Arts: Fired in the kiln of fatherhood

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Pottery was not Pablo Picasso's first art form. But, as his son

points out, the great man made over 3,500 ceramic works,

a selection of which are on show in London.

I think what I most admired about my father was his extraordinary courage," Claude Picasso told me. "He had such energy to pursue whatever he wanted, and he really didn't care what others thought. It was what made him great. `I do not seek, I find,' he insisted, and he wanted his heart to be `alive and dangerous'. What confidence he had!"

I met Claude Picasso in London this week, surrounded by his father's work, much of which he had watched being made in Vallauris in the Fifties. Claude is here with his sister Paloma, the other child of Picasso's marriage to Francoise Gilot, to open the first major show of the artist's work in clay at the Royal Academy.

Claude, at 51, looks extraordinarily like Picasso. He has the same huge mesmeric dark eyes, strong features and charismatic smile. He told me that he felt that his character was like his father's in certain respects, but wouldn't specify. From his conversation, it is clear he inherits both parents' heightened sensitivity to the visual world. He was evidently enormously proud of the exhibition, again reminiscent of Picasso, who was never one to underestimate his considerable gifts.

"I really wish he could have seen all this," Claude tells me in faultless English with a strong French accent. "I am so pleased with the way the show looks under the natural light. I think people will be really amazed at the sheer variety and inventiveness of the work, and at the way my father's personality comes through so clearly. There is such wit and humour here, which was my father at his most charismatic."

This exhibition focuses on the artist's work in clay, made in the South of France in the last 30 years of his life. "Up until now, this part of Picasso's work has not been considered on a par with his achievements as a sculptor and painter," says Claude. "But I have always believed this part of his artistic life to be just as important. I know that he did. He made 3,500 pieces after all!" Claude has selected 200 for the London show, two thirds of which have never been exhibited before.

Picasso began working in the ceramic medium after visiting the Madoura pottery in Vallauris in 1946. The rich soil of this region of France had supported a ceramics industry since Roman times. Picasso, always fascinated with the prospect of revitalising old traditions, was especially inspired by the Mediterranean past.

"I think it was a really special time for him," says Claude. "He was at last celebrating the end of the terrible war, and in a sense it was a rebirth of life. In his sixties, he had married a beautiful, young, intelligent woman - my mother - and now they had a new son. I think he loved living in that part of the world with the fantastic light, the only original real light of art. His sense of pleasure, and fun, and celebration comes out in the work he made at this time."

In Vallauris as a child, Claude became familiar with the way his father worked. "Although my parents were not always aware of it, I was often there watching," he says. "I remember so well my father's complete concentration when he went to the studio. Everything he did, every movement he made, he did with complete concentration. Then, after he had finished work he would go to the beach, or whatever, and then he would enjoy play and forget about his work.

"I don't think that he experienced doubts about his work the way many artists do. People wondered why he was bothering with such a minor art form as pottery, but this did not worry him in the least. It was what he had decided to do."

Claude believes his father found it stimulating to work in close collaboration with Jules Agar, who was the potter. Throughout his mercurial career, despite his independence, Picasso had found inspiration working closely with other artists he respected. It had been the same when he and Braques had invented Cubism together.

"I used to love watching as Jules would throw a small vase and my father would instantly grab it and quickly, without hesitation, turn it into something; a pigeon, perhaps, or a dove or an owl. His hands worked so fast and knowingly. It was exciting for him to experiment with mixing the bright shiny colours, which were so wonderful for a child to see. I think working with the primal elements of fire and earth appealed greatly to my father, because of the almost magical results."

Many of Picasso's biographers have delighted in telling the story of how Picasso raided Claude's toy box when he was four, and took the parts of a broken toy to make his famous Baboon sculpture in 1951. He had, by this time, been engaged for several years in making sculptures from things he found on the rubbish tip.

"The story about my father making the baboon sculpture is quite true," says Claude. "But no-one has ever mentioned how furious I was with him! The toy had not broken accidentally. I had deliberately dismantled it and I still wanted the pieces. I don't think my father realised this - but I soon told him!

"My mother tells me that I was a very busy, curious child, and that I quite often challenged my father when I was little, which she thought was rather good for him!"

Photographs of Picasso playing with Claude in the sea and on the beach confirm the father's delight and fascination with his son. One of Claude's memories is watching transfixed as his father transformed one object into something else. "One day he saw an old broken basket when he was out with me and my mother," Claude recalls. "Look!" he said. "This is perfect for my goat."

"What are you talking about?" said my mother. This basket became the stomach of his famous goat sculpture.

Claude and his sister Paloma were only aged six and four when Francoise Gilot made the decision to leave Picasso. "Nobody leaves a man like me," he told her, but she did.

Claude's memories of his father are obviously very bound up with his young life, but his recollections appear to be clear and positive. "I was incredibly lucky to be born to such parents," he says. "I have often talked to my mother about my father. She is very perceptive."

While he was involved with setting up his current exhibition Claude was reminded of a rare bout of nerves his father experienced when an exhibition of his work was set up in the Louvre in 1946, before Claude was born.

"He was so competitive - he was on tenterhooks to see how his work would stand up by the great Old Masters," says Claude. "But, gradually, he relaxed. `It's all the same thing!' he kept saying. I am sure he would have felt a little nervous seeing this work in clay on show for the first time. But, I am equally sure, he would have been delighted with it!"

`Picasso, Painter and Sculptor in Clay', is at the Royal Academy of Arts until 27 December