Picasso Ceramics: Objects from the Nina Miller Collection
University Museum and Art Gallery. The University of Hong Kong. A contextual review.
David L Hume
This review might alternatively be titled: How Picasso’s Ceramic Art Restored My Sanity. I’d just spent three traumatic days, not knowing if I would be able to rejoin my partner in China. With each visa application a different answer, none of which matched. I was eating poorly, drinking too much coffee and smoking way too much.
While the responses to my application were hard to correlate, images repeated and reflected everywhere. Waiting for elevators my likeness receded overhead down a tunnel of mirrors. Buckled lift doors bounced back my full length reflection, warped and twisted. It came back at me from shop windows, passing cars and restaurant tables. Turning to the sky, buildings bounced of each other. At night their refractive skin popped with digital neon blood, boastful slogans cast in reverse.
There is no rest in a place where space is a premium and the default design material is glass and mirrors. No refrain between wailing spruikers, no negative space to contemplate the image. Here is the salon of mercantile fever, the never fading nightclub beat.
On the morning of the fourth day, visa in hand, I lit a cigarette, while queueing for a bus. A tall gangly student, berated me. I admired outspoken nature I was in no mood to appreciate his concern and responded, regretfully, with a blast that would have been more suited to the incompetent staff at the visa office. I boarded a bus that took me through the morning glare of Wanchai, Central and Admiralty — that the next day would be closed down, teeming with pro democracy demonstrators. I sank into my seat, a running dot matrix banner at the front would tell me when I’d reached my destination. Headphones secluded me from the chatter of commuters. Even when it appears to be quiet, there remains a background hum like you get from a dodgy pa system. A random selection, pumped late 70‘s punk and reggae into my head.
Nostalgia radiated nostalgia. I recalled how, as an undergrad, in first year art history, the proposition had be put that Picasso was the greatest artist to ever live. It was, of course, a provocation to stimulate a tutorial debate. At roughly the same time I overheard the head of the painting faculty condemn, albeit jovially, the ceramic studio as the crockery department.
As a youngish, budding art historian, with a remnant punk attitude, studying among ambitious studio artists, I was nonplussed about the debate over who was the greatest ever artists, but engaged in the discussion, schooled, as we all had recently been, in the great breakthrough that was cubism. I certainly cannot remember if my particular tutorial group supported the proposal or not. However, what I can be certain about is that Picasso’s crockery output was never mentioned. I should disclose that I have done nothing to address this lack in my own teaching practice over the last 10 years. The demands in Asia are far more focussed on the application of art to design, particularly graphics and architecture, than theory and aesthetic appreciation.
The exhibition was, as expected, very well curated, but with the usual annoyance of the glare from glass cabinets, that really dose effect the viewing. However, this is Picasso and it is in Asia.
My first impression was of the calm, that one tends to expect in galleries and museums — a ghostliness that was campus wide. Such tranquility, even a small group of tiny tots, ushered along by their teachers, failed to disrupt it, and really it was great to see toddlers enjoy the art.
The work within this show contained most, if not all, of the artists well known motifs and styles. Earthenware platters adorned with shadowy scenes of the bullfight greeted the viewer. These monochrome works are quite stunning in their simplicity and the theme is continued in the decoration of later three dimensional objects such as Arena,a white earthenware vase with red and black detail, in which the artist captures the event and presence of the crowd in characteristic quickly applied daubs.
Faces, or portraits, are also included. One particular section was given over to large earthenware tiles, upon which faces are either painted of inscribed. These, presented at a more engaging height, were very much to liking of the tots, with their skewed expressions, while the humour was not lost on me especially those that gave the appearance of carved woodblocks.
In the next room birds became dominant: owls, doves and ducks, took the form of ewers, vases and other sculptural objects. Some sinister, some playful and some quite elegant.
The awkwardly titled Duck Flower-Holder, from 1951, is an amusing example of how sculptural inspiration is taken from animal form. Initially I did not notice the small holes in the top of the body and questioned the title, but upon spying them one can see how the utility of this object would playfully enhance the decorative visage on the bird’s breast.
The reuse of broken or discarded pots, in an assemblage of owl figures is equally amusing. Some are clearly assembled from more than one turned pot constituting three openings at head, foot and flared tail.
The sinister appeared in the shape of White Owl on red Ground. This round terra-cotta platter from 1957 features a full frontal image, feathers and sharp talons, detailed in black upon the white body. There is something quite emblematic about this work that brings to the mind of this viewer motifs of World War II. The same may also be said of another terra-cotta platter Perched Black Owl. From 1951, this is again a full frontal image in black on a red ground, that is perhaps lightened from its emblematic guise, through its plump torso, slit smile and placement upon a perch.
