Soviet "agitation” porcelain
The history of Soviet porcelain, faience, and glass is also illustrated by the exhibits of the History Museum. This period is opened by a small but sufficiently impressive collection of Soviet agitation porcelain of 1918-1923, which enables one to take a closer look at the art of the early years of Soviet power and feel the entire diversity of the impact produced by the October Revolution on the Russian fine arts.
Soviet "agitation” porcelain is an important and vivid phenomenon in the history of Russian decorative applied art. Brought into being by the October Revolution, it has become an art document of the epoch. Its political and aesthetic qualities are so high that it become an object of study and collection when it had not yet become part of history in the true sense of the word.
It was 1918. The circle of the interventionists was closing tighter and tighter around the young Soviet republic, the domestic counter-revolution was rearing its head, famine and economic ruin reigned supreme in the country, and at that time V. I. Lenin was working on a programme of monumental propaganda. In spring 1918, a government decree was issued on the propaganda of the ideas of the revolution by means of monumental art.
According to that plan, art was to become an active force in building a new socialist society, a new culture.
Monuments of the tzarist epoch were to be replaced by new monuments dedicated to revolutionaries, progressive scientists and writers. But art was also faced by more immediate and urgent tasks - to propagate the ideas of the revolution. The artists of Moscow and Petrograd were called upon to design the decor of revolutionary festivities, propaganda trains, posters, displays of the Russian Telegraph agency.
The former Imperial porcelain factory was also involved in the propaganda campaign and placed under the authority of the People's Commissariat for Public Education by a decision of the Council of People's Commissars on March 23, 1918. As far back as 1918, the factory filled a government order.
The first sculpture of the leader of the world proletariat K. Marx was executed in porcelain by V. V. Kuznetsov who had been in charge of the factory's sculpture department since 1914. The difficulty of this work was due, firstly, to the novelty of the subject and, secondly, because it had to be done exclusively from portraits and photographs. Only the subject was new in these articles, while the manner of execution was traditional; therefore, the images proved unconvincing.
The new subjects demanded new means of expression, and these were found. In the same year 1918, S. V. Chekhonin, with whose name the birth of Soviet "agitation" porcelain is associated, was invited to the post of art director of the State porcelain factory. Widely known before the revolution as a book designer and a participant in the exhibitions "The World of Art", S. V. Chekhonin also worked in the field of ceramics and enamels, and was well acquainted with art handicrafts. He invited talented artists to work in the painting department of the factory. Despite an acute shortage of raw materials and fuel, art activities went on at the factory. The artists painted what was known as "white ware", i. e. porcelain articles made before the revolution, which remained unpainted.
In 1918, S. V. Chekhonin executed several paintings on plates, decorated only with brief inscriptions in black print: "The Mind Cannot Stand Slavery", "Struggle Gives Birth to Heroes", "What Has Been Produced by the Working Hands Will Not Be Swallowed by a Lazy Belly", "He Who Is Not with Us Is against Us". The stable black letters compactly arranged along the edge of the plates and supplemented with modest plant ornaments enhance the emotional impression of the slogans. The talent of Chekhonin as a graphic artist turned the inscriptions into decorative elements in harmony with the revolutionary epoch, irreconcillable and stern.
The further stage in the development of the style of "agitation" porcelain was its drawing closer to the poster and designing the decor for revolutionary festivities. The plate "Red Band" of Chekhonin (1918) with a red banner fluttering along the edge conveys the atmosphere of festively decorated streets.
The motif of decoration of the arch of the General Staff for the first anniversary of the October Revolution was reproduced in the painting on the plate "The Land for the Working People" of N. Altman. The green field incorporates a red rhombus containing a picture of large factory stacks, a hammer and sickle, and a red inscription covering the whole edge. The monumental style of the painting characteristic of decorative art here emphasizes the importance and essence of the theme.
