Circling the Square: Avant-garde Porcelain from Revolutionary Russia Circling the Square: Avant-garde Porcelain from Revolutionary Russia is an exhibition celebrating an extraordinary period in the history of 20th century art and design. It will present, for the first
designs were painted by factory artists, Suetin and Chashnik both designed and painted the porcelain decoration themselves. Several examples of the Suprematists’ famous deconstructed teapots, coffee pots, jugs and half-cups will also be 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 the creation of new and unusual forms rather than in the design of purely functional objects.
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 Narkompros, the People’s Commissariat for Enlightenment, 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 Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin, as well as Mikhail Adamovich, Rudolf Vilde, Lyudmila Protopopova and Nikolai Lapshin. At the end of 1922, Nikolai Punin replaced Chekhonin as artistic director and it was he who invited the Suprematists Suetin and Chashnik to the factory.
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 and the red star – in elegantly stylised compositions influenced by Futurism.
‘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