What happens when you give a child a lump of clay? Typically, you get some little four-legged critter, a snake, maybe a bird, a monster from his or her worst nightmare, or maybe some sort of oddly shaped clay figure that literally DEFIES description. In 1946, Georges and Suzanne Ramie, owners of the Madoura pottery workshop in Vallauris, France, gave a very famous, yet childlike, artist a few lumps of clay (actually the run of the whole place) and the results were quite similar--some of the most freshly original ceramic works of art ever created. The artist was Pablo Picasso and now, over forty years later, the seldom-seen ceramic side of this 20th century art icon is on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Perhaps reacting to his bleak, wartime "captivity" in Nazi-occupied Paris, Picasso unleashed a flurry of creative energy, turning out whimsical cubist nudes, painting with enamels and glazes "in the round", dressing up a curvaceous vase in a bright yellow bikini, creating plates complete with fool-the-eye fish and forks baked on their surfaces, a fantastical pitcher featuring a beak and full plumage, or large-scale mosaics reflecting the warm, joyous, Mediterranean landscape. It was playful, profound, and personal, also unfashionable at the time, and derided by critics as superficial and trite. It was a happy three years Picasso spent in the south of France with his companion, Francoise Gilot, and their young son, Claude.

There are the usual Picassoan motifs, bullfights, circus characters, birds, female nudes, but there are also delightful mythological creatures, fish swimming, snakes slithering, and goats kneeling--so many pieces, his son remembers them stacked floor to ceiling waiting to be fired. He celebrates his love of children and Francoise's beauty on the surface of the pots freshly turned by Modoura artisans, which he would often reshape while still wet, before inscribing his beloved flute players, or playful lovers, or motifs from Etruscan tombs. There is an exuberant joy and brilliant, Mediterranean light reflected in his painted ceramic, sculptural figures done at the time too. His son, Claude, notes that until recently, his father's ceramics were largely ignored, but are now being recognized as a significant part of his oeuvre. Organized by the Royal Academy of Arts in London, "Picasso: Painter and Sculptor in Clay" includes 175 rarely seen pieces. The show runs through June 6, 1999.