‘It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child’ – Pablo Picasso
One of the most significant collections in the UK, Picasso’s ceramics will be displayed at York Art Gallery until the 5th of November. I spoke to curator Helen Walsh about the modern appeal of Picasso and his fascination with ceramics that nobody seemed to know about until now.
The private collection, generously donated by Lord and Lady Attenborough, places Picasso’s ceramic work in a cheerful, domestic setting which works well with the playful atmosphere of his work in clay. Corresponding works from British potters line the surrounding walls.
Having had no professional pottery training, Picasso’s love for ceramics grew around the earthenware tradition of his birthplace, Malaga, and collaboration with local artists.
Unknown: So generally how have you found curating this kind of exhibit? To have Picasso on at the same time as Albert Moore, that must be a really exciting and significant moment for York…
Helen Walsh: Yeah, the Albert Moore exhibition has been really interesting because it’s a local artist who did well. But the Picasso one is something we’ve wanted to do for a long time because Picasso is such a big name, but the work he did with ceramics is very little known. He started working with ceramics in the 1940s, and then spent the last 25 years of his life almost working solely in clay but people don’t hear about that.
I think that’s partly because at the time the art world was a bit thrown by the idea of why anyone would want to work with mud, basically, so they were a bit embarrassed for him, and didn’t really highlight it as part of his artistic career. But at the same time all these British studio potters (for example) were a bit suspicious of why he was doing his work. Perhaps they thought it was just a bit of a joke for him, but now most art historians can recognise that his work in clay was an important body of work, and certainly it changed a lot of British potter’s views about how they could work in clay at the time.
U: Definitely… because when the Attenboroughs started collecting, I understand it was when his work in ceramics, at least, was relatively unknown and inexpensive…
HW: Yes, I think there was an exhibition that toured round the UK in the late 50’s/early 60s, and this was the first time people had come across it. And it came, this moment at the end of World War 2 where people were at the end of this bleak austerity, and they were looking for something fun and inspiring and his work kind of ticked that box. So he inspired quite a few British potters to start working in this kind of more figurative, colourful manner. Some people really embraced it and others dismissed it. Bernard Leach was very sniffy about Picasso’s work, and he gave the people who were inspired by his work a nickname – the Picassiettes. And this was quite an insulting nickname, but these people were actually quite happy with it, they liked being associated with Picasso.
U: What is it, do you think, that gives Picasso’s work its popular appeal?
HW: I think it’s the way he looks at work and the way he made his art. There’s a great quote from him about how it took him four years to paint like Raphael but a lifetime to paint like a child. So he’s really interested in that kind of naïve, joyful enthusiasm that children manage to create, and I think you can begin to see that in some of his ceramics.
U: I definitely see that in the ceramics, do you think that’s something he applied straight away, as he had no professional pottery training?
HW: No, I think that kind of benefitted him because if you’re trained in pottery you learn how to do it in the correct way – how to use your tools properly, how to throw etc… but he was coming to it from an arts background, so he just used it as a medium. He would do things with clay which a trained potter probably wouldn’t do because it might have gone wrong. There’s a kind of freedom about how he’s decorated and worked into the clay, so there’s no kind of perfectionism about it which a lot of potters have.
U: That perfectionism, does it come from this perception of pottery as spanning both visual art and functionality?
HW: Yeah, pottery is traditionally seen as making objects with functional use, but he’s combined it by making functional objects but making them into artworks. So there’s a jug with 3 female figures around it, and he’s seen the jug as being representative of the female form. And there’s the owl jug, where he’s taken the vase form and twisted it from the body. It’s just the different way he had of seeing uses and various things from the objects. There’s a sculpture he did where he’s just taken the saddle of a bike, and the handlebars, and put them together and turned it into a bulls head. So its kind of…
U:It’s a different perception.
Pablo Picasso, Little Owl, 1969
U: So you made the decision to include British studio potters in the collection, and you’ve said that they seem like ‘strange bedfellows’ alongside Picasso. What kind of dialogues you were trying to highlight between the two?
Well, to show what he was doing at that time but also what the British potters were doing at that time. Showing Picasso in the middle of that gallery space, surrounded by the work of the other potters round the edges, I hoped that people would start making connections themselves. We’ve positioned them around the gallery so they link in almost subconsciously. The jug, for example, its right next to a case of figurative work, and there’s a mixture of pieces that reflect the human figure – some directly, some abstractly – so Picasso’s jug is also part of the idea of taking functional objects and making them figurative.
When I was selecting the objects from the Attenborough’s collection I was limited to what I could have so I tried to choose things that showed the range of what he was doing in clay, so a lot of the themes that he was exploring have also been explored by British studio potters. Putting them side by side kind of shows that he wasn’t the only person using clay and doing this type of thing with it.
U: This must have been fantastic for York, though, because obviously Picasso’s a household name…
HW: Definitely, I mean, as part of the gallery development we did some visitor research where we gave people a list of 10 different names and asked the viewer if they knew them… Turner, Greyson Perry etc… and Picasso had something like 98% recognition.
U: That’s in a way astonishing and in a way not at all surprising.
HW: Greyson Perry had about 4%.
U: Do you think that’s because Picasso is quite accessible?
Yes, I think a lot of his work is just fun and juvenile and you understand it. It’s attractive. And obviously his name has become a global commodity and it’s so recognisable.
Picasso’s Ceramics will be on display at York Art Gallery until November 5th.
Featured image: Pablo Picasso, Heads of women, Aztec vase, 1957