Many myths recount the creation of the first humans from clay. The earliest fired clay objects, some 30,000 years old, aren’t vessels but figurines (see below, Venus statuette made of clay and bone powder from Dolni Vestonice). Some 14,000 years passed before anyone thought of making fired clay pots.
Venus statuette made of clay and bone powder from Dolni Vestonice
The fact that clay is an everyday material, compared to marble or bronze, didn’t preclude its use in Renaissance Europe for high-status sculptures, as in Andrea del Verrocchio’s bust of Lorenzo de’ Medici (below). It is still a standard medium for sculptors’ maquettes.
Florentine 15th or 16th Century, probably after a model by
Andrea del Verrocchio and Orsino Benintendi. Lorenzo de' Medici
Picasso’s painted ceramics brought a traditional folk idiom into the Modernist canon. In Antony Gormley’s Field (see main image at top), clay’s cultural associations weigh more heavily than its sculptural capabilities, as thousands of rudimentary humanoid figurines confront the viewer with a swarming, atavistic gaze.
Andre Villers, Untitled, 1965. The artist Pablo Picasso
Explore the full series, The History of Art in 20 Media. For more features, interviews and videos, see our Christie’s Daily homepage