where she worked in sales. But the factors that placed Picasso’s ceramic works in the shadows were present from the beginning. Gilot and Picasso’s longtime dealer, Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, expressed concerns that the editions might be mistaken for unique works and cause market confusion. Picasso’s solution was to keep most of the unique pieces for himself, and after he died, they passed to his heirs. With rare exceptions, including a 1948 gift of 78 Madoura pieces to the Grimaldi museum in Antibes (which ultimately became the first Picasso museum in 1966), the only Picasso ceramics consistently in public view were the editions, which were sold directly by Madoura, not his usual dealers.
The editions’ ability to put Picassos on the mantels of the masses rendered them suspect in the art world. The man who did so much to destroy the academy approach to art, with its emphasis on figural accuracy and its hierarchical ranking of artistic subjects from high to low, couldn’t muster the momentum to smash the snobbery surrounding ceramics, which Westerners regard as a craft. “It’s gone on for a very long time,” Watban says of the resistance to viewing ceramics as a legitimate art form. “Even looking at the way the history of 20th century art is taught, there’s no applied art, it’s all fine art. Lots of people had no idea Picasso made ceramics, even now.”
The Picasso ceramic editions always had their fans. The British actor Richard Attenborough began collecting them in 1953, taking a family holiday to Vallauris every August to acquire new objects. In a 2007 essay, he lauded Picasso for his offer-something-at-every-price-point policy. “It was this thoughtfulness which enabled us, during the restrictive currency regulations of the 1950s, to make our very first purchase,” he wrote. “It was an ashtray costing 30 francs.” That ashtray is easily worth a few thousand dollars now, but in the same thoughtful spirit, Attenborough gave the English city of Leicester his 140-piece collection, key examples of which are on permanent display at the New Walk Museum and Art Gallery there.
The modern emergence of Picasso ceramics started with Picasso: Painter and Sculptor in Clay, an exhibit of unique works that appeared at the Royal Academy of the Arts in London and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 1998 and 1999. “Clients who collect the ceramics all reference the Royal Academy show,” says Phillips. “Something stuck in people’s minds. It really had an impact.” Other ceramics-heavy Picasso shows would follow, including Watban’s 2007 exhibit and the Attenborough installation in Leicester in the same year.
These exhibitions occurred in the larger context of a reassessment of Picasso’s late works, both by scholars and the market, which led to their greater acceptance. Some of this, at least from the market side, derived from the brutal simplicity of supply and demand—first-rate works from Picasso’s prewar periods grow ever scarcer and more expensive, but first-rate works from his postwar periods were relative bargains for a long time. As recently as 10 years ago, Picasso’s big, colorful late canvases could be had for less than a million. That window has closed, and firmly. Last November, Sotheby’s set an auction record for a late Picasso painting when it hammered down a 1967 work, L’Aubade, for $23 million.
Rising interest in Picasso’s ceramics also comes at a time when artworks produced as limited editions are themselves gaining respectability. Last November, Christie’s New York included in its Impressionist and Modern evening sale a rare 1937 Picasso print, La femme qui pleure, I (The Weeping Woman, I), which fetched $5.1 million and set a new record for any print at auction. Alberto Giacometti’s L’homme qui marche (Walking Man I), a bronze produced in multiple, became the most expensive artwork ever auctioned at Sotheby’s London in February 2010, holding the title until Picasso’s Nude, Green Leaves and Bust dethroned it three months later. In the same May 2010 Christie’s sale that featured the record-breaking 1932 canvas—all the works were from the collection of Frances and Sidney Brody—Picasso ceramics were also offered. Notable among them was a Fish tableware service, number 23 from an edition of 300 and one of the few sets that had survived as a complete set of 24, which garnered $92,500 against an estimate of $25,000–35,000. Phillips says that provenance helped convince some clients to raise their paddles at the Madoura sale. “There’s safety in knowing that people whose taste can’t be questioned—and no one questions the taste of the Brodys or Beyeler, one of the best dealers of the 20th century. If they collected them, then surely, it’s OK.”
Phillips admits that the Madoura Collection sale will be hard to top. “There’s really nowhere to go in terms of a collection like that. It’s absolutely the Holy Grail. That’s why the prices were so crazy. People understood it was a one-off,” she says. “The sale represents the closure, the end of Madoura. Psychologically, it’s reassuring to collectors. They’re not being made any more. In people’s heads, it will increase the rarity, and the feeling of age and of history, and the market will continue to grow.”