Behold the potter

Pablo Picasso’s post-war ceramic works come to Reno

These ceramic pieces by Picasso are on display at the Nevada Museum of Art Underground.

These ceramic pieces by Picasso are on display at the Nevada Museum of Art Underground.

If, by late in life, an artist has already become a legend, his twilight artistic undertakings will certainly be measured against the genius of his earlier work. Picasso’s early periods, when his legendary status was still in the making, are labeled with memorable identifiers: the Blue Period, when the teenage Picasso created haunting, blue-tinged works of melancholia; the Rose Period, when Picasso’s colors became warmer and his subjects less severe; the revolutionary Cubist Periods and the Classical Period, which followed World War I. His later works are not so easily tagged.

On the heels of World War II, with the horrors of wartime destruction stamped on works like “Guernica,” Picasso vacationed in the Mediterranean and met Georges and Suzanne Ramie, owners of Madoura Pottery, a local pottery shop. Under the direction of the Ramies, Picasso eagerly began to shape clay into plates, bowls, vases, jugs, even ashtrays. A collection of this work, Picasso: 25 Years of Edition Ceramics, is now on display at the Nevada Museum of Art.

And so Picasso, the man behind an extraordinary artistic movement, became a potter. His enthusiastic embrace of ceramics late in life seems anticlimactic—a genius capping his brilliant career with a sort of semi-retirement gig as a potter. Yet Picasso’s ventures in ceramics mark an important phase in his career. The works have a powerful poetry—the animal and human figures etched onto clay are, as NMA’s communication director, Amy Oppio, points out, incredibly whimsical and imaginative.

“Picasso’s ceramic oeuvre may seem frivolous to some, but it is extremely ambitious and encompassing,” writes Gerald Nordland in the exhibition essay. “It is an important part of his life’s work, embodying his imagination and wit … his humanistic understanding of the mytho-poetic power of simple utensils to express the physical well-being associated with the pleasures of the table. It is the artist’s witty variations on religious and mythic tales of God’s use of clay to create a human likeness.”

Despite our occasional snobbishness toward utilitarian pieces of art, we cannot ignore the power of an artist, himself having attained an almost mythic status, crafting ceramic vessels that revisit that mytho-poetic power. The cold, gaunt figures of Picasso’s Blue Period and the fragmented, African-inspired figures of his Cubist Period seem worlds away from the eyes, mouths and noses brushed onto these ceramics. Here, the faces wear expressions of openness and wonder; the figures seem almost as fragile as the vessels onto which they are painted.

“They have this innocence you don’t expect,” Oppio says. “This attests to [Picasso’s] appeal as an artist.”

Oppio adds that, because we are accustomed to seeing major artists in a strictly serious, scholarly light, the charm of Picasso’s ceramics is that they are so approachable, so evocative of life’s simple pleasures.

Yet the exotic, magical, almost mask-like faces that characterize Picasso’s more famous works are certainly present here. Perhaps none of his works on display at NMA exhibits this more than “Wood-Owl Woman,” a vase onto which an owl-woman hybrid has been painted. With only a few brushstrokes, Picasso was able to capture the quiet, haunting mystery of an owl’s features and the earthy beauty of a young woman.

One usually has to travel far to visit a legendary Picasso work. Here at home, however, we have the chance to glimpse the artist’s strange and beautiful journeys in clay.