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March 09, 2005

Russian Revolutionary Porcelain at the Hermitage Rooms, Somerset House

Posted by Christie Davies

Circling the Square: Avant-garde Porcelain from Revolutionary Russia
Hermitage Rooms at Somerset House, London
18th November 2004 - 31st July 2005
Daily 10am - 6pm (last admission 5.15pm)

The fine Russian tableware on display in the exhibition Circling the Square was produced in the Lomonosov State Porcelain Factory in Petrograd for a tiny privileged Soviet socialist elite and for use on formal Party occasions. Often their users were celebrating their triumph in introducing a system of tyranny far worse than its predecessor. The factory that had once produced dinner and tea services for the imperial palaces of the Romanovs was nationalised in 1917 and much of its new wares were propaganda for the communists who had seized power from the new democratic Kerensky government that had replaced the Tsars.

Most of the best porcelain produced by the factory, notably those items with purely abstract designs, was sold for export to bring in hard currency to finance the Soviet means of oppression. Within Russia itself porcelain was only sold in special shops that only high party officials could enter. "Caviar is for commissar cats, let the moujiks eat mice".

The first exhibition room is dominated by a photograph of the workers at the State Porcelain Factory in 1924, the men in greatcoats and cloth caps or fur-ish hats, the women bare-headed with one or two in traditional headscarves and young boys in white potters' smocks. One wonders how many of them were to die young as a result of the exploitative relations of production under socialism and the appalling living conditions in Soviet cities. Most of the men would also be damaged by their addiction to cheap vodka, the opium of the Soviet people, and most of the women would have several abortions in a society where contraception was unavailable and several families might be forced to share a single room in a grubby crumbling tenement.

The artists were good people who tried to organise an auction of their own work in order to provide famine relief during one of the Soviet Union's periods of mass starvation, the Volga famine of 1921. The auction never took place probably because it would have drawn attention to the grotesque failures of socialism. A remnant of this gesture is to be seen in Rudolf Vilde's design showing a worker with a hammer and rifle repelling the grim reaper. In practice, of course, the men with the hammers and rifles were the grim reaper's closest allies, who would later forcibly deprive the peasants of their entire stock of food. It was a holocaust by hunger, a deliberate act of murder by the state in pursuit of totalitarian economic and political power, particularly in the Ukraine, where they may well have been a racial dimension also. These events have been sidelined from history and memory by too many historians and journalists who at the time sympathised with and even today are nostalgic for the Soviet ideology. They do not wish to be reminded of the callousness and cruelty that were the inevitable consequence of socialism. Remember! Despise! Reject!

It is necessary to remember these horrors when viewing the exquisite objects on display that have been loaned by the Hermitage Museum in the former Petrograd and yet to follow a Kantian aesthetic and set them to one side when judging the objective and independent beauty of these items.

Looking at them I was reminded of my visit to the Deutsches Maler und Lackierer Museum der Carl-Friedrich Hansen Stiftung in Hamburg in the 1980s. On display were the objects made by German journeymen as part of their qualifying to become a master craftsman in painting and varnishing. I asked the Hamburger showing me round, a tall, remarkably handsome and learned woman in short hair and long shorts, who spoke perfect English, why there were no examples from the period 1933-45. Somewhat reluctantly she opened up the Giftschrank, the locked 'poison cabinet' and revealed them. They were as fine in their quality of workmanship as the rest. However, some did use the Hakenkreuz as a decorative symbol, one that today is unusable because of its deadly associations. In and of itself the swastika is, as any Hindu will confirm, a rather more attractive symbol than the hammer and sickle and one whose association with Hitler's National Socialist lunacy is arbitrary. Nonetheless its use or the use of the hammer and sickle in a work of art renders the product problematic. Because these symbols have become synonymous with cruelty and mass murder, it takes a great deal of effort to view art objects that incorporate them with a truly Kantian detachment. Yet to do so is necessary and forces one to recognize that both these hideous regimes did produce things of beauty, in spite of socialist realism and the Nazi's degenerate hatred of "degenerate art".