N. Altman also produced a drawing of Lenin's portrait, which was entered as an independent element into the composition of the painting "He Who Does not Work Neither Shall He Eat" executed by M. M. Adamovich on a plate. In addition to Lenin's portrait, it also depicts a labour card, a newspaper and a red star superimposed on a black eagle, and the monogram "RSFSR". The jumping letters of the inscription, objects colliding with one another convey the restless, tense rhythm of the time.
Soviet heraldry has acquired great importance in the decoration of art porcelain. A sickle, hammer and cogwheel, just as the inscription are often the only motif of the design of the plate, as is evidenced by the plate of S. Chekhonin, and then the painting becomes particularly meaningful. And conversely, the text is sometimes harmoniously blended with the ornament or is strongly emphasized by the latter. The paintings become increasingly picturesque and decorative. Chekhonin's plate with a golden emblem amidst a gorgeous ornament of flowers and fruits reminds one of a flower pattern on peasant porcelain. Its appeal is in the emblem, joyful colours and rich ornamentation.
The celebration of the second anniversary of the October Revolution is the subject of the paintings on two plates executed by R. F. Vilde, an artist of the older generation, who was in charge of the factory's painting studio in the past. Each of the paintings is highly decorative and differs from the other, although featuring only one inscription "Victory of the Working People". One of them depicts a flying red banner with an inscription a hammer and sickle and a wheat ear. On the dark-blue edge runs a golden ornament with images of working tools included in it. But the painting of the other plate is perhaps more impressive. The clean painting colours, skilful arrangement of the inscription on the edge and a golden emblem within a garland of cornflowers and wheat ears entwined with a scarlet ribbon contribute to producing an amazingly complete and clear work, perhaps even much too balanced for that period.
Artists of different creative styles worked on the revolutionary subjects, and each of them had his favourite motifs, his characteristic manner of execution. Plates painted by Z. V. Kobyletskaya in 1920 for delegates to the 8th Congress of the Soviets are remarkable for affection for plant ornaments characteristic of this artist. The inscription "Long Live the 8th Congress of the Soviets" is interrupted by images of leaves, wheat ears, acorns and the letters themselves resemble a ring-dance of leaves turning in a whirlwind.
A. P. Golenkina expresses the inspiration of the revolution by the image of a red horseman riding over cities on fire with a torch in hand and by the inscription "We Shall Light the World with the Fire of the 3rd International". O. K. Tatevosyan painted the table for the 3rd Congress of the Communist International in a traditional oriental style.
The tongues of fire and motley many-coloured letters on the edges of the plates of G. V. Vychegzhanin very truthfully convey the inspired meaning of the slogans "Away with You, the Bourgeoisie, Down with You, Capital" and "Long Live a Worldwide Civil War".
In 1921, the Soviet Union entered a new stage of peaceful construction. The heat of passions characteristic of the earlier period was gradually roplaced by regular work of construction, and life resumed a peaceful course. Articles of the State porcelain factory were increasingly made to serve new purposes - to decorate the home. Artists painted services and individual pieces on subjects unconnected with revolutionary struggle. Now they turned to propaganda subjects only in connection with red-letter days and jubilees. Among the works of that period, mention is deserved by the plate with this inscription "Long Live the 5th Anniversary of the Red Army", depicting on a mirror a red star surrounded by what seem to be random strokes of the brush but on closer scrutiny make up the figures of a sailor and a Red Army man in a cavalry cap.
A conspicuous place in the art activities of the State porcelain factory in the early years after the revolution belonged to porcelain sculpture. This is a chamber art, which cannot cope with the tasks facing monumental art. Nevertheless, porcelain sculptures of the twenties reflected the genuine enthusiasm of the revolution and reproduced images of people of the revolutionary epoch.
An original stage in the development of Soviet porcelain sculpture was the figurine "Red Guard" executed by V. V. Kuznetsov in 1918. The steady posture of the figure, well-balanced and clean lines and the harmony of the image make this work remarkable and even classical in its own style.
