The video, part of an exhibit at The Kennedy Center, starts with an elegant, nondescript urn. Picasso bends the clay a few times at the neck, mouth and bottom. He scores it quickly without hesitation using a wooden tool, gives it a few dabs of black paint and reveals a dove etched in clay.
It is the purest of art, and the speed Picasso executes his craft reinforces the mastery.
Here was a man who had an impeccable eye and who knew how to make the clay do exactly as he wanted.
More than 140 similar ceramic works by Picasso are on view in a “first-of-its-kind” U.S. exhibition that runs at the Kennedy Center from Mar. 4 to 22, according to the exhibition catalog.
The largest part of a “suite” of exhibitions and events surrounding the Iberian Peninsula made up of Spain and Portugal, the ceramic works show a side of Picasso not often seen: three dimensional, more whimsical and, at times, less abstract in nature.
“The objects themselves, their shape and their texture, give me the key to my artistic vision,” Picasso said.
After presenting posters from Picasso exhibitions in Spain and some examples of his artistic influences,which include Ancient Greek amphorae and Moorish and French earthenware, curators Josephine Matamoros and Bruno Gaudichon unveil the multitude of ceramics.
In the works, the Greek influence is everywhere: in fauns that adorn numerous plates and amphora-like urns, in the color palate of other pieces, and specifically in two icon-sized bearded faces that exude an early hellenic aura. Also present are harbingers of later Picasso tropes, including doves that adorn a pot, stand a subtle, little sculpture, and take shape in the video.
There are other places where the ceramics mimic Picasso’s visual work. A set of three plates portraying ecstatic, nude musicians seems to meld “Three Musicians” and “The Young Ladies of Avignon” (whose style is clearly visible on another vessel across the way).
Another common thread of Spanish art evident in the posters and the ceramics is work depicting toros, toreo and toreadores, in this case painted onto plates and other vessels with quick brushstrokes as furious as the sport itself.
Restricted by the three dimensional form, Picasso presents a more realistic – if exaggerated – aesthetic. In one wall that presents portraits of women and girls, they are beautiful, eerily familiar forms from an artist who, in his day, presented anything but the familiar. The only hint of cubism seems to be the shading and coloration, which is not obtrusive.
This is of course when the picture is the art. When the form is the art, all bets are off.
Many of the vases are women, curvy and elongated, and as whimsically inventive as one would expect. A vessel situated on a tripod becomes a woman bent down on her knees, a goose becomes a headdressed maiden, and a vase becomes a bearded man.
In multiple pieces, a woman’s nipples turn into a pair of eyes whose corresponding mouth is painted on her clasped wrists or elsewhere. A guard said that some cases were intentionally left transparent to allow these such pieces to be viewed from all angles.
Some are more whimsical. Ever a jokester, Picasso fills his own platters – painting peppers, lemons and tomatoes onto a salad bowl and sculpting fish, fruit and silverware onto select plates.
Also On View
Also on view in separate spaces as part of the Iberian Suite are numerous other pieces of art and cultural exposition. In one room, a timeline and video of Iberian history chronicles the Moorish conquest and the age of exploration but conveniently omits the Spanish Civil War and Francisco Franco.
In the Hall of States, a collection of dresses called “So Blue So White” presents extraordinarily fashionable gowns that embraced the colors of porcelain china, which Portuguese trading ships originally brought to Europe. “Triptych + One” by Scott Gundersen presents four portraits of Iberian and Latin American writers, including Nobel Prize winner Gabriel Garcia Marquez, made exclusively from differently-shaded wine corks.
According to an exhibition catalog, “more than 80 percent of all cork in the world is grown and produced in Portugal or Spain,” and the cork theme continues from the merlot Marquez to a full scale trolley car by Nuno Vasa.
The cork detailing – from the destination boards to the controls to the surprisingly accurate trucks – is impeccable. It is an homage to Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa, who included such trains in his writings.
The sculpture is centered in the enormous Hall of Nations and is sided by two cork shelter walls that suggest a light rail station. On one side, in place of the usual transit system advertisements, the Kennedy Center has installed a set of tile-like paper collage panels colored in the same blue and white by Manuela Pimentel, which “pays tribute to the rich tradition of Portugal’s Azulejo (painted, tin-glazed tilework),” according to the catalog.
Like the tram, Pimentel said in the catalog that her works are “based on the stories that … the street passes onto me.” Finishing out the street theme to the suite, titled “A Journey of Imagination,” is work by “urban artist” Alexandre Farto (aka Vhils). His piece is a complex hanging sculpture composed of a cacophony of suspended white squares that, when viewed from a precise angle marked by footprints on the floor of the Hall, spell out the word “Freedom.”
There is also a child-centric educational installation devoted to travel of cuisine from Iberia to America. The exhibitions are paired with numerous Kennedy Center events and certain components run until Mar. 24.
Evan Berkowitz is a freshman journalism major and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org