Hillwood Exposes Power of Seemingly Innocuous Russian Porcelain
They may be small and delicate, but the porcelain sculptures on display at the Hillwood Museum have heavy implications.
At first blush, the pieces that constitute “Fragile Persuasion: Russian Porcelain and the Fine Art of Propaganda” look like any lovely collectibles by fine porcelain makers such as Lladró or M.I. Hummel, for instance, but “closer examination will reveal them to be far more meaning-laden,” according to Scott Ruby, associate curator of Russian and Eastern European art at Hillwood.
In fact, the museum notes that “unlike their counterparts produced in Western Europe and North America, the porcelain figurines, plates and vases in ‘Fragile Persuasion’ reveal the significant part they have played in addressing Russia’s most difficult social and political issues.”
To that end, 79 pieces selected from art collector Yuri Traisman’s collection are presented chronologically from the late 19th century to the late 1990s to show the progression of life in Russia.
“It’s just a bit of the history of Russia,” Ruby said. “It’s a turbulent history. There’s a lot of political things going on in the background, and I think it’s interesting that something as simple as porcelain — as in small — could have had such a big effect in people’s lives.”
Some of the earliest pieces, produced while porcelain factories were still privately owned, depict the hard times most Russians endured and send a clear anti-state message. “Peasant Woman with a Child Leading Her Drunken Husband Home from the Tavern” is self-explanatory in its condemnation of alcoholism, which became a problem when serfdom ended in the late 1800s and peasants had ready cash to buy vodka — a substance controlled by the state, which in turn heavily depended on liquor sales.
“Visually, I think some of the figures are quite beautiful. Some of them are disturbing, and I think it’s very interesting how porcelain can continue to have that effect when you observe some small piece of sculpture like that,” Ruby said. “For example, the vodka drinkers, the children witnessing their collapsed father, it has power; it tugs at your heartstrings.”
But one of Ruby’s favorite pieces is “Peasant Pushing a Wheelbarrow,” among the oldest sculptures on display. “I just think it really has a tremendous amount of charm,” he said. “The modeling of it is so beautifully done, and it sort of captures that sort of thing almost like it’s a snapshot in porcelain … what you would see in the street in St. Petersburg, for example, commonly, somebody wheeling their possessions along.”
But most figures are intended to inspire admiration of the Russian lifestyle.
After the 1917 Russian Revolution, the government took control of the porcelain factories and began dictating what they should produce: figures that extolled Russian virtues, such as military service, work and culture. Artist Natalia Danko’s figurines embody this idea. She touts women’s roles in “The First Policewoman” and “Woman Worker Giving a Speech,” along with greater Soviet victories, such as “Papanin Expedition,” which celebrates the 1937-38 travels of scientist Ivan Papanin and his team to an ice floe in the North Pole.
“Once you get to the Soviet period, everything was just fine — the sun is always shining, the crops are bountiful,” Ruby said. “There’s nothing against the government or against what they were doing at all. It was all meant to look fine — of course heavily using propaganda to reinforce this idealized world.”
Likewise, pieces from the eras after World War II and during the Cold War contrast with the harsh realities of daily life, instead representing the prosperity that the government promised. Galina Stolbova’s “The First Day of First Grade,” for instance, was a popular sculpture that shows a mother happily primping her little girl in a black-and-white Soviet-style school uniform — an effort to emphasize “the benefits theoretically available to all Soviet children, such as free health care and education,” according to a press release.
The show closes with several pieces by Grisha Bruskin, a Jew born in Moscow in 1945 who often overlays traditional images with Hebrew text. Bruskin, along with other contemporary artists, revived the art of porcelain by fusing the pre-revolutionary styles of depicting various Russian social groups with the Soviet tradition of idealizing subject matter.
“I think it’s a beautiful way to end the show with this person who was denied his religion and who made his art out of the discarded imagery of the Soviet Union and could combine these things to deliver a message,” Ruby said. “It’s really a wonderful journey through Russian history.”
It’s a journey Hillwood’s founder, businesswoman and socialite Marjorie Merriweather Post, knew intimately. When she lived in Moscow as wife of U.S. Ambassador Joseph E. Davies in 1937 and 1938, Post became a leading collector of imperial Russian porcelain, and today her estate holds the most comprehensive collection of it outside of Russia.
“Fragile Persuasion” is a unique display fitting of Post’s passion for Russian art. Although other shows have addressed porcelain’s use in propaganda, they mostly focus on the early Soviet period, Ruby said. “This exhibition takes you from the 19th century, through the czarist period, through the early Soviet period, through the Stalinist years, through to the 1990s. So it’s a little more of a larger picture of how porcelain can convey messages — important messages — and make social commentaries, and provide political agendas for various regimes or commentaries on what they were doing.”
Fragile Persuasion: Russian Porcelain and the Fine Art of Propaganda through Dec. 31 Hillwood Estate, Museum and Gardens 4155 Linnean Ave., NW For more information, please call (202) 686-5807 or visit www.hillwoodmuseum.org.
About the Author
Stephanie M. Kanowitz is a freelance writer in Arlington, Va.