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A master plays with clay

Many of Picasso's ceramic works convey an air of whimsy and fun.

Published January 4, 2007

[Times photos: Scott Keeler]
Pablo Picasso, Man’s Face, 1955, clay.

Pablo Picasso, Large Bird, 1953, clay.

Pablo Picasso, Bull’s Profile, 1956, clay.


This weekend is a good time to see "Picasso Ceramics" at the Leepa-Rattner Museum - and the last time; Sunday is the closing day of the exhibition.

The works are mostly lighthearted, done by an artist who lived with his mythic reputation decades before he died and must have needed an occasional break from the pressures of being the Greatest Living Artist in the World.

Even geniuses need to play.

The time he spent at a ceramics factory in the south of France, beginning in the late 1940s and continuing for the rest of his life, was like summer camp, a place where he could make mud pies of a high order, to be sure that he knew would not be taken seriously by the larger art world. He made hundreds of platters, plaques and vessels, prototypes that were cast and fired in limited editions, affordable to people who couldn't buy a painting.

Picasso started out painting on premade platters, casual sketches of interest only because they bear his signature. His compositions become more sophisticated over the years as he explores the tactile qualities of wet clay, gouging out bits to create facial features, building it up to give dimension to an image. On one plate he sculpted and painted a hilarious scene of two fat hands clutching a terrified fish.

His vessels and the figures he painted on them were often inspired by primitive cultural references. An especially lovely pitcher has a lip elongated like the prow of an ancient canoe and is adorned with stylized water birds.

Some of the ceramic plaques look like carved blocks used to make screen prints, probably intentional since he began exploring the silk screening process once he permanently moved to southern France in the 1950s. The ceramics in the 1960s have a serenity and sometimes a severity to them, often glazed in black and painted in white. A platter made in 1971, two years before his death, sports a whimsical portrait of a goatish old man, the artist's alter ego.

In the best of them, Picasso demonstrates his mastery of the unadorned line, elegant in its simplicity, that was rivaled only by his contemporary, Henri Matisse.

You will see that same fascination with line in an accompanying exhibition of mostly prints by Picasso, plus memorabilia from Leepa-Rattner's archives. A charming example is a page from Abraham Rattner's journal in which he noted sending a package of food from the United States to Picasso, living in Paris during the dark days of the Nazi occupation.

Geniuses need to eat, too.

Lennie Bennett can be reached at (727) 893-8293 or


Picasso Ceramics

"Picasso Ceramics from the Bernie Bercuson Collection of the Museum of Art Fort Lauderdale" is at the Leepa-Rattner Museum of Art through Sunday. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tue. through Sat. and 1 to 5 p.m. Sun. The museum is at 600 Klosterman Road on the Tarpon Springs campus of St. Petersburg College. Admission is $5 adults, $4 seniors, free to children and students. Free admission on Sunday. Free daily screenings of the documentaries The Mystery of Picasso, 1 p.m., and Picasso: War, Peace, Love, 3 p.m. (727) 712-5762 or


[Last modified January 3, 2007, 15:20:43]

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