The task of clearing one's mind of that which is not Kant is made easier by the abstract design and decoration that characterizes much of the early Soviet porcelain. Much of the earlier work was inspired by ideas of the Suprematist painter Kazimir Malevich who painted Black Square, 1913 (i.e. before the Revolution) a black square in the middle of a white canvas which did not represent the real, seen world in any way. It was abstract geometric art, unsocialist unrealism. His school the Suprematists took their name from supremus, 'the highest' and their inspiration from the Euclidean and Pythagoran idea of truth through geometry. At first they used only the pure forms of the square and the circle which can be easily constructed by compass and ruler alone. Later they added the cross to gain a sense of movement. Perhaps without thinking they had added a Christian symbol.

In 1923 two of Malevich's pupils Nicolai Suetin and Ilya Chasnik began to design, paint and create new porcelain based on his ideas and a number of Suprematists were recruited to the Lomonosov factory, which until then had largely produced propaganda porcelain. The Suprematists continued to use black on white and often marked their work with a black square in homage to Malevich. The black square on white was the badge of the group, they even displayed it on their sleeves which was odd but better than the repellent badged sleeves of their contemporaries. The Suprematists' porcelain is more interesting and effective than their paintings because they were now forced to work in three dimensions which is more amenable to the use of abstract shapes than two dimensions. It is how we often experience three dimensions anyway – hence the appeal of objets trouvées or cranes on a building site or abstract sculpture. By contrast a black square on a white canvas may have four pseud's corners; it is contrived not felt. Also cups, saucers, dinner services usually constrain the artists within familiar shapes determined by use and yet which call out for abstract patterns to make distinctive their every surface, so that they appeal without distracting. Tea leaves may tell a story; tea cups never should.

We can see this at its best in Ilya Chasnik's dinner service of 1923-4 where every curve and hollow is marked by a black band like a ribbon. Equally striking is Nicolai Suetin's contrasting use of shapes in his relentless pursuit of a created pattern, regardless of the topography of the object he is painting or even its handles. His use of a vivid orange is a particularly skilful departure from black and white. In one cup and saucer an orange cross is accompanied by an orange disc that beams at you like the sun on a modern Japanese flag.

There is also fun and amusement here (if unintended) as in Nicolai Suetin's 1928 half cups marked with a part of a cog-wheel, a design derived from the work of Kazimir Malevich. No doubt they are still being sold in Gabrovo, Bulgaria for the Scottish market. I have at home a set of half coffee cups from Gabrovo with one flat vertical side bisecting the usual shape. I use them to serve half a cup of coffee to friends and visitors from Ceredigion, y smot du. The oddities culminate in Kazimir Malevich's design for an oblong teapot built like a locomotive. A contemporary critic said that "it hurtled into space with all the energy and speed of a railway engine".

Here we can see the influence of Futurism. Anatoly Lunarcharsky, the Head of the People's Commisariat for Enlightenment (Narkompros), defended the Futurists against socialist realist attack. He pointed out that the Futurists had been the first segment of the Russian intellectuals to give support to the Bolshevist revolution. Their Futurist cousins in Italy had, of course, lined up behind Mussolini, another proponent of vigorous and ill-thought out radical change in a backward country. Until he came under Hitler's vile influence Mussolini was a far more benign figure than Lenin, yet Italian Futurist art remains under a cloud and Soviet Futurist art does not. It is equally strange that people still rightly condemn Mussolini's invasion of Ethiopia but not the Soviet colonial occupation of Mongolia. Ask a Mongolian what he thinks about that.

In either case the artists were in love with speed, with movement, with rapid social change. It was velocity and vigour for its own sake without care for the consequences. Socialism and fascism are economic disorder legitimised as planning, muddle and mendacity disguised as vision and a created desert called peace.

