Collecting guide: Soviet porcelain

Russian Works of Art specialist Margo Oganesian offers a comprehensive guide to Soviet porcelain, from figurines and plates to vases and tea and coffee services, plus designers spanning Danko to Chekhonin to Komashka

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A Christie’s technician holds a Soviet porcelain propaganda platter made by the Imperial Porcelain Factory and the State Porcelain Factory, Petrograd, 1923, which sold for £106,250 in the Russian Art sale in June 2018. Photo: Yui Mok/PA Wire/PA Images

Soviet porcelain figurines as portraits of the new breed of citizen

After the Revolution of 1917, porcelain became an experimental material for the propaganda of sports, and the image of the new man in the Soviet Union.

This figure of a footballer by Natalia Danko from the late 1920s, which realised £100,000 in the Russian Art  sale on 26 November 2018, is a wonderful example. Sculpted images of football players from newly established clubs, such as Dynamo Moscow and Spartak Moscow, were inspiring to the younger generation, and Natalia Danko, the key artist at the State Porcelain Factory, was a distinguished creator of these characters.

Danko, who was head of the factory’s sculpture workshop from 1919, created many of its figurines representing the new Soviet citizens, including sportsmen, workers, bureaucrats and soldiers.

Danko’s figurines were often painted by her younger sister, Elena, who was also employed by the State Porcelain Factory. Her delicate porcelain painting complemented her sister’s accomplished sculpting. Today, the Danko name is one that resonates with serious collectors of Soviet porcelain.

Propaganda images and porcelain marks on Soviet plates

After the Revolution of 1917, the Bolshevik government took control of the Imperial Porcelain Factory. A large number of unpainted plates were discovered and subsequently decorated with propagandist slogans and revolutionary images.

The imperial blank plates were often marked with the reigning tsar’s monogram under the base, which prompted the Bolsheviks to cover them with a patch of green or black paint. The artists then treated the porcelain plates as canvases for their new Soviet imagery.

Frequently, the subject of decoration would be a celebratory event, such as May Day, the workers’ holiday; the anniversaries of the October Revolution of 1917; or the Congress of Soviets.

Numerous plates were designed with the symbol of the new Soviet government — the hammer and sickle, often accompanied by a propaganda slogan. Rudolf Vilde, Mikhail Adamovich, and Alexandra Shchekotikhina-Pototskaya were among the most celebrated artists.

Shchekotikhina-Pototskaya was particularly drawn to Russian folklore and icon painting. Her colourful plates often depict Soviet characters, such as commissars and sailors, as well as subjects from Russian folklore such as accordion players or fishermen.

Soviet porcelain for everyday use

The Soviet Porcelain Factory also produced a number of practical tea and coffee services, which were often distributed among the newly established Soviet embassies abroad.

A few porcelain services were decorated by Sergei Chekhonin, a graphic artist who joined the factory in 1918. His paintings and inscriptions were among the factory’s most elegant creations.

Chekhonin’s art brilliantly blends traditional neoclassical imagery with his own enthusiasm and excitement about the future. This can be observed in the porcelain service ‘Cornucopia’, above, which was sold at Christie’s in London in 2015 for £40,000. The gold sickle, symbolic of the new regime, is masterfully combined with the delicate wildflowers and wheat, which are drawn from Russian folk art.

Chekhonin’s fascination with folk art can also be seen in a series of drawings, above, sold at Christie’s in 2012, depicting stylised birds, beasts and flowers.

The international appeal of Soviet propaganda

Once the Soviet government had established foreign trade, porcelain items decorated with revolutionary slogans and propaganda were actively promoted and exhibited in European cities such as Amsterdam, Berlin, Tallinn, Stockholm, Lyon and Paris.

A large platter decorated with a design by Anton Komashka (above), sold at Christie’s in June 2018, bears an exhibition label from the Soviet Pavilion at the 1925 Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris.

This is a striking example of the sort of item that the Soviet government was eager to promote abroad: a working man, holding a hammer and marching forwards with optimism and confidence.

History of collecting Soviet porcelain — and imitations

Among collectors, interest in Soviet porcelain began to build in the 1970s and early 1980s. Since then, it has become an integral part of almost every Russian Art auction at Christie’s.

Museums in Russia have sought to extend their collections with works from this period and, as often happens, this demand has resulted in the production of a large number of forgeries. Copies were easily distributed to Europe through East Germany, and sold to eager collectors and museums.

When buying Soviet porcelain, it is always important to inspect the quality of painting and gilding, which is difficult to imitate. The manner in which the marks and numbers are painted under the base, and their overall design, is also very revealing. It is essential to examine the shape and form of the porcelain ware, because the original ware from small private factories was often used to produce copies.

Today, the best and most iconic examples of Soviet porcelain can be seen in the Museum of the Imperial Porcelain Factory in St Petersburg, which is part of the State Hermitage Museum. A high-quality collection is also housed in the British Museum in London.

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