It was the writer and political ally of Lenin, Anatoly Lunacharsky, head of the People’s Commissariat of Education (Narkompros), and the painter David Shterenberg, head of its Fine Art Department, who saw the potential of ceramics, alongside other art forms, to project the Bolshevik message at home and abroad. They provided fuel and money and encouraged the artists to experiment. They appointed Piotr Vaulin, a former director of the Abramtsevo Ceramic Studio in Moscow, as one of the factory’s directors. A Narkompros directive urged employees, while preserving the best traditions of Russian decorative porcelain, to produce pieces “revolutionary in content, perfect in form and flawless in technical execution”.
Sergei Chekhonin, meanwhile, a successful graphic designer and affiliate of the prewar Mir Iskusstva (World of Art) group of artists, was elected the Factory’s first artistic director. He blazed a trail, creating powerful, colourful designs that drew at different moments on the radically contrasting styles of neo-classicism, Cubism, folk art and pre-war satirical pamphlets. Many featured revolutionary slogans or even Biblical sayings and classical aphorisms in dancing Russian letters: “He who is not with us is against us”; “Struggle gives birth to heroes”; “The mind cannot tolerate slavery”. He developed a style of elegant floral calligraphy, and adopted the Imperial gold to assert the Revolution’s legitimacy. He and his colleagues produced a continuous stream of inventive variations on the monogram of the new state – hammer and sickle – and ran revolutionary red painted ribbons round the edges of the plates decorated with tools, flowers and leaves. A new stamp, incorporating hammer, sickle and cog, was designed by Alexis Eremeevich Karev. Plates were produced to mark the anniversaries of the revolution, international Communist congresses and to celebrate May Day.
Some established artists produced designs for the factory – including Vladimir Lebedev and Wassily Kandinsky – and some ceramicists from the pre-revolutionary era – such as Zinaida Kobyletskaya and Rudolf Vilde, eventually head of the factory’s painting workshop – turned their skills to new purposes. But equally important was Chekhonin’s recruitment of new, talented artists to the art department, creating a nursery of gifted painters who brought their distinctive sensibilities to bear on the white wares. Alexandra Shchekotikhina-Pototskaya, from a family of Old Believers, steeped in traditions of icon painting, book illumination and embroidery, and who, as a student, had travelled through northern Russia with fellow artist Maria Lebedeva, studying Russian peasant and folk art, revelled in the colours and forms of traditional art, although her subject matter was resolutely contemporary. Lebedeva, meanwhile, infused her painterly pieces with revolutionary symbolism – the Red Star, smoking factories, telegraph wires and the smiling liberated peoples of the world.
Experimental revolutionary porcelain was not restricted to the State Porcelain Factory, but flourished elsewhere, in the new Higher State Art-Technical Studios and other training institutions, in both Moscow and Petrograd. Mikhail Adamovich, who served in the Red Army between 1919 and 1921, produced angular, modernist designs honouring those heroes of revolution, Trotsky and Lenin. A plate Adamovich designed at the Dulevo Porcelain Factory, Moscow, with its assertively geometric, Futurist design, depicts the second structure to house the preserved body of Lenin. Adamovich enhances its grandeur, superimposing a five-pointed star and placing it against a backdrop of sun rays, as if it were a neo-classical masonic temple. The plate exemplifies the ironies of using the language of Western modernism to extoll an anti-Western, anti-capitalist regime on objects which would then be sold to the capitalist West for hard currency.
Natalia Danko, who had trained as a sculptor under Vasily Kuznetsov, came with him to the State Porcelain Factory when he was appointed head of the sculpture workshop, and herself took over as the workshop’s head in 1919. Inspired by the folk tradition of ceramic figurines, Danko chose her subjects from everyday post-revolutionary life – soldiers, sailors, militia women, factory workers, flower sellers – chronicling in 311 works, over 313 months, the changing priorities of Soviet Russia.