Sometimes the truth seeps through as in the affectionately portrayed brutality of Alexander Samokhvalov's plate Militiamen. He uses the by now well-established technique of marking the dip in the plate with a black band. This frames the face of a militiaman who stands next to a flying tram. He is dark and Tartar-eyed; long thin black sideburns descend from his red-banded uniform cap. The rim of the plate is dominated by his right hand which, holding a huge truncheon like a red sausage, breaks through the black circle. Every time you eat you can think of him using it indiscriminately against the passengers in the tram. As Max Beerbohm put it:

Wot? He would, would 'e? Well
Then yer've got ter give 'im 'ell
An 'it's trunch, trunch, truncheon does the trick!

Is the plate nasty? Yes. Aesthetically inspiring? Very. It conveys the very essence of what a militiaman was – a brutal yokel in uniform patrolling the city with about as much subtlety as his truncheon. Yet everything is done in a highly stylised manner. This is not socialist realism. There is a curious use of a militiaman in Maria Lebedeva's plate Famine, 1921. A bountiful Ceres with six breasts promises much nourishment. A firebreathing famine-demon is vanquished. A militiaman guards the store. The question that can not be asked concerns the iron connection between socialism and famine. Why is the armed militiaman so prominent and so taken for granted?

The later Agit-Porcelain with its propaganda slogans and symbols is often risible kitsch. Zinaida Kobyletiskya's Dish with a Portrait of Lenin is inscribed in Russian:

Our morality is born of the class struggle of the proletariat.
It is uncomfortably close to "Arbeit macht frei". We can, I suppose, laugh grimly at it because death is happening somewhere else, off stage, off dish. Equally depressing is the porcelain specially produced under Lenin's orders to commemorate key dates in the Communist calendar. The dinner services were used for government functions, Communist festivals and anniversaries. It is the forerunner of the celebration of April 20th and of the 'martyrdom' of the pimp and manual worker, Horst Wessel of the Sturmabteilung (S.A).

More interesting are the celebrations of modern technology as in Maria Lebedeva's Girl Telephonist in peasant costume surrounded by a tangle of wires that fly in all directions. The gaps between the wires reveal planes and biplanes soaring in the sky. Equally enticing is Rudolf Vilde's RSFSR Measuring Jug (Russian Soviet Federal Socialist Republic). From its spout flare out brightly coloured pointed rays that streak towards the hammer, anvil and cog wheel of industry and the Tolstoyan rake, scythe, fork and flail of rustic toilers in the fields at the bottom of the jug. It seems thrustingly modern yet the tools shown are not – they are the tools of the backward peasant and the crude metal basher. It is a dynamic statement about a stagnant economy in which innovation has failed to eliminate hand tools requiring physical strength and effort. No wonder Soviet artists shared the Nazi artist's love of muscles. Elsewhere, though, a belt-driven machine with its axles and gears being adjusted by pincers stands out vividly in strong blue and black against the white porcelain.

Nina Zander's plate of 1919 shows the silhouettes of smoking factory chimneys against a red dawn surmounting a cog wheel. The socialists continued to venerate chimneys, smoke and dirt to the very end. Communist Czechoslovakia was one of the most polluted countries in the world, where, according to a friend of mine, a Jewish G.P. in Prague, production regularly fell on bad days when working mothers stayed at home to look after asthmatic and bronchitic children. Yet there were dirty smoking chimneys on Czechoslovak banknotes even in the 1980s. Socialist economies neither learn from the past nor are they technically creative. They merely replicated the Manchester of the 1840s described by Engels. Where there's smoke, a fake target is being met.

Yet smoke and steam are beautiful provided you do not have to breathe them. Think of the nineteenth-century paintings of the London fog or drawings of Edinburgh when it was Auld Reekie. Where there's muck there's Monet. I still treasure the photographs I took of the grim, smoky Russian mining town of Barentsburg in Spitzbergen. I took no photos of Norwegian-clean Longyearbean across the water. Cleanliness is healthier but it lacks vigour and the subtle black and white tones of smoke and steam. For a cheap excursion that reveals this go to the annual open day at Didcot power station, where the steaming cooling towers dominate the view from the top of the Berkshire Downs. There is beauty in the causes of global warming.

