The critics: The Mediterranean made flesh

exhibitions; Picasso: Painter and Sculptor in Clay Royal Academy Picasso Helly Nahmad Gallery
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Two splendid new Picasso exhibitions throw much light on the master. The Royal Academy's "Picasso: Painter and Sculptor in Clay" is a thorough survey of his work in ceramics. And at the new Helly Nahmad Gallery in Cork Street, "Picasso" has no overall theme, but presents no fewer than 60 paintings, many of them of great rarity and beauty. There are canvases from most stages of Picasso's career; and by happy chance, a number of them complement the RA show, for they record Picasso's domestic life during the period when the ceramics were made.

We see now that there are three essential points about Picasso's pottery. Firstly, it belongs to the decade after 1946-7 and is post-war in character. Secondly, the ceramics evoke a Mediterranean world. This is not simply a matter of beach life, bullfights, nymphs and fauns - as is sometimes thought - but leads us toward Picasso's feelings for ancient Greek and Etruscan art. Thirdly, no one will seriously maintain that all these pots and plates represent Picasso at his usual high creative level. They are pretty well always beguiling, and sometimes exciting; but they are only occasionally moving. It's evident that Picasso's full emotional orchestra played within his work on canvas. One feels that the pottery is only touched by his genius.

This is so in a literal as well as a metaphorical sense. Picasso had little desire to reinvent or modify the forms on which he imposed his decoration. In other words, the possession of clay did not inspire him to make sculpture, except occasionally. There are pieces in the exhibition which are definitely sculptures rather than pottery: first among them, the haunting little series of women in earthenware of 1947; the bronze Centaur of the same year (its original ceramic, which would have been preferable, appears to be lost); and the Seated Flute Player of 1953, again in white earthenware. All these pieces benefit from the fact that their forms are invented rather than inherited. One also senses that they would lose character if they were painted. As works of art, they are preferable to any of the decorated objects of use that form the major part of the exhibition. I surmise that Picasso's pottery got in the way of a potentially fecund period of his sculpture.

The years of Picasso's significant pottery coincide exactly with the period of his life when he lived with Francoise Gilot, the mother of their children, Claude and Paloma. Claude Picasso, who has been in London this week, talks intimately and persuasively about the physical presence of his father's hand in the oblong plates shown in the first and second galleries at Burlington House.

His catalogue essay has a more detached view of the ceramics, yet does not quite answer some obvious questions. If, as he reveals, Picasso produced some 3,500 fired-clay objects during Claude's childhood, does that not also imply that this prolific art was at a low level of achievement? And why was the pottery so abundant? Could it be that it obscured a crisis in Picasso's more exalted work?

One reason for the abundance of pottery was that Picasso's bright industry helped so many people. He and Gilot alighted in the little town of Vallauris, just north of Antibes, in the summer of 1946. It had been an old pottery centre since Roman times at least. At the end of Hitler's war, Vallauris was economically depressed, partly because metal was replacing earthenware in the manufacture of kitchen utensils. Picasso's interest in pottery, and then his purchase of his house, led directly to the town's revival. Vallauris quickly became the home of many other artistic potters and a mecca for their clients and other interested tourists.

In this way, Picasso - a voiceless Parisian during the Occupation - became a powerful denizen of the midi. His new love, Francoise Gilot, who was so much younger than him, was a child of that Occupation. She had come of age, and had discovered her formidable intelligence and bravery under the German yoke. Vallauris, Antibes and the Mediterranean coast represented a new beginning for both Picasso and Francoise. (So did Picasso's communism, which owed more to his new notions of pastoralism than to the general cause of the working classes). Perhaps we see a liberation from Paris in the first plates at the RA. The more telling of them are, in general, the least decorated. The plate called Still Life with Glass and Knife (1947) is exceptional. Its thick brown surface with cream-and- black incised drawing resembles the Parisian "existentialist" or art brut style of the day. And then we go south, apparently beyond the tensions of new Parisian art, towards a future that might also be the ancient past.

Picasso's lighter pastoral art of the later 1940s was a temporary marvel of a renewed European spirit. By their nature, his pottery works were not museum art. They were domestic, cheerful, shareable. And it is not trivial to point out that Picasso and his pastoral manner had an effect on the revived small-restaurant culture in the years after the war. A number of his paintings in the Occupation were of meagre rations of food. In Vallauris, food is still a theme, but with a lighter note: the hint that all simple meals of fish, bread and Provencal fruits should be free - or swapped for a quick drawing on the tablecloth, as we know to have been Picasso's way of paying. Some plates with such a message are failures, artistically speaking, and others are almost total failures. Good humour and social ease never stayed for long in Picasso's black heart. Looking at his life as a whole, the pottery now seems like a fragile interlude.

So, also, was his happiness with Francoise Gilot, his wife in all but name. For direct evidence of his feelings about her we must go to the Helly Nahmad Gallery and a queer, inadequate picture in which the artist imagines Francoise fighting with a dog. We also find a picture in which Paloma Picasso's face is combined with her mother's profile - as if to obliterate her features - and a pessimistic canvas entitled La Famille from 1956, the year when Francoise and the children left him.

In their years together, I think that Francoise Gilot's looks and presence inspired about a dozen superb paintings. One of them, La Lecture of 1953, is at Helly Nahmad. Gilot was herself an artist and painted - surely in intimidating circumstances - all through her long time under the same roof as Picasso. Her separate artistic identity annoyed him. He preferred her to write his letters or to read, as she does in this nervous but lovely picture. For Picasso, a woman reading was not so far distant from a woman asleep. Yet what might a woman under his command be thinking while reading, her sleeping dreams being beyond anyone's control? Picasso, who all his life had portrayed himself watching over a sleeping woman, here admits that he was vulnerable to female intelligence.

If his greatest love brought forth his greatest pictures (as I believe), then Picasso's portraits of his mistress of the 1930s, Marie-Therese Walter, are bound to be good. La Ceinture Jaune of 1932 is terrific, more than good; a painting of deep and even primordial imagination. Marie-Therese - she went in for silly fashions, as the title suggests - was a sensuous, placid working-class innocent who read not at all and slept a lot. Picasso's daring painting awakens a loving lumpiness in her character. This is a very private picture in which ugliness and tenderness combine.

It may also reveal how the adult Picasso remembered or imagined his long-lost infancy with his mother. Picasso paintings like this one are "childlike" in a special way. They fuse the memory of childhood with a father's helpless wonderment when his lover delivers his child. Picasso expected Marie-Therese to become pregnant at the time he painted this picture (as she shortly did), and the motif of a belt around her stomach may refer to her soon-to-be- maternal womanhood.

This is also a theme of the tall, swelling-bellied jars in the RA exhibition. In at least one of his ceramics, Picasso darted back to his childhood. The long oval plate Bullfight Scene of 1951 is reminiscent of a drawing he made in La Coruna in 1894, when he was 13. Youth, pregnancy and death meant more to Picasso than his homes or associates or current political affairs. We always try to pin him down by reference to his surroundings, mistresses, and so on; and he helps us to do this by being autobiographical and by always dating his works. We ought therefore to be wiser about Picasso as we consider his exhibitions - but for this writer, he's increasingly a mystery beyond explanation, just like life itself.

'Picasso: Painter and Sculptor in Clay': Royal Academy, W1 (0171 300 8000), to 27 December. 'Picasso': Helly Nahmad Gallery, W1 (0171 494 3200), to 18 December.