Porcelain that challenged the world
Review by Corinna Lotz
Flying in the face of the received wisdom that revolution and art are uneasy bedfellows, a small display of porcelain and drawings is proof that political transformation can inspire outstanding artistic achievement and vice versa. The "agit-porcelain" on show in the Hermitage Rooms at London's Somerset House was created during a brief but astonishing period in the history of art that followed the October 1917 revolution.
Some pieces bear the stamp of their traumatic birth. Dishes and vases by Maria Lebedeva, for example, were fashioned to raise funds to relieve the famine that was ravaging the Volga region in 1921. In style, their rainbow colours and generosity of feeling belie the desperate harshness of the times, but the message on them is clear.
Like the other commemorative plates and more functional objects, Lebedeva's style seems vibrantly contemporary. All of these splendidly crafted and beautifully preserved objects glow with colour. They speak eloquently of the social and artistic turmoil surrounding their creation. There are so many artists, especially women, who we could not appreciate before as artistic personalities, but we can now.
The participation of outstanding artists of the revolutionary period, such as Kazimir Malevitch, Vassily Kandinsky and Petrov Vodkin, in the design and production of chinaware was not a bizarre accident of history. It was the result of an arts policy adopted by the Bolshevik government. The Tsar's Imperial Porcelain factory was transferred to the Department of Fine Arts of Narkompros, the People's Commissariat of Enlightenment in March 1918. It was nationalised in June by a decree signed by Lenin, and renamed the State Porcelain Factory.
The appointment of Anatoly Lunarcharsky as head of Narkompros, a post he held from 1917 to 1929 was a master stroke by Lenin, who believed that "in matters of culture, nothing is as harmful and pernicious as hate, arrogance and fanaticism. In these matters, great care and tolerance must be exercised".
Lenin opposed the invention of a new "proletarian culture". In his dialectical point of view he brought together the old and the new. At a meeting of the Politbureau in 1920, he insisted that "the best models, traditions and results of the existing culture had to be developed in the light of the needs of the masses".
The combination of the best of old traditions and skills with the new style and social order is what makes the objects produced between 1918 and the mid-1920s so aesthetically and politically exciting. Production continued, making use of the porcelain forms produced under the old regime, but now decorated in new styles and using new themes and motifs. A dish with a portrait of Lenin painted by Zinaida Kobyletskaya in 1924, for example, shows the use of blanks which had survived from the Tsar's regime.
While its new task was to supply porcelain to "the people as a whole", the State Porcelain Factory was provided with funding for crafts and skills training. An outstanding graphic artist, Sergei Chekhonin was elected to the post of artistic director in the autumn of 1918.
Chekhonin brought a brilliant group of artists into the factory, which was viewed by the factory's directors at the time as a "breeding ground for artistic porcelain culture not in forcing [artists] to work in a specific artistic sphere, but rather, if one could so put it, in the 'provocation' of the people's genuine creative force".
Curator Tamara Kudryavtseva refers to the avant garde artists who arrived at the factory as "knights of the revolution". They included talented painters like, for example, Alexandra Shchekotikhina-Pototskaya, who had trained in Paris and worked in the theatre under Diaghilev, joined the painting department of the Porcelain Factory in 1918.
Pototskaya seemed "to ignore all the rules of painting on porcelain," in Kudryavtseva's words. "She fearlessly distorted and broke up perspective, building compositions according to her own rules, crossing the boundaries of form."
Designs by Chekhonin are amongst the revelations in this exhibition. His plate showing a large star with a wheatsheaf uses iconic images of the Soviet state. There is an extraordinary freedom of style, a sureness of touch and spontaneity in his work. We feel the unrestricted hand and skill of the artist in the lovingly applied feathery flames.
Lev Bruni, another Paris-trained artist, also displays a flowing brushwork which enlivens a group of pencil and watercolour drawings for the Red Birds tea set. The birds take flight around plates, cups, and a creamer with a rococo delicacy and humour.
Draughtsman Nikolai Yankin worked in the new Suprematist style pioneered by Kazimir Malevitch. His subtle gradations of grey, violet, mauve and textured brown of Yankin's cosmic drawing were faithfully reproduced on the porcelain plate. The marks on the back provide an intriguing record. We find the following: "AIII 92" beneath a crown, an abbreviation for Tsar Alexander III who ruled in 1892, plus a hammer, sickle, part of a cogwheel, plus the monogram "KNP" - the Commissariat of People's Enlightenment with the dates 1918, 1923.
Hard as it was to transfer the freshness of each artist's individual skills into large quantities, printing techniques were introduced in the attempt to step up production and reduce costs. Against those who were critical of the avant garde style, Lunarcharsky said: "There is no harm if the workers' and peasants' rule has provided significant support to innovative artists: they were indeed cruelly rejected by their elders. … the Futurists were the first to come to the aid of the Revolution, and were, of all the intelligentsia, the most kindred and the most responsive to it."
Working conditions in the factory were tough in the first years of Soviet power. The import of raw materials was cut off as the revolution was isolated and punished by the imperialist powers. Nevertheless, a team of outstandingly talented and dedicated people turned out objects of rare beauty and originality. They were assisted by chemist Karl Keller, who established a brilliant new range of colours and established local production of kaolin clay, which previously had to be imported from England.
Kudryavtseva writes: "This was a period of intense creativity. Perhaps never before or after - even in more prosperous and peaceful times - would the painting workshop of the Porcelain Factory produce so many new designs at once. But then at no other time were there to be so many outstanding talents gathered together in the factory workshops".
Items of daily use, such as cups, plates and teapots, ordered in large quantities by the Commissariat for Food and other Soviet bodies, suddenly become vehicles for political messages as well as artistic manifestos and outstanding skills. They were made in a broad range of styles, from the traditional to the extreme avant garde. But all of them convey a feeling of infectious excitement, superb quality and singing colours.
When art historian Nikolai Punin took over as artistic director in 1923, he commissioned designs from Malevich, Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin and Alexander Matveyev. But Malevich's best known followers, Ilya Chashnik and Nikolai Suetin, were made redundant in April 1924, three months after Lenin's death. In 1929, sculptor Yelena Danko noted that despite the high appreciation enjoyed by the Suprematist designs, the artists themselves had been sacked and the factory "only repeats their old models".
The innovative artists were suffering the same fate as the revolution itself, as the Stalinist bureaucracy tightened its grip. In 1934 the state dogma of socialist realism was imposed on all artistic production, ostracising anyone who refused to conform.
The exhibition catalogue documents the history of the State Porcelain factory from its foundation in 1744 and its transfer under the Bolsheviks into public ownership in 1917, as well as events up to 1936. But the account then skips forward 50 years to 1985. The factory was privatised in 1993. But even under private ownership, the works turn out collector's pieces using the revolutionary designs of the early 1920s.
Circling the square: Russian avant-garde porcelain is accompanied by an illustrated catalogue (Fontanka, £20) by Tamara Kudryavsteva, head of the Porcelain Museum at The State Hermitage Museum until her sudden death earlier this year.
The exhibition has now been extended until 30 September
2005 in the Hermitage Rooms at Somerset House. Open daily 10.00 am to
6.00 pm, last admission 5.15 pm. Admission £5 /£4. www.hermitagerooms.org.uk
The Famine vase