It may have Picasso's blessing, but is it art?

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It's a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside a gallery: When is a Picasso not a Picasso?

At first glance, the 20th century master appears to be all over the Elizabeth Myers Mitchell Gallery at St. John's College in Annapolis. He's there in the photographs on the walls, looking at you with those famously big, dark eyes radiating fierce intent. The glass display cases contain ceramic vases, pitchers, plates and bowls transformed into characteristic Picasso images of birds, goats, fishes and human faces.

And yet, a Picasso aficionado might say, something is missing. Something of the essential, ineffable Picass-ity.

See for yourself, while a collection of 63 examples of what have become known as "Edition Ceramics" of Picasso is on view. "Edition" in this case meaning offspring of an approved line of versions of pottery pieces.

Picasso made the originals, all right. Over the course of 25 years he drifted in and out of the Madoura pottery studio on the Mediterranean coast of France making his own variations of some rather plain ceramics the workshop was selling to tourists. He made thousands of originals, most of which he kept for himself or gave away as gifts.

That's the easy part. The complication arose when Picasso agreed with the Madoura workshop to produce a series of "editions" of his pieces. Apparently to thank Madoura's owners for allowing him to work there, he gave them the rights to reproduce a selected number of originals and to keep all the sales proceeds.

These would be the "Edition Ceramics," which have variously been the object of scorn and celebration. The series are dated between 1947 and 1971, although the runs of some of the editions were not completed until shortly after Picasso's death at 91 in 1973.

Some critics, including Picasso's son, say the editions have clouded appreciation of the originals. Others say they have spread the Picasso aesthetic farther and wider.

"This is kind of Picasso culture," says Rick Malmgren, an Anne Arundel County potter who with his mother, Ebby Malmgren, gave a talk at the gallery a couple weeks ago. "This is the popularization of Picasso."

Whimsical spirit

The master was no potter and never made a serious attempt to become one. Picasso tried throwing a pot or two at Madoura with unhappy results and threw up his otherwise ingenious hands in surrender.

Still, he had an interest in ceramics that surfaced a few times in his career. In 1906 he did a few figures in clay, and in 1929 he decorated vases that were thrown and fired by another man. The 1929 pieces capture much of the whimsical spirit of the Madoura pieces. One vase shows hands reaching for fish and never quite catching them, a pursuit that unfolds as one turns the piece.

Years later, Picasso was painting on the Mediterranean coast of France and decided to check out the annual pottery show in Valla-uris, a town just northeast of Cannes. "Vallauris" comes from the Latin for "valley of gold," and soon enough Picasso would help the owners of the Madoura pottery studio make good on the name.

Suzanne and Georges Ramies were young entrepreneurs scratching out a living in post-war France. One day in July 1946, this bald but vigorous 64-year-old fellow ambled into their booth at the pottery show and introduced himself. Picasso's the name, Pablo Picasso.

Talk about a good day at the office. Picasso liked their stuff and asked to meet the folks who made it. Next thing the Ramies knew they were showing Picasso around the studio. At some point he grabbed a hunk of clay, made a few little figures -- of what, exactly, is unclear -- and shortly thereafter departed.

It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship, a largely ignored chapter of modern art history and a minor industry on the Mediterranean coast.

Magician of forms

The following summer Picasso came back with some drawings and his head brimming with notions about what he might do with the pottery Madoura had been selling to the tourists. He painted and gouged and sculpted. They'd hand him a freshly-made bottle, he'd work on it and hand back a figure of a woman. They'd hand him a vase, he'd hand back an owl, a woman's head, a king and a queen.

Picasso was apparently having fun. This was not the serious analytical Picasso of the early cubist days or the refined Picasso of the classical period. Neither was it the Picasso protesting the horrors of war in "Guernica." This would be the light-hearted magician of forms, the Picasso who turned an old bicycle seat and handlebars into a convincing sculpture of a bull's head.

"There were periods where he worked there every day for three months," says Gerald Nordland, who curated the Mitchell Gallery show for Landau Traveling Exhibitions of Los Angeles. "He was very excited about it."

Picasso made about 3,500 original pieces. Of these, 633 were selected for the editions, each made in series of between 25 to 500 copies. As the studio made the editions, Picasso would be stopping in at Madoura to do his own work.

Thus, the question of who did what and how much of Picasso remains in the Picasso editions.

Where exactly was the master when this or that edition was being made? Did he lay hands upon any of the pieces? Did he even see them before they left the shop? Where does the Picasso end and the Madoura begin?

The short answer is another question: Who knows?

One piece in the show, a white jug transformed into a woman's head, bears a stenciled Picasso signature as part of the design. No edition is personally signed. Instead, the editions are marked by a distinctive symbol.

It is certain that Picasso's work was duplicated using two methods. In some cases, designs were reproduced by taking direct clay impressions of the molds made by Picasso. Other originals were copied by duplicating measurements, proportions and lines, much as one would copy a painting or drawing.

Much else about the creation of the editions is a matter of opinion.

'An elitist view'

Edward Weston, part of whose collection is being shown at the Mitchell Gallery, is inclined to play up the master's role.

"I think he had his hand in it," says Weston.

Weston is a retired broadcasting executive living in Los Angeles. He first encountered the edition ceramics as so many others did, while vacationing near Vallauris. Weston, who bought his first Madoura piece in the late 1950s, now owns nearly 200 Picasso edition ceramics. He'd have more if a 1994 earthquake had not wiped out 40 pieces that were being prepared for shipment to an exhibition.

Nordland, former director of the San Francisco Art Museum, says he considers some of the criticism of the editions "something of an elitist view. They condescend toward something popular which Picasso loved. ...It is an edition, but it's an approved edition by the artist."

Marilyn McCully, chief curator of a show of Picasso's original ceramics held last spring at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, dismisses the editions.

"I consider practically everything on the limited-edition market as a replica," McCully told the Sunday Times of London last year. "They have nothing to do with Picasso. ...I think it's shocking that collectors don't know the difference between a reproduction and unique work."

Ebby and Rick Malmgren addressed the question of the difference in their gallery talk, but found it tough to describe. They say if you look at the catalog of the Metropolitan show of ceramic originals, you can see that some essential ingredient of the Picasso touch is missing.

Rick Malmgren says the quality of Picasso is strained, as if through a sieve.

"I had this image of a filter, as if you took all of this and poured it through a screen. What's left?"

Ebby Malmgren asks: "How many times can you paint 'Guernica'?"

Inevitably, she says, much of the energy and assurance of the master stroke is lost in the deliberate intention to duplicate it.

"Once you have an intention you're in trouble," she says.

Still, the trade in "Edition Ceramics," which became a gold mine in the "valley of gold," continues to this day, nearly 30 years after the last few pieces were completed. Madoura's current prices range from $164 for a small unpainted terra-cotta tile with a simple design to $32,904 for a three-legged vase painted with a blue and green design.

Naturally, there's a web site -- www.madoura.com -- where one can order a piece, or simple browse the virtual gallery of virtual Picasso.

On exhibit

What: "Picasso: 25 Years of Edition Ceramics from the Edward & Ann Weston Collection"

When: Through April 21

Where: Mitchell Gallery, St. John's College, 60 College Avenue, Annapolis

Hours: Noon to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday, 7 p.m.-8 p.m. Friday

Pub Date: 04/02/00

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