Picasso left lasting mark on Madoura art pottery
Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) had a restless artistic temperament and continually sought out new forms to which his inspiration could be applied. A chance meeting on the French Riviera after World War II revealed the possibilities of clay as a receptive surface for Picasso’s art. His decorative ceramic designs were executed in numerous limited editions, increasingly in demand for collections of 20th century art, where they hold their own alongside multimillion-dollar paintings.
During the first decade of that century, Picasso went through a series of celebrated painting periods that had repeatedly altered the course of modern art. Always experimenting, he had created sculptures in various materials, designed productions for the Ballets Russes, and even wrote poetry and plays. After surviving the war in France, he vacationed at Golfe-Juan on the Mediterranean Coast between Cannes and Nice. In the summer of 1946, he met Georges and Suzanne Ramie, owners of the Madoura Pottery in nearby Vallauris. They encouraged him to make a few things there. What to a lesser artist might be called “messing around on holiday” became for Picasso the beginning of a new expression of his genius.
Art historian and former museum director Gerald Nordland in Picasso: 25 Years of Edition Ceramics takes up the tale: “When Picasso returned to Vallauris in Summer 1947, he was pleased to find his three earlier ceramic experiments, and he carried with him a packet of drawings which he thought might come to life in clay. … The Ramies and staff were delighted to apply their knowledge and technical skills to help Picasso realize his projects.” Picasso never became a pot-throwing ceramist – the techniques came from the Ramies – but their fruitful collaboration continued over the next 25 years.
Nordland continued, “Picasso was a quick worker, decisive in mind and hand, who remembered the Ramies’ teachings and suggestions, and began to communicate in their ceramic language. He devoted long hours to developing ideas and multiple variations upon them. Soon he began to find among his accumulating works, pieces which embodied a vitality which he felt might be produced in an edition. …. The Ramies developed technical procedures to ensure precision of form and accurate rendering of the drawn designs and colors.” Picasso himself retained what might be called the original work, or “master” – although he bestowed some on family and friends, including the Ramies. Others he gave to the Musees d’Antibes, located near the pottery. A gift of ceramics also was made to the Picasso Museum in Paris after the artist’s death.
Nordland wrote his essay for an exhibition catalog of the Los Angeles-based Edward and Ann Weston collection, part of which toured American museums at the beginning of the 21st century. Early enthusiasts, the Westons had gathered over 200 examples, beginning with some that were acquired at the pottery in the 1950s. Looking over their selections and recent auction catalogs of Picasso ceramics, the variety of forms and designs that the artist created is staggering. Plates and platters of every configuration, vases and pitchers, often in shapes devised specifically for the subject matter.
His cheerful painted patterns sprang from an intimate knowledge of Mediterranean life: fish and sea creatures, birds and animals, the bull and bullfight, smiling faces of men and shapely women. He also borrowed ideas and coloration from ancient pottery, including the Greek vases he had seen in museums. At times, he applied the designs to suit the vase shape – for example, rounded jugs become heads. But he also subtly changed the forms to suit the subject – deep-waisted women decorate appropriately shaped vases. The popular Wood Owl vase, created in an edition of 500, has an added circular tail.
The original designs were faithfully replicated in limited editions, which ranged from 25 to 500. The Madoura Pottery applied their stamp and marked the productions as “Edition Picasso.” The base may be marked with that example’s edition number and place within the edition. There are many informative books and exhibition catalogs on Picasso ceramics including several by Georges Ramie. The authoritative volume is Catalogue of the Edited Ceramic Works, 1947-1971 (Vallauris: Madoura 1988) by the potters’ son, Alain Ramie, and auction descriptions usually provide a reference to that work.
A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for collectors occurred in June 2012 when Christie’s London offered “Picasso Ceramics: The Madoura Collection,” 543 lots which realized over $12.5 million. The auction included many ceramics that had remained at the pottery since their creation as well as related posters, prints and photos. Records were set that raised the bar for subsequent sales. The best prices were realized for early 1950s designs issued in small editions of 25. Many works brought five- and six-figures prices with the top lot – Grand vase aux femmes voilees – selling for over a million. Building on this success, Christie’s has continued to hold dedicated gallery auctions in London as well as twice-yearly online sales out of New York, but Picasso ceramics now appear regularly at auction houses around the world.
Los Angeles Modern Auctions (LAMA) has achieved extraordinary results for these Edition Picasso works recently, and Peter Loughrey, the founder and director of Modern Design and Fine Art, is well-qualified to discuss the current market: “People know that we take a little more time to micro-market these pieces; we are now the place to go if you’re thinking about selling Picasso ceramics on the West Coast. If someone is interested in collecting and investing as well, Picasso ceramics have a long track record. They have grown in value, and we’ve had some spikes recently.” Certain edition examples that could be purchased at Madoura for $25 in the 1950s now bring thousands, so collectors are competing vigorously for outstanding pieces still on the market.
Loughrey continued, “They are now sought after by extremely high level collectors. People who have multimillion-dollar pieces on the wall feel that it’s not out of place to have a Picasso ceramic on the coffee table or in a niche next to drawings. They’re inherently Picasso. That’s something that people tried to dismiss for many years, but they’re as important as any medium he worked in. Just because they’re made in multiples, doesn’t mean it’s not an original concept and original work of art. Picasso inserted his creative energy into a process and said, ‘I love this process – I’m going to make these works.’ He was an artist with profound energy and profound curiosity about the process. He created new techniques and delighted in all that could be done with the medium.”
Asked what collectors should look for, Loughrey emphasized, “Condition is really becoming very critical. It used to be I wouldn’t accept any works that had chips or scratches on them, but value has gotten very high now. If you get a piece that doesn’t have any fingerprint marks on it, for example, the market will respond accordingly. I look for ones that are exceptionally clean; pieces that have just oil from your fingers on the matte surface can bring significantly less. We tend to only accept exceptional examples, and they have achieved exceptional prices.”
Sarah El-Tamer, head of sale for Picasso ceramics online in the Impressionist and Modern Art department at Christie’s New York, concurred: “We’ve noticed that clients are definitely looking for works that are in perfect condition – that’s really an important point. Because they’re edition work, if someone sees one that was broken and repaired, why would they bid on that if they have the opportunity to buy another better example from the edition? We look for works that are in excellent condition and works that are well executed. There is slight variation from example to example, but generally the color scheme remains the same. Occasionally, you will encounter an example from an edition that’s in a completely different color. There’s a plate that comes to mind that’s typically executed with a green border but there is a very small number of plates from that edition that have a blue border, so that’s a rare color variant.”
As far as collectors are concerned, El-Tamer said, “We definitely see some crossover. What we’ve been able to monitor with the online sales is the number of clients who are bidding who are already Christie’s clients and have been collectors for years. But also there are new clients that we are attracting through the online sales. So that’s one thing we’re trying to do with selling online – to reach clients internationally who may not be bidding with Christie’s already. In the sales we’ve had, while there are collectors who have Picasso paintings or other original art who are buying Picasso ceramics; there’s also a large number of new clients who are looking to start their collections at a lower price point, and that’s why Picasso ceramics are appealing to them. Picasso was very passionate about the medium when he learned what it was like to work with ceramics at Madoura, and that’s why it’s such an important part of his work.”