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Serving the Revolution

After October 1917, Soviet artists put imperial porcelain to work for the cause.

Soviet propaganda porcelain. Serving the Revolution, House & Garden, July 1991.

During the Russian Revolution, everything was transformed and very little changed. An absolutist government gave way to another absolutist government; appalling rural poverty combined with appalling urban poverty; solipsism gave way to idealistic selfishness. In the Imperial Porcelain Factory, renamed the State Porcelain Factory in 1917, the tradition of making exquisite plates for the czars and their circle easily became a tradition of making exquisite plates for the cause of the Revolution. Thus one of the most material grace notes of Nicholas II’s decadence was sustained by the new regime. Lenin’s fixation on revolutionary education meant that exponents of beauty did not have to give up their cause if they could twist it into the service of agitprop. Few did this more successfully than the porcelain workers. The Revolution established both a new moral system and a new standard of tableware in one fell swoop.

The notion that all men’s parity could be enforced with dinnerware seems, from the harsh perspective of post-Communism, more than a bit naïve. Nonetheless, plates were among the many ordinary things that could be transformed into message bearers for the Revolution. If each meal could be made an occasion for the celebration of the people’s state and its triumphs, the success of the cause was almost assured. The Imperial Porcelain Factory was full of unglazed dishes that had yet to be decorated for members of the court, and these were immediately painted with slogans and other designs associated with Communism. The idea was mad, of course. The store of blanks, though substantial, could never have extended to the tables of the ordinary people of the new Russia, and the expense of producing hand-painted porcelain, even when the artists were working for the glory of the party, was far too great to make its distribution to the proletariat even a reasonable fantasy.

Instead dinner sets were sent off to the new nation’s embassies where they attracted much notice and attention, and they were sold in the former Korniloff porcelain shop, still in operation in Nevsky Prospekt in Leningrad. Their high prices meant that they were usually bought by foreigners, and they were most valuable to the Russians as a source of foreign currency, always eagerly sought by the fathers of Communism. After 1921, propaganda ceramics were also sold at international exhibitions where they attracted welcome francs, dollars, and lire. Pieces that failed to find buyers at these shows were distributed through a shop in Hampstead, England, called Fortunate Finds.

The French-born princess Nina Lobanov-Rostovsky’s Revolutionary Ceramics: Soviet Porcelain, 1917-1927, published last fall by Rizzoli, is a remarkably detailed account of the period, illustrated with many of the finest pieces made in those years. These were selected from the collection of the late London antiques dealer Nicholas Lynn, who was among the first to recognize the artistic and social significance of propaganda ware. Lobanov-Rostovsky’s immense knowledge of the Revolution and of the characters involved brings the plates, platters, and tea sets to life, and her definitions of design categories and genres help make accessible the complex strands of thought underlying the propaganda movement. Lobanov-Rostovsky’s work, together with the changing climate in the Soviet Union, has inspired a renaissance of interest in this material (an exhibition of the art of the Russian avant-garde, with a catalogue essay by Lobanov-Rostovky, opens at the Guggenheim next summer).

Ceramics were designed by many of the more important artists of the Revolution, including Wassily Kandinsky and suprematist Kazimir Malevich. Sergei Chekhonin, who was the first revolutionary artistic director of the factory, and Alexandra Shchekotikhina-Pototskaya, schooled in icon painting, were the great visionaries of propaganda porcelain; for them it was not marginal or decorative art but a form of expression as important as painting on canvas. They, along with artists like Rudolf Vilde, Mikhail Adamovich, and Maria Lebedeva, defined the styles in which most of the other artists worked. Their subjects range broadly; looking through Lobanov-Rostovsky’s book, one is struck by the notion that the Revolution had too many symbols and objectives not quite in keeping with one another. Messages abound of intellectual elitism and populism, of absolute morals and antimoralism, of the crucial role of history and antihistoricism.

Many plates show the obvious symbols we associate with the Revolution, such as hammers and sickles, red stars, and sheaves of wheat. There are examples that are textual: one declares, “The Land Is For the Workers,” another, “The Future Has No Fear of Past Horrors,” and a third, “Away with the Bourgeoisie, May Capital Rot.” The few suprematist pieces are striking in their simplicity; though this fit with the artists’ agenda, it is difficult to imagine that these designs, on the table of a worker or an ambassador, would communicate much about the nature of the new order. Other plates, however, are narrative or documentary and show the events of myth and of the Revolution in measured detail.

What is most striking about this work is how beautiful it is. These ceramics are so clearly the product of a passionate idealism and are designed with such a bright visionary agenda that they are irresistibly compelling. And though they do not quite snare us into the fallacies of Stalinism, they are seductive: looking at them, we understand how alluring the mind-set of the Revolution must have been in those early days, and they help us to see how so many people could have been so swiftly converted to what now seems a lunatic system. Lobanov-Rostovsky points out that the factory was often unheated and the workers painted plates with their mittens on. The fervor of the Revolution is more accessible in these small testimonies of heroism than in the enormous sculptures and inhumane buildings that Communism was later to produce and call its triumphs. If these plates did not spread literacy or convert the peasantry, at least they remain as evidence of a once fiery vision of a perfect future.