A somewhat different manner of painting on the revolutionary theme was used by N. Y. Danko, whose name is associated with the most remarkable works of that period. She seemed to single out people from a crowd at random and reproduced them in porcelain. Her characters were as a rule quite plain people, sometimes depicted even with a touch of naivete but at the same time presenting heroes of the proletarian revolution in fully lifelike authenticity. Take, for example, her "Partisan on a March" - a plain country lad waddling over the snow with a rifle on his shoulder.
On the pedestal there is a quotation from Alexander Blok's poem "The Twelve": "Keep step with the revolution. The restless enemy is awake". An interesting artistic style is characteristic of the images of sailors by N. Danko. One of them "A Sailor with a Flower", is leisurely strolling with a flower in his teeth, another, "A Sailor with a Banner", stands still in a solemn posture as through posing before a camera. Perhaps tomorrow they will perform a heroic exploit in the name of the revolution. And again the artist presents an accurate observation, a characteristic image of the epoch.
N. Danko does not attempt to lend her sailors a heroic appearance but depicts them as plain people truthfully imitated from real life.
The artist also produced images of women of the prerevolutionary epoch. Here is the "Woman Worker Embroidering a Banner", bending over her work in a habitual pose. She conveys an impression of quiet and homeliness although she is doing an important, responsible work. Here is another figure, "A Militia Woman" - a pert girl, open-hearted and frank, is patrolling the streets with a rifle instead of men who have left for the front. A different style marks the figure "Woman Worker Making a Speech" - the image of a new woman, a conscious and active participant in the revolutionary struggle. But her pose is very feminine and devoid of affectation which would seem inevitable in a work on such a subject.
A review of sculpture of the revolutionaty epoch would be incomplete without Danko's famous chess pieces - "The Reds and the Whites". Here the artist produces figurative rather than true-to-life images. The "Reds" are her unquestionable success. The Red King is a hammerman, the Queen is a peasant woman, the pawn is a woman harvester holding a sheaf. All these characters are close and dear to Danko and therefore convincing. The "Whites" are depicted allegorically: the King is a skeleton with a sword, the Queen is a woman with a cornucopia, the pawn is a woman in chains. Producing them, the sculptor used another sculpturing style, more intricate and restless, as distinct from the quiet manner of the "'Reds".
Danko's figures present veterans of the revolution and the Civil War, builders of a new life.
Soviet agitation porcelain is an unforgettable and vivid art called into being by the October Revolution. It is not only a witness of that wonderful epoch, but also an active fighter for the ideas of the revolution. It was addressed to the wide popular masses rather than to individual connoisseurs and aesthetes. Displayed in shop windows on the streets of hunger- and cold-striken Petrograd, these plates, cups and figurines were, as N. Danko put it, "a message from the beautiful future, for which Soviet power was fighting in fierce battles against famine, economic ruin and the intervention".
New ideas, new feelings demanded a new language understandable to all and at the same time picturesque. The group of talented artists led by Chekhonin created in porcelain a new style consonant with the revolutionary time. But it would be wrong to say that its origination was unconnected with the traditions of Russian art porcelain. Political subjects had never been alien to it whatever consumer it might be intended for. Events of the Russo-Turkish wars of the 18th century were reflected in sculptured works of the Imperial porcelain factory and F. Gardner's factory, the war of 1812 for a long was the subject of paintings on Russian porcelain: portraits of war veterans or caricatures of Napoleon.
Therefore, the appearance of "agitation” porcelain was a legitimate rather than accidental phenomenon in the history of Russian art porcelain. So far the style itself is concerned, despite all innovation, artists widely borrowed from the traditions of 19th-century peasant porcelain, charmed by the freshness of its colours, boldness of compositions, sincerity and spontaneity of imagery. It is precisely due to its closeness to folk art that "agitation" porcelain acquired its vital force, became understandable to the mass of the people, and is of great interest at our days.
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