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Teapots and Dresses In The Service Of The Russian Revolution

20th century

Teapots and Dresses In The Service Of The Russian Revolution

This year marks exactly one hundred years since the October Revolution. On that occasion, we’d like to take you on a little trip back to the early Soviet Russia, but instead of looking at the great abstract paintings, avant-garde photography or audacious architectural projects, let’s take a little sneak peak into Russian houses, their kitchens and living rooms. Here’s how Soviet avant-garde wanted to transformed everyday life.

Russian constructivist avant-garde wasn’t a solid monolith. One group of artists, among them Naum Gabo, concentrated on formal development itself. Another, numerous one, felt that it was not enough.

Varvara Stepanova. Moscow, 1916

Varvara Stepanova. Moscow, 1916

In 1921, Lenin introduced his New Economic Policy, which partially restored free market to centrally planned economy. Early communist state struggled with hyperinflation. What was the role of an artist in the time of unstable economy and heavy industrialization? Wasn’t pursuing formal innovation a bit bourgeois or even counterrevolutionary? That was the concern of many constructivist avant-garde artists, among them Varvara Stepanova. In her paper “On Constructivism”, which she presented the same year in the Moscow Institute of Artistic Culture (Inkhuk), she tried to deal with that issue. The lecture ended in discussion among the artists. They decided it was a time to shift from autonomous art to “production”. After Stepanova’s lecture and Alexandr Rodchenko’s famous “last paintings” (three monochrome canvases painted with three basic colors: red, yellow and blue) Productivism was born.


Varvara Stepanova, textile designs, 1924


On the left: dress designed by Alexandra Exter in 1922. On the right: dress designed by Lyubov Popova

It doesn’t mean that they all gave up “pure” art all along, but step “from the easel to the machine”, as critic Nikolai Tarabukin called it, resulted in many developments in industrial design, making Constructivism spread outside Inkhuk, over the country, leaking through the doors of Russian houses. It wasn’t all that easy, though. As political support for avant-garde artists faded out with the new economic plan, Productivists designed more propagandist posters and book covers than everyday objects. Probably the most successful in the field of actual commodity production were Stepanova herself, hand in hand with Lyubov Popova and some other female artists, with their beautiful textile and fashion designs.


Vladimir Tatlin, Letatlin, in situ at the Exhibition of the Honored Art Worker V. Ye. Tatlin, 1932

And some of the artist were as much engineers as dreamers. Vladimir Tatlin designed a flying machine based on birds’ anatomy, that was supposed to be energy efficient and effective. It’s hard not to see the resemblance to Leonardo da Vinci’s design of flying machine, based on the similar idea. And Tatlin’s one was also beautiful, yet unsuccessful in flight.


Nikolai Suetin, Suprematist plateware, 1922-1928

Nikolai Suetin’s plateware designs focused mainly on painted ornamentation, using abstract, geometrical forms, close to his own, as well as El Lissitzky’s and Malevich’s paintings. Many of his designs (with some notable exceptions) resembled earlier plateware, only decorated in a different way.


Teapot with two half cups, after the model from 1923 by Kasimir Malevich, produced by Lomonosov Porceaine factory in St. Petersburg


Kasimir Malevich, Alpha, 1923, Centre Pompidou

Malevich himself took quite different approach to industrial design. Instead of ornamentation, he focused on the shape of an object. Result? A tea set that looks more like his sculptural “architectons” than a regular tea set.


Mikhail Adamovich, plate depicting Lenin`s head and bearing the motto “He who does not work does not eat”, dated 1922

Before Constructivism fell out of favor on behalf of Socialist Realism, some artist designed quite curious items, merging together abstract and realist motifs. In Mikhail Adamovich’s designs, rich colors, plain typeface and compositional latitude coexist with realist depictions of Lenin, Trotsky and work emblems like ear of wheat.


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