Hermitage Rooms Archive

Circling the Square:
Avant-garde Porcelain from Revolutionary Russia



Photo and link to page: Plate, Red Rectangles and Circle design for porcelain, 1923-24
Plate, Red Rectangles and Circle, 1923-24

Print and link to page: Dynamic Composition design for porcelain, 1923
Dynamic Composition design for porcelain, 1923

Photo and link to page: Plate with Suprematist Composition, 1923
Plate with Suprematist Composition, 1923

Print and link to page: Drawing of painting for Varicoloured rays measuring jug
Drawing of painting for Varicoloured rays measuring jug

Photo and link to page: Varicoloured rays measuring jug, 1921
Varicoloured rays measuring jug, 1921

Photo and link to page: Wedding dish, 1923
Wedding dish, 1923

Photo and link to page: Dish with a portrait of Vladimir Lenin
Dish with a portrait of Vladimir Lenin, 1924

Photo and link to page: Militiaman plate
Militiaman plate, later 1920s

Photo and link to page: Baba (forest women) tea service, 1930
Baba (women) tea service, 1930

Photo and link to page: Green silhouettes of workers and peasants service, 1931
Green silhouettes of workers and peasants service, 1931

Extended to30 September 2005

The exhibition celebrates an extraordinary moment in the history of 20th century art and design. It presents, for the first time in this country, a comprehensive survey of the porcelain produced at the world-renowned Lomonosov Porcelain Factory in St Petersburg, formerly the Imperial Porcelain Factory, during the years following the Russian Revolution of 1917.

This is a rare opportunity to consider the achievements of a group of radical avant-garde artists – Futurists, Cubists and especially the abstract Suprematist painters in the circle of Kazimir Malevich – within the wider context of Russian revolutionary porcelain.

The exhibition is jointly organised by The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, and the Courtauld Institute of Art, London. The exhibition and catalogue have been made possible by the generous support of the Russian financial corporation URALSIB.

Circling the Square comprises some 300 pieces of porcelain and a total of 70 design drawings, all dating from 1918 to the mid-1930s.

Objects and designs The exhibits come from the Porcelain Museum, a new department of The State Hermitage Museum, formed from the prestigious historic collection from the Lomonosov Porcelain Factory Museum.

In addition, there are three important objects which have been generously lent from private collections: a saucer and a cup and saucer with abstract compositions after designs by Wassily Kandinsky; and a plate by Nikolai Yankin, which will be shown alongside the artist’s preparatory design.

Though fragile and generally perceived as a luxury item, porcelain outlasted many forms of revolutionary design and so tells us a great deal about the art, culture and economy of the period.

The porcelain is shown in four rooms, each focusing on a distinct facet or period of the factory’s output.

Room 1: Suprematism.

Room 2: ‘Artist’s porcelain’, a selection of plates painted or designed by leading avant-garde artists in a variety of different styles.

Room 3: ‘Agit-porcelain’ or propaganda porcelain, porcelain that has a direct and discernable political message.

Room 4: The Suprematist legacy of the 1930s, a final flourishing of avant-garde experimentation at a time when Socialist Realism was introduced as the official Soviet style.

A fascinating group of largely unpublished and some newly discovered preparatory designs are being presented alongside the ceramics. For conservation reasons the drawings are presented in two groups of 35 and will be changed mid-way through the exhibition. All the designs will be published in the accompanying exhibition catalogue.

Suprematism

The first gallery on Suprematism has the greatest number of pieces and so forms the core of the exhibition. This gallery showcases an exceptional array of boldly geometric designs on plates, cups, saucers and services dating from what was the most experimental and artistically innovative of all the phases of the factory’s production: the Suprematist period around 1923.

It was during this short but intensely productive period that the factory recruited Nikolay Suyetin and Il’ya Chashnik, students and followers of Kazimir Malevich who worked on a new, non-naturalistic style of porcelain decoration. The Suprematists’ concepts about art centred on abstract geometric forms – the square, the circle and the cross - so applying these ideals to porcelain decoration was a perfect fit.

Deconstruction

While all of Malevich’s designs were painted by factory artists, Suyetin and Chashnik both designed and painted the porcelain themselves. Several examples of the Suprematists’ famous deconstructed teapots, coffee pots, jugs and half-cups are also on show. Essentially sculptural objects, their curvilinear contours and multifaceted volumes are designed as extensions into the surrounding space. As such they bear witness to the Suprematists’ interest in researching forms in space and in the creation of new and unusual forms rather than in the design of purely functional objects.

Propaganda

Early revolutionaries were quick to seize the potential for propaganda of porcelain production and the Imperial Factory itself was reorganised along new lines shortly after the February 1917 Revolution. In March 1918 the factory was taken over by Narkompos, the People’s Commissariat for Public Education, with the aim of producing porcelain that was ‘revolutionary in content, perfect in form and flawless in technical execution’.

