Editor’s Note: This is the eighth post in the Visual Cultures of the Circumpolar North series edited by Isabelle Gapp and Mark A. Cheetham
In November 2019, a vase showing Soviet Arctic explorers was sold at a Christie’s auction with other “Important works of Russian art.” The description of the vase, designed by Lyudmila Protopopova, suggests that it was created to commemorate the Papanin Expedition, which took place between 1937 and 1938, before the four known copies were gifted to the members of the crew. For 274 days, the polar explorer and scientist Ivan Papanin and his crew worked from a mobile polar science station that drifted upon an ice floe, before being rescued by two icebreakers. This expedition almost immediately became a part of the Soviet iconography of colonial conquest, while the vase forms part of a larger context surrounding the international fascination with Soviet propaganda porcelain. The latter is regularly sold at international auctions and exhibited in museums, and includes other examples by Protopopova. These play a pivotal role in the positive branding of the Soviet project, which continues long after the dissolution of the USSR. The telling example is a “storytelling” section advertised by Christie’s auction house, which mentions “Soviet porcelain” alongside other artefacts of imperial nostalgia, notably Faberge eggs.
In a similar spirit of imperial nostalgia, Russian businessman Mikhail Matytsin, Vice President of Moscow’s Integrated Energy Systems (IES), ordered a series of plates showcasing the “history of electric energy” in Russia and donated them to the British Museum in 2006. The object caption reads:
“In adopting this idea, IES wished to encapsulate the huge changes taking place in Russian energy now, in the same way, the Revolutionary plates transmitted the message about the transformations of the revolutionary period.”
Made that same year, more than a decade after the dissolution of the USSR, the plates mimic the style of Soviet propaganda in their use as commercial advertisement. Ironically, the plates “commemorate” not only the events that took place in the USSR but also in Tsarist Russia. Anachronistically, the plate made in 2006 looks back to the “founding of the Electric Lighting Company in St Petersburg in 1886” while mimicking the visual language of the Soviet revolutionary avant-garde. The Soviet flag is replaced by its contemporary Russian counterpart.
The omnipresence of propaganda porcelain as a part of the post-dissolution branding of the USSR reveals a dire need to discuss the porcelain’s colonial roots. Propaganda porcelain first started to be produced following the Soviet nationalisation of the Imperial Porcelain Factory in 1918. The factory storage was filled with uncoloured plates, vases, and tea sets, which were all used as the bases for a novel form of Soviet propaganda. In the early days of the Soviet Union, propaganda porcelain fulfilled a dual function. It was produced in limited editions and was used in international exhibitions such as the International Exposition of Art and Technology in Modern Life in Paris in 1937 to showcase the culture of the new Soviet state; to be “revolutionary in content, perfect in form and flawless in technical execution”.1 The porcelain’s other function was much more mundane: as it was sold to collectors, it became a source of funds for the Soviet Union.2
The form of the vase, used as the base for the image of the arctic explorers, was described by the Soviet art historian and sculptor Olena Danko (1898-1942, and the sister of Natalya Danko)3 as a “Chinese vase.” This form emerged in Imperial Russia during the 18th century as a part of a growing Russian interest in Chinese goods.4 These reproduced a similar European interest in so-called ‘Orientalism’ which also tended to include “Chinese goods” in the image of wealth and opulence. Although the Soviet Union coloured the “Chinese” vases differently, they served a similar function: to impress a western audience.
A similar “Chinese” vase was displayed at the International Exposition in Paris in 1928; it portrayed seal hunting. Alongside figures of the other Soviet nationalities produced by the Porcelain Factory, the vase displayed Soviet nationality politics. The Indigenous people (not specified exactly) portrayed on the vase are defined solely through their labour of catching the seal. As seal hunting was specific to Indigenous communities, this image positioned them outside the Soviet vision of stately progress. The portrayal of non-Indigenous Russians in works produced by the Factory represented them as members of the Red Army, industrial workers, and athletes, that is, those who directly participated in building socialism. The Indigenous people were only portrayed alongside “north-style patterns,” which were, in the words of Danko, “carefully integrated into the design of the vase.”5 The careful integration of the pattern contributed to the same colonial project: the Indigenous people were reduced to “northern” patterns and images of hunting, scenes that were expected to appeal to western collectors.