The serious aspect is not limited to the two dimensional, as Wood-owl with Feathers, a plump bodied vase, decorated with the scolding expression of a headmaster demonstrates, it’s piercing eyes and acutely angled brows fixing the gaze of the viewer. A further sculptural piece, the simply titled Owlfrom 1953 is like the two platters rendered in a palette of black on red with some white, yet in its three dimensional state the decorative motif does not impose itself with a dictatorial gaze.
The most exquisite work on display is the small Dove Subject. One of the later works within this eclectic collection, this petit turned vase is elegantly decorated with blue and black detail on white earthenware clay. Here detail rests in perfect harmony with sculptural form and seems to have been more painstakingly applied.
The largest work on display is also worthy of mention. A massive earthenware pot proud in it girth and simplicity of decoration. Divided into eight red and white sections, featuring characteristically simple fish and bird designs, this , of all pieces resonates most with artisanal quality of the place of production.
Made in collaboration with Suzanne Raime they represent a small portion of 633 editions produced through the artisanal collaborative process at the Madoura ceramics studio in the south of France (Nordland 2013). While Picasso’s role in this venture was not limited to the decoration of ceramic objects, much of the historical and photographic documentation refers moreover to artist’s role in the addition of decorative detail. As limited editions these artworks have found their way into various collections, of which the Nina Miller collection is one.
If, after viewing this exhibition, the proposition regarding Picasso’s status among other artists was to be refined to his engagement with the ceramic medium, I would suggest that he would be found wanting. For while his brilliance as a visual artist is without doubt, his exploration of the capacities of clay is surely limited. Confined to the traditions of heavy bodied earthenware, his output did not really explore the sculptural qualities of the medium, but rather its provision of a canvass for the development and expression of established and new motifs.
I was, however, immensely appreciative of the opportunity to view this exhibition. As I left the show I realised why these simple heavy bodied works, in earthy tones, finished with soft glazes or left bare, appealed so much. They absorbed light and were a gentle and relaxing contrast to the flood of reflective surfaces that, over the past three days, had irritated my vision. The next day I would leave Hong Kong becalmed and the refractive skins of the high rise environment would fill with the simulacra and placards of thousands of angry students.
Nordland, G. (2013) PABLO PICASSO 25 YEARS OF EDITION CERAMICS From The Rosenbaum Collection. http://www.a-r-t.com/picassomr/(Accessed 5/10/2014)
Slide List in order of mention
Pase de muleta 1959, earthenware with engobesdecoration,42 cm.
Arena 1958, earthenware with engobes decoration 30 x 20.5 cm.
Face with Goatee 1968, red earthenware with engobes decoration, engraving enhanced with enamel under partial brushed glaze, black patina & colours 33 x 31 cm.
Duck Flower Holder 1951, white earthenware & oxides on white enamel, 42.5 x 21.5 x 45 cm.
White Owl on Red Ground 1957, red earthenware with engobes decoration 45.5 cm.
Owl 1953, white earthenware with engobes decoration, 33 x 18.5 x 28 cm.
Wood-owl with Feathers 1951, white earthenware, oxides on white enamel, 30 x 22.5 cm.
Perched Black Owl. 1957, earthenware with engobes decoration, 43 cm.
Dove Subject 1959, white earthenware and engobes decoration, 17 x 11.5 x 28 cm.
Birds and Fishes 1955, earthenware with engobes decoration 49 x 48.5 x 13 cm.
The Extraordinary Home of Liz Breger (AKA Beth Pewther)
This considerable mosaic, made during the period when the city was at the forefront of the late 60s — early 70s counter culture movement, stands as a significant, if under appreciated, art work of the period. It is of immense value, to scholars and students of the ceramic mosaic medium, as well as a significant work of a female artists from a period dominated by the masculine eye, and can be viewed at 80 Bronte Street, Bernal Heights, San Francisco.
The Black House, Northern Thailand
A slight digression from my fetishistic relationship with ceramic art.
I was inspired to revisit these images after seeing a number of ceramic artists either represent the patterns, textures and forms of nature and found objects in their work, or include similar objects in the presentation of their work. Skin, bone and stone, within a teak house and grounds account for this collections
The Black House.
A trove of nature's detritus,
Remains interpreted as promise.
Explorations of natural form
Fragments and recurring patterns.
There is a deep sense of place here, that is many things at once, part temple, bikie barn, furniture exhibition, sculpture park, play park, cemetery. Curious beasts erupt from the ground, hang from high rafters, are carved into wooden pillars. Texture and form provide the base for this extraordinary place. Death is ever present.
Above all this little known site amounts to a contemporary Wunderkammer, complete with fetishistic obsession.