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1920s after the October Revolution

Natalia Danko, Figure "Woman Embroidering Flag", 1921"In its titanic struggle the thunderous revolution should have broken ... it seems . . . such a fragile and, what is more, foreign value such as porcelain . . . But it didn't happen" wrote the Commissar for Public Education, Anatoli Lunatsharski, some years after the October Revolution. It fell to him, along with the first "red" director, Pyotr Friken, and the artistic director, Sergei Chekhonin, to play a decisive role in the fate of the by now state-owned Porcelain Factory.

After the February Revolution, the Porcelain Factory, which in earlier days had been subsidized by the Cabinet of His Imperial Majesty, was placed under the ministry for trade and industry, which however showed not the slightest interest in it. The plea by the employees for help in the promotion of the production of decorative porcelain, which was facing ruin, was left unanswered. As a result of the constant mobilization of workers and also due to lack of raw materials, even the production of technical porcelain practically ceased.

In March 1918, Narkompos (People's Commissariat for Public Education) took over the State Porcelain Factory and supplied it with money and fuel. The employees received orders not only to preserve the best traditions of Russian decorative porcelain, but to turn the former Imperial Factory into a "ceramics test laboratory of note for the whole Republic", where "agitation porcelain in the highest sense of this word" would be made, "revolutionary in content, perfect in its form and flawless in technical execution".

A ceramics school was established, retraining courses instituted, and a subsidiary of the decorating shop took up its work in the art school that had formerly belonged to Baron Stieglitz. After a long interruption porcelain was again made from native raw materials and the ceramic colors were also home produced. Pyotr Friken was the director of the factory. A graduate of the polytechnic institute, he had, since 1915, been responsible for the production of optical glass, in the development of which the chemist Nikolai Katshalov took part. The latter became a corresponding member of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR. Friken had welcomed the fall of the tsarist regime, and after 1917 he unreservedly supported the Soviet Government. At the recommendation of the revolutionary trade union committee the workers elected him director of the factory. His talents and his energy kept production up even during the most adverse periods.

The most important and at the same time most difficult task was how to change the style of decorative porcelain in such a manner as to be designed for the whole nation.

In the unprecedented upsurge of agitatory mass art of the first post-revolutionary period there ounded, in the words of Alexandre Block, the "music of the revolution". Porcelain became an important instrument in the spread of revolutionary propaganda and turned into a document "which has preserved for us the atmosphere of the time in a perfect artistic form".

The artistic policy of the factory formed part of Lenin's programme of monumental propaganda, which put art at the service of the people according to precisely formulated ideological principles.

Plates, dishes and cups were furnished with the same maxims, aphorisms and sayings that could be seen on posters and wall paintings on squares and streets. Porcelain broke the confines of palatial interiors and began to speak with the voice of the revolution. The motifs for decoration now were provided by peasants in heavy military boots, encircled by telephone wires, Baltic sailors, marching purposefully across the land, confident of victory; red army soldiers beating the tsar's ermine cloak with the butts of their rifles - all those heroes whom revolution had called onto the stage of history. One plaque, decorated with all the newspapers published in Petrograd is historically truthful and artistically expressive... And just as on the posters, designed by Vladimir Mayakovski for the ROSTA-windows (propaganda posters for the Russian Telegraph Agency) the porcelain paintings, reinforced by agitation prose, increased the comprehensibility of the new ideas for the mass of the people, in their conciseness and topicality.

Within a short time the factory executed a series of large commissions: the porcelain for the agit-train "October Revolution", 150 plates and bowls with revolutionary topics for the delegates of the 8th Soviet Congress, a series of porcelain for the Congress of the Peoples of the East, china for auction in favor of the starving in the Volga Region and everyday crockery for public canteens.

In May 1920 Maxim Gorki visited the Porcelain Factory. The author was enthusiastic about the new Soviet porcelain. In view of the strong interest in the revolution expressed by the West, he suggested that the porcelain should be exhibited at fairs abroad. The collection he selected was shown at the international fair in Riga. There followed Helsinki, Berlin, Stockholm and Reval. "Wherever there is talk in Russia or abroad about successes in the field of applied arts, the first mentioned is the USSR's GFZ", Lunatsharski wrote enthusiastically in his congratulatory address to the Factory's collective on the occasion of the fifth anniversary of its membership of Narkompos. "At all exhibitions in which our factory has taken part, its exhibits were always remarkable and took their place in the very first ranks." On the orders of the head of state, Lenin, decorative porcelain was to be from now on "exclusively for export". At the time, propaganda porcelain became almost the only export of the Republic's manufactures.

Kazimir Malevich, 1923Despite low production, this porcelain was much appreciated by the wider public, thanks to press notices and items being displayed in the windows of its shop on the Nevski-Prospect. In the early 1920s an exhibition of "Russian Porcelain from Elizabeth to our Days" was opened at the factory. In the visitor's book, kept for important guests of the factory - a huge folio tome, leather-bound with gold tooling , which had already been started in the mid-19th century - Maxim Gorki and Alexander Benois left their autograph as well as Vladimir Mayakovski and Sergei Yesenin, Anna Akhmatova and Lydia Seyfullina, Kazimir Malevich, some well-known actors and other prominent personalities.