This portrayal of Indigenous people thus established a settler temporality. As Mark Rifkin defines it, settler temporality leaves Indigenous people outside of the time of progress and development, thus contributing to establishing the settler jurisdiction of the land.6 After the 1930s, the function of porcelain shifted, it was now seen as a medium of support for Soviet industrialisation within the country. In the words of the Soviet magazine “Porcelain Faience Glass,” published in 1930, “the function of the porcelain and faience is to agitate, as a porcelain or faience cup can reach such remote regions, which would be unreachable for any newspapers.”7
Examples such as this tea set portraying the process of construction in “taiga” were intended to “naturalise the settler jurisdiction”8 through the far-reaching distribution of images of the construction and maintenance of infrastructures. In the words of Rifkin and Michael Truscello, these “provide an orientation for the settler state.”9
The Soviet Union’s vision of progress, as well as the so-called transformation of the landscape, were informed by infrastructural scenes that excluded the Indigenous people on whose land colonial infrastructures were built. The portrayal of infrastructure on the cups and plates was part of maintaining the coloniality of Soviet factories and canals. They made the infrastructural conquest of land an essential part of how progress was understood and envisioned. Considering porcelain’s role in Soviet propaganda, it is also essential to address its role in contemporary Russian colonialism. As Maria Nazarenko observed, the uncritical representation of Soviet art by western art institutions conceals both Russian and Soviet colonial violence.10 Following Nazarenko’s argument, it would be safe to say that Russian colonialism has also been fuelled by the thousands of dollars from the sale of propaganda porcelain at auction.
1. Rodin, Dickrman, Shefel, Rozov, Danko, Smirnov 1938. Художественный Фарфор. : Каталог = L’urss : La Porcelaine D’arts : Le Catalogue. Leningrad: Ленинградский государственный фарфоровый завод имени М.В. Ломоносова.
2. Perfilova. “Soviet Porcelain: Fragile History [In Russian],” Monomach Journal. #4 (100). 2017. https://годы-и-люди.рф/entry/7414
3. Natalya Danko (1892-1942) was a Soviet sculptor who mainly worked with porcelain and ceramics. Her most famous works include an inkwell “Discussing Stalin’s Constitution in Uzbekistan”, which featured the Uzbek people, who were supposedly discussing Stalin’s constitution. Events like this would never happen in reality and such an image was part of Soviet visual propaganda.
4. Rostislav, Berezkin. “Chinese Objects in Eurasian Empire: On the Cultural Meaning of Chinese Art in Russia in the Late 17th–Early 18th Centuries”, Frontiers of History in China 13, 1 (2018): 127-159, doi: https://doi.org/10.3868/s020-007-018-0007-7
5. Danko et al. 1938
6. Rifkin, Mark. Beyond Settler Time: Temporal Sovereignty and Indigenous Self-Determination. London: Duke University Press, 2017
7. Samet︠s ︡ kai︠a ︡ , Ė. 2004. Sovetskiĭ agitat︠s ︡ ionnyĭ farfor: [spravochnik-opredelitelʹ]. Moskva. Collector’s Books
8. Truscello, Michael. Infrastructural Brutalism: Art and the Necropolitics of Infrastructure. The MIT Press, 2020. https://doi.org/10.7551/mitpress/10905.001.0001
10. Nazarenko Maria. “Ethical Paradoxes of Russian Utopia in European Museums. War in Ukraine.” Daily Updates. May, 2. 2022 https://sharethetruths.org/2022/05/02/ethical-paradoxes-of-russian-utopia-in-european-museums/