Napoleon