The creation of post-revolutionary porcelain is mainly connected with the name of Sergei hekhonin, who was appointed director of the artistic side of production. He had already been well known as a book-designer, as a master of miniature enamel decoration and as the creator of large ceramic wall plaques. His aesthetics made him a member of the younger generation of "World of Art". Contemporaries called him "Master of the Soviet Empire style". He had introduced to porcelain the subject of the new Soviet political organization of the state and had based this propagandist project on the idea of a Russian empire and the rebellious spirit of the aesthetics of Futurism. With formidable skill he glorified the symbolism of the Soviet state and also created decorations, which were delicate, both in their coloring and graphic design. Several pieces were created after sketches by Chekhonin, which carried maxims and initials, with polychrome and gilt decorations. The first of these was the representational bowl "RSFSR" framed in an artistic wreath of flower garlands.

Mikhail Adamovich, Plate "Fifth Anniversary of the Red Army", 1923His many interests and his profound knowledge of the culture of the past had prompted him to engage highly trained porcelain masters and painters belonging to various trends in art. Vasili Kuznetsov, Natalia Danko and Rudolf Wilde, Mikhail Adamovich, Sinaida Kobyletskaya, Maria Lebedeva, Natan Altman and Mstilav Dobushinski, Vladimir Tallin and Kusma Petrov-Vodkin, Pavel Kuznetsov and Boris Kustodiev, Alexander Matveyev, Vladimir Andreyev and others.

In 1918, at the behest of Chekhnonin, the painter Alexandra Shchekotikhina-Pototskaya joined the factory. She had received her training as an artist in the Imperial Society for the Promotion of the Arts and completed it at the Ranson Academy in Paris. As a pupil of Nikolai Rerich and Ivan Bilibin, Stshekotikhina had already made a name for herself as a stage designer. The main theme of her work was Russia. For many years Stshekotikhina was held to represent a colorful, strong, spontaneous style of painting. In porcelain she produced a fairy-tale, folklorists, theatrically sentimental picture of Russia, not unlike the paintings of Kustodiev. Brought up in a patriarchal orthodox family, she, in fact, gave a special place in her work to the deeply tragic picture of a past Russia, rigid in its silent expectation. In this she borrowed from the sculptural elements in Old Russian painting.

The busts of Marx and Engels and the figure of the "Red Army Soldier" by Kuznetsov were followed by a series of sculptures, small masterpieces of the propagandist porcelain by the artist Danko. The artist expressed the conflict between the two ideologies in the form of well thought out, exquisite chess figures. The characters of revolutionary Petrograd are expressed by the figure of a woman embroidering a red flag; in the enthusiasm of a female worker holding a speech; in the sculptures of "Sailor with Flag", "Militia woman", "Partisan", "Soothsayer" and others, while the statuette of her friend Anna Akhmatova is a symbol of majestic sublimity and gentle femininity.

With the exception of sculptures, almost the entire output of propaganda porcelain was based on redecorating existing flat ware. The old marks on china from the imperial "pantries" were thoroughly over painted in order to place the new, Soviet marks next to them. The only new developments were some beaker shapes. In 1923 Chekhonin created the service "Narkompos". Later on, tea, coffee and table services were made from his sketches for the embassy in Berlin. Their form was influenced by f his predilection for the Russian empire style, while the decorations depicted scenes from Pushkin's "Ruslan and Ludmila".

Nikolai Suyetin, Service "Suprematitsheski", 1923In the search for forms, which corresponded to the new era, the founder of the Suprematist movement, Kazimir Malevich, and his pupils also turned to porcelain, to express the "principle of utilitarian perfection". For their decorations they used geometric compositions with combinations of patches of color, dynamic in its proportions and lines. Kandinski also made several sketches for porcelains. The Suprematists' forays into porcelain decoration tended to be extremely formalistic, but years later these were to provide valuable ideas for the Leningrad School of Porcelain.

The spectacular success of the "Russian Seasons" of Sergei Diaghilev's ballet productions awakened in Europe a great interest in Russian ballet and in Russian art generally. Since the Porcelain Factory mainly supplied the European market, it also turned principally to theatrical subjects and increased their production.

For the World Exhibition in Paris of 1925, the State Porcelain Factory selected around 300 pieces from the post-revolutionary years. It was a resounding success: It received the Great Gold Medal. Gold and silver medals were also awarded to Shche-kotikhina, Kobyletskaya, Wilde, Suyetin, Chekhonin, Matveyev, Danko, Ivanov and Kuznetsov. At the request of west European porcelain collectors, the exhibits were shown twice more at sales exhibitions the success was repeated at the Milan Industrial Fair.

The 200th anniversary of the Russian Academy of Science was celebrated in Petersburg. Among the prominent guests were Prime Minister Kalinin, the People's Commissar Lunatshar ski and president of the Academy Karpinski. For the occasion Chekhonin painted a view of the Academy building on a commemorative plaque.

At that time it was decided to name the Porcelain Factory after the first member of the Academy, Mikhail Lomonosov. He had risen from humble origins and had made his name in many fields of research. Not only the production of decorative porcelain was increased, but also that of technical and chemical porcelain as well as glass. The State Porcelain Factory remained the sole ceramics works in the country, supplying many branches of industry within the Soviet Republic with its products. This was the reason the Factory was no longer under the supervision of the People's Commissariat for Public Education but was placed in the "Zentrefarfortrest" (Central Porcelain Trust).

The propagandist porcelain has entered the history of Russian ceramics as a shining and unique example. To this day it is the subject of interested research, heated debates and great admiration.

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