It all came to a sad end. The factory switched to making porcelain insulators for the syphilitic Lenin's electrocution of the countryside as he sank slowly towards G.P.I. The expensive one-off porcelain items were replaced by mass produced shoddy that lacked their quality and vividness. It would have made more sense to sell the luxury items abroad for hard currency and buy porcelain insulators from Britain and cheap china from Japan but a 'visible fist' socialist autarchy prevailed over the wisdom of Adam Smith. Finally came the deluge of socialist realism that wiped out the best of Russian art. A thousand flowers had briefly bloomed but the tall ones were ruthlessly cut down.

Don't blame Stalin. Remember rather the favourite joke of the late Dr Alexander Shtromas, a learned rational Litwak, the Lithuanian-Jewish Professor of Law at Moscow University who had suffered persecution both by the Nazis and by the Communists:

A virtuous man died and went to Heaven. He was asked if he had one last wish before he went to paradise for ever. He said that he would like to have a conducted tour of Hell. When they got to the last circle, there were Hitler and Stalin trapped for all eternity in a lake of boiling shit. Stalin was in it up to his waist and Hitler up to his nose. The virtuous one was angry. He said to his guide, "I was tortured by the Nazis and by the Communists. Stalin was just as bad as Hitler. Why is he only in it up to his waist and not up to his nose?" "You don't understand", replied the guide: "Stalin is standing on Lenin's shoulders."

The system was intrinsically evil from the start and so evil men inevitably came to enjoy power. The Jewish heroine Fanya Kaplan knew this when she shot Lenin. When Lenin died five years later it was probably from the pox rather than his injuries but we remain grateful to this doughty Jewish peasant for her insight and for attempting a just assassination. Very occasionally there are good terrorists.

We should be even more grateful to the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, which has owned these items since it took over the Lomonosov Museum in 2001, to the Courtauld and to the Russian URALSIB financial corporation for sponsoring it. Modern capitalists from the leading circles of the Russian bourgeoisie have brought these fine objects to London to bring beauty to the broad masses of the British people. A visit to the exhibition is a doubly rewarding experience. The porcelain is a joy to look at. Who would not want this elegant porcelain rooted in abstract art on one's own table but for the fear of breaking it? Even the militiaman's sausage-like truncheon would enhance a meal. Yet there is a moral. Great art can be produced under appalling social and political conditions and even by artists whose own political sympathies may be dubious.

Professor Christie Davies is the author of The Strange Death of Moral Britain and of many essays commenting on the then Soviet Union and its colonial empire. During the Communist period he lectured by invitation in Hungary and Bulgaria and visited research institutes in Prague, Bratislava and Kosiče. He also visited Russia and the Ukraine with the noted economist Brian (now Lord) Griffiths and East Berlin with Michael Howard and Norman Lamont. After freedom prevailed over socialism he went on to give lectures at several Polish universities and institutes. He has maintained contact with scholars in Prague whom he knew previously as dissidents and visited and written for the press about Mongolia and the Central Asian republics.


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In Bunny Smedley's review of Orpen we had art review as unionist polemic - now here we have art review as cold war tirade. Not a complaint, just an observation.

Posted by: Jim Roberts at March 11, 2005 08:37 PM
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Can one really discuss art apart from the politics of its time? Would Bulgakov or Shostakovitch make as much sense in a political vacuum? I find some of the art of the Moche (but not all) very beautiful, but is any reference to their human sacrifices to be regarded as Conquistador propaganda?

As Dante was told by his great-grandfather in Heaven, speak out, and lascia pur grattar dov'è la rogna (let them scratch where it itches).

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at March 14, 2005 09:01 AM
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Thanks for the review - it has persuaded me to go to the exhibition.

Posted by: James at March 14, 2005 11:51 PM
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