Porcelain Propaganda

I’m thinking about Russia this week for two reasons. In a year of big historical anniversaries, we have now arrived at the centenary of the Russian Revolution–which I must say is not getting much play here, or even in Russia apparently! Regardless of how it turned out in the end, this was an extremely consequential event, almost right up there with Luther’s revolutionary Reformation, which has received some serious commemoration across the globe. It is always interesting to me what we choose to remember and what we choose to forget. I’m also thinking about Russia now, because of an event this week sponsored by the Pickering House featuring Ambassador Emeritus Thomas R. Pickering, former US Ambassador to the United Nations (under President George H.W. Bush) and Russia (under President Clinton). The title of Ambassador Pickering’s Thursday night talk is Russia and the United States: Marriage, Separation, Divorce? , which sounds very timely indeed. I have to admit that I’m thinking about Russia for a third, much more materialistic reason too: I recently came upon a trove of porcelain propaganda plates from the first decade of the Soviet Union, and I’m obsessed with both the images and the idea of these “vessels”. The idea is so contradictory: porcelain and propaganda? Porcelain is for the elite, propaganda for the masses: why should these two things ever come together? Apparently there is a utilitarian reason: in the years after the Revolution and Civil War, shortages were great and opportunities for projection were few, but when the new government took over the famous Imperial Porcelain Factory it found a ready supply of blank porcelain plates. Russian artists were mobilized to adorn these “canvases” with revolutionary symbols and slogans, a dramatic departure from the Factory’s previous designs: hammers and sickles rather than gilded flowers. The designs are all so striking: some are symbolic, some folkloric, some futuristic, all vivid. Here are a few examples from the Hermitage, which is opening an exhibition next month titled The Voice of the Time. Soviet Porcelain: Art and Propaganda.

PP Red Man Hermitage

PP Red Genius “Red Man” with “All Power to the Soviets” banner, Mikhail Adamovich and Maria Kirillova, 1921; “Red Genius” with the slogan “We will Emblazon the World with the Third International”, Alisa Golenkina, 1920.

PP Star

PP Large Star with a Shief

PP Eat“The Star”, Mikhail Adamovich, 1921; “Large Star with Sheaf “, Nina Zander, Sergey Chekhonin and L.Vychegzhanin, 1921; “Who Does Not Work, Neither Will He Eat”, Maria Lebedeva, 1920.

PP Stir

PP Cup and Saucer
“Stir” Cup & Saucer, Alexandra Shchekotikhina-Pototskaya, 1920;  “A Hammer, Sickle, and Gear Wheel” Cup & Saucer, Victor Rilde, 1921-22.

There are later examples, all the way up to the Stalin era, but it’s these early 1920s designs that are particularly distinctive. Looking at them, I find it relatively easy to conjure up an idealistic image of all these young avant–garde artists rushing into what must have been a venerable symbol of the excess of the Tsarist regime with free rein (well not really) to do with whatever they found there. Peasants let loose in a newly-liberated castle! They might have wanted to smash all of that porcelain, but instead they turned plates and cups into canvases. Another contradiction–not just the porcelain and the propaganda—is apparent here: artistic individualism and communism. Party plates will come later. These artists are certainly not the first to produce serving ware with a message—I think you have to acknowledge Wedgwood’s abolition products in the eighteenth century and Staffordshire “free trade” plates in the nineteenth–but they did bring an enthusiastic expressiveness to the table.
PP Free trade
Propaganda Pottery collage
A Staffordshire whiteware “Commerce” Plate c. 1830, and two striking examples of Propaganda pottery English-made Napoleon CHAMBERPOT and Hitler ashtray.

6 responses to “Porcelain Propaganda

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