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Culture news
Squaring the circle
01.13.2006 14:38

 porcelain Soviet porcelain of the post-Revolutionary era marries art and commerce.

As part of its annual “Christmas Gift” cycle of eyecatching exhibitions, the State Hermitage Museum is displaying until March a unique collection of porcelain created in St. Petersburg after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution.

Drawn from the repository of the Imperial Porcelain Factory, which is now under the stewardship of the Hermitage, the show is sure to become the hit of the season.

The factory, which traces its history to the middle of the 18th century, was nationalized after the Revolution and later in the Soviet era became well-known internationally as the Lomonosov Porcelain Factory.

Now a private company trading on its imperial roots, it might seem absurd for the Hermitage to present works produced at the factory under Bolshevik diktat. It isn’t — and that’s because the works are of the highest artistic merit.

The exhibition features about 250 predominantly authentic works of porcelain and 15 sketches from between 1918 and the mid-1930s.

This was period when Soviet Russia searched for ways to legitimize the new order, as well as ways of “decorating” it, through the means of both visual and applied art.

For example, one of the exhibits — a famous Nathan Altman sketch — illustrates the fact that artists were invited to decorate Palace Square to celebrate the first anniversary of the Revolution in 1918.

That year many artists — among them many noticeable figures of the time such as Altman, Ivan Puni, Vladimir Lebedev, Alexander Samokhvalov and Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin — were attracted to the porcelain factory to produce agit-prop art which embodied the tenets of the new state.

Revolutionary slogans, political maxims and aphorisms from posters on the street were transferred to plates, dishes, cups, and saucers.

Small white porcelain forms were burdened with such quasi-biblical exaltations as “The Kingdom of Workers and Peasants Shall Have No End” or such visual and verbal didactic statements as “Our Morality is Born of the Class Struggle of the Proletariat” and “Only Labor, and Labor until Bloody Blisters [are formed] Will Bring Us Final Victory.” Sometimes such rhetoric and its visualization looks too heavy for fragile porcelain.

The appearance in 1923 of Suprematist artists at the factory, then, was a fresh and fruitful development in which art and the porcelain medium perfectly combined.

Thus, the porcelain produced by the master of the genre Kazimir Malevich and his pupils Ilya Chashnik and Nikolai Suetin forms the main emphasis of the exhibition.

This also explains the sly pun of its title “Around the Square” (“Vokrug Kvadrata”) invoking works produced alongside Malevich’s signature masterpeice “The Black Sqaure” as well as the sqaures and circles of Suprematism.

Like the Bolsheviks, Suprematist artists also had ambitions to change the world, expressed in the harmless maxim: “To liberate art from the ballast of the representational world.”

Besides pure geometry of design, the artists, following the same principle of the “supremacy of forms,” began to experiment with form.

This was a breakthrough because before then, in the early ‘20s, tsarist-era white porcelain (so called “linen”) was still the main material with which artists worked.

But Malevich designed gripping Suprematist “half-cups” and a teapot with a lid. The latter, according to the impression of the artist contemporaries, resembles a steam locomotive. White, geometric porcelain forms became perfect bearers of the fundamental visual grammar of Suprematism (squares and circles) in the works of Ilya Chashnik and Nikolai Suetin. Suetin’s work takes up almost half of the exhibition as he was associated with the factory the longest period.

In the late ‘20s, along with the Suprematist series of experiments (“Inkwell with Lid,” the “Architecton” vase), Suetin, like his teacher, addressed — not without political pressure, it may be assumed — figurative painting.

In stylistic terms, “Around the Square” is heterogeneous and this indicates that during the ‘20s Soviet Russia was finding its aesthetic feet. The exhibition shows that the State wasn’t strong enough to insist on only one style (although later it was, and this became known as Socialist Realism) and for a while tolerated very different artists and concepts.

During one period and at one factory the abstraction of Vasiliy Kandinsky and the pure geometry of Suetin, is joined by the figurative work of Mikhail Adamovich or Sergei Chekhonin; the decorative and inventive style of Nikolai Lapshin contrasts with the straight, narrative work of Zinaida Kobilezkaya or Maria Lebedeva.

From its inception under Catherine the Great, almost all the pocelain produced by the Imperial Porcelain Factory was geared for export markets and this continued in the Soviet era: the porcelain on show at “Around the Square” was not aimed at ordinary Soviet citizens (it was too expensive). As in tsarist Russia, the factory satisfied the needs of the country’s leaders. In a sense the factory was always able to perfectly combine ideology with commerce. With the help of such art during the Soviet-era, the new ideology itself became a commodity with which Soviet government made either economic or symbolic capital.

“Around the Square” at the State Hermitage Museum (Room 152) runs through March 19.

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