The artist, illustrator and graphic designer Sergei Chekhonin, was made head of the art section at the factory in 1918. He played a crucial role in recruiting the painters who would soon give the factory its revolutionary aesthetic. These included many of the leading figures of the Russian avant-garde, such as Natan Altman, Ivan Puni, Vladimir Lebedev, Alexander Samokhvalov and Kuz’ma Petrov-Vodkin, as well as Mikhail Adamovich, Rudolf Vilde, Lyudmila Protopopova and Nikolai Lapshin. At the end of 1922, Nicolai Punin replaced Chekhonin as artistic director and it was he who invited the Suprematists Suetin and Chashnik to the factory.

Futurism and Cubism

In the service of the State, these painters and designers set about applying the international visual language of Futurism and Cubism to the decoration of existing flatware or ‘blanks’ left over from the factory’s imperial past, as well as to newly designed forms intended to reflect the new way of life.

The designs were often propagandist in content, celebrating in strong colours and bold modernist patterns Soviet industrialisation, the Red Army, and the agrarian reforms, or reflecting the iconography of the new regime and its leadership.

Chekhonin’s contribution as artistic director is evident throughout the exhibition, and under his leadership many different styles co-existed at the factory. His own artistic contribution can be seen in a large number of his designs on view in the propaganda gallery. Pieces such as his ‘Red Ribbon’ and ‘Cubist with Hammer’ plates of 1919 reflect a conservative and refined aesthetic which manages to incorporate the era’s new emblems – the hammer and sickle, the cog, the banner, red star – in elegantly stylised compositions influenced by Futurism.

Agit-porcelain

‘Agit-porcelain’, inscribed with aphorisms from sources as varied as Karl Marx, Thomas More and the New Testament, echoes and repeats the revolutionary slogans to be found on the posters and banners in the streets and on the sides of the trains and buses taking these ideas to the towns and villages.

Noteworthy examples on show include Maria Lebedeva’s plate bearing the slogan, ‘He who does not work does not eat’ (with its poignant juxtaposition of a windswept old woman and a large red star from which rays emanate), and Natan Altman’s famous red and green plate ‘Land to the Workers’, of 1919.

The prestigious job of decorating St Petersburg’s Palace Square to celebrate the first anniversary of the October Revolution fell to Altman and his watercolour design for this scheme, which inspired the plate, is also shown.

The significance of porcelain in terms of our understanding of popular street art cannot be overestimated; for although the objects themselves very quickly became elite objects – not for domestic consumption or for use by the masses – the iconography and decoration serves as a lasting testament to much of the temporary art put up at the time to celebrate major revolutionary festivals.


Lomonosov Porcelain Factory and Museum

The St Petersburg Porcelain Factory was founded by Empress Elizabeth in 1744 on the banks of the river Neva on the outskirts of St Petersburg. During the reign of Catherine the Great the factory was styled the Imperial Porcelain Factory and production, until the Revolution of 1917, was exclusively for the Imperial court. The quality of its products equalled those of European porcelain manufacturers and during the 19th century it was well represented at international exhibitions.

In 1844, to mark its centenary, Tsar Nicholas I ordered the creation of a museum to house pieces from the factory and serve as a teaching collection for the factory’s craftsmen and artists. The museum was based on the existing collection of models, supplemented by some of the finest works from the storerooms of the Winter Palace and other royal residences. It was open daily, apart from weekends and holidays, and entrance was free to all. The museum contained examples from other celebrated European factories as well as Chinese and Japanese ceramics.

As production at the factory grew, so did the museum, and by the end of the 19th century one copy of all new designs went to the museum, a practice that has continued into the 21st century.

Following the February Revolution of 1917 and the Bolshevik Revolution of October 1917 the factory was nationalised and renamed the State Porcelain Factory. Surviving blanks from the Imperial Porcelain Factory were decorated with the new revolutionary designs. In 1925 it was re-named the Lomonosov Porcelain Factory in honour of Russia’s first great scientist Mikhail Vasil’yevich Lomonosov, who was also an admired poet and the founder of Russia’s Academy of Science.

The museum’s collection moved several times during the 20th century, eventually finding a home in the factory’s administrative building in 1975.

The factory was privatised in 1993 and in 2001 its prestigious historic collection was transferred to the care of The State Hermitage Museum, of which it now forms the department known as the Porcelain Museum. Today, Mrs Galina Tsvetkova, Chairman of the Board of the Lomonosov Porcelain Factory, owns 75.61% of the factory with minority shareholders holding the remainder. The collection, which is still physically housed on the site of the Lomonosov Factory, is open to visitors.

Mrs Tsvetkova’s husband, Nikolai Tsvetkov, is President of Uralsib, the financial holding company which is sponsoring the exhibition.

The exhibition is jointly organised by The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg and the Courtauld Institute of Art, London, and is the third exhibition following the alliance in 2003.

The exhibition and catalogue have been made possible by the generous support of the Russian financial corporation URALSIB.

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