The undulating form and contrasting colours of Grand vase aux danseurs are reminiscent of the vases of antiquity. The two instrument players, dancing woman, and hand-standing man that flow across the curved surface of the vessel allude to Greco-Roman mythological creatures, mirroring Picasso’s fascination with archaeology at that time. This renewed fascination with ancient art grew from a feeling of antiquity that, for him, pervaded the town of Antibes where he and Françoise first settled before moving to Mougins. In this vase design, Françoise is transformed into an all-seeing ancient goddess, or perhaps she is the figure of a nymph being serenaded by the melodious music of the flute-playing figure of Pan, the god of shepherds, hunters, meadows and forests, whose home was Arcadia and who was known for his potent virility. This mythological male figure had often appeared throughout the artist’s career, particularly following the Second World War. It was in Antibes that Picasso first began to conjure an idyllic, mythological world, depicting images of dancing satyrs, pipe-playing fauns, nymphs and centaurs. ‘It’s strange,’ Picasso mused at the time, ‘in Paris, I never draw fauns, centaurs or heroes from mythology… it’s as if they live only here’ (Picasso, quoted in M. McCully, ‘Painter and Sculptor in Clay’ in exh. cat, Picasso Painter and Sculptor in Clay, London, 1998, p. 28). These classical characters became part of Picasso’s personal mythology, appearing constantly in his paintings, sculpture, drawing, and lithographs, as well as his ceramics.
Combining music and the nude, in Grand vase aux danseurs Picasso was returning to a theme that had appeared in the work of some of the great masters of the past. Like Titian’s depictions of reclining nudes serenaded by a lute or organ player, or Ingres’ sensuous odalisques accompanied by a musician, in the present work, Picasso creates an idyllic image of seduction and eroticism. The bucolic setting of Grand vase aux danseurs also brings to mind the early work of one of his great artistic rivals and comrades: Matisse. A number of his early masterpieces, such as Le bonheur de vivre (1905-1906, The Barnes Foundation) and La Musique (1910, The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg) portray a sensual, harmonious idyll of love and music. The figures in La Music are seated in the same position as the pipe player on Picasso's vase, illustrated opposite.
Picasso was also moved by the ancient associations of the village of Vallauris which had been a ceramic centre since Roman times and particularly inspired by the atavism involved in emulating the primeval practice of fashioning vessels out of this ancient earth. The pottery-making history of Vallauris went back to the Roman times, when the area was an important centre of amphorae production; in the 18th Century, Vallauris revived its ancient fame with the production of kitchen earthenware. When Picasso arrived in the 1940s, however, the area was suffering a period of crisis, as mass-produced pottery had invaded the market. André Verdet’s artistic commentary to the documentary Terres et Flammes (1951, directed by Robert Mariaud) traces the history of Vallauris, presenting Picasso as a genius-saviour who gave new artistic impetus to a craft thought to have reached its end. ‘Picasso’s works’, Vedert affirmed in the film, ‘bring back to mind the vivid dignity of what humans have created with their very first artistic gestures’.