I’ve managed to get hold of an article I’ve been seeking for a long time – ‘From Cesnola to Picasso’ (2002), by Vassos Karageorghis, in Nyt fra Nationalsmuseet, a publication of the National Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen. I hadn’t realised it was in Danish; but I got there in the end.
The article gives a brief history of the reception of ancient Cypriot art, focusing on the Museum’s collection, which makes me want to visit at the earliest opportunity. The mention of Picasso particularly intrigued me. Karageorghis refers to a 1999 exhibition of Picasso ceramics in the Metropolitan Museum, New York, where he was struck by the resemblance between two jugs by Picasso and an early Bronze Age vase in the Cyprus Museum, Nicosia.
Karageorghis concludes that “Picasso was often inspired by ancient art, and the fact that Cypriot pottery could have influenced him is tangible evidence of the island’s art’s universal and high aesthetic value.’ It’s easy to see the resemblance that caught Karageorghis’ attention. But it turns out that this piece was inspired by a different ancient Cypriot object; and that it was originally reinterpreted not by Picasso, but by a fellow artist and producer of ceramics, Suzanne Ramié.
Picasso’s major period of ceramic production began around 1946, when he visited Vallauris in the south of France and met Georges and Suzanne Ramié, who invited him to their Madoura workshop. The following summer he began working with them, an association which continued for many years. He worked closely with the team of skilled artisans at the Madoura atelier to produce his ceramic pieces, designing some himself from scratch, but more often using existing patterns already in production, decorating, altering and adding to them to make them work in new ways. Some of these forms were designed by Suzanne Ramié. Trained in the fine arts, her ceramics included practical, traditional wares, and also more fantastic pieces, often with a zoomorphic twist.
Through her formal studies at the Musée de Sèvres, Ramié had learned about ancient Cypriot pottery, which was a source of inspiration for her own work. It was probably while visiting the Louvre that she came across the Cypriot vessel below, which she re-imagined as a Modernist vase. Its smooth, lustrous white surface, contrasting with the deep blue enamel of the interior, focuses attention on its form, the interpretation of which is left open to the viewer. At 73cm high it is more than twice as tall as the Cypriot original. This is the vase that Picasso in turn reinvented as an anthropomorphic piece. Through an act of metamorphosis, Ramié’s abstract design becomes a woman supporting her face in her hands.
Looking beyond this one example, it is clear that ancient Cypriot pottery more generally was an important source for Picasso during his years of ceramic production. For example, art historian and Picasso specialist Harald Theil traces the gesture of Picasso’s ‘Woman with Mantilla’ figurine, as she raises her hand to her neck, to a Cypro-Archaic vase from the Louvre in the shape of a woman.
Similarly, Picasso’s ‘Taureau’ (1947) can be linked to a Late Cypriot bull askos, also in the Louvre.
As Theil points out, Picasso uses and transforms diverse elements of the Mediterranean ceramic tradition rather than simply reworking individual pieces; but it seems that ancient Cypriot ceramics were very much part of the artistic repertoire on which he drew.
Forms and images from the ancient world more generally were also important to Picasso in his ceramic work, in particular fauns, centaurs, the owl of Athena, and Greek warriors. He even retrieved broken fragments of earthenware from the workshop’s rubbish-heaps, decorating them as mock-archaeological sherds. This reworking of ancient imagery was part of an attempt on Picasso’s part to forge connections with his Mediterranean cultural heritage, and to site his works within the tradition of Mediterranean art and craft.
Ceramics also appealed to Picasso as a democratising art-form, bringing art within the reach of ordinary people. In the early stages, editions of his designs sold for relatively low prices. His intentions have since been frustrated by the enormous value placed on his work in the contemporary art market, which has set his ceramics far beyond the financial reach of most people, though they still generally sell for less than his paintings. This journey, from use to museum object, is mirrored by that of the Cypriot objects which were his inspiration: presumably made for domestic or ritual use, and now objects for viewing in museums or private collections.
Ramié is, of course, much less known than Picasso. But she should be recognised, not just for her role in the creation of this vase of Picasso’s, but also for her own intriguing and beautiful experiments with ancient forms. For example, her zoomorphic flower-holder, with its four small feet, and her double-ended vase, clearly owe a debt of inspiration to ancient askoi.
Like a new production of an ancient play, Ramié’s and Picasso’s interpretations of Cypriot ceramics send the viewer back to the original to think about it in new ways. Ramié’s simplified, almost stylised vase based on the Cypriot tripod vessel, with its uniform glaze, leaves the form open to the viewer’s interpretation, while Picasso’s playfully inventive reworking of her design invites the viewer to share his vision. The classicist Thomas A. Schmitz has said that we become better readers of ancient texts as we think of more questions to ask of them. The same can be said of ancient ceramics, and both Ramié’s and Picasso’s works pose questions as well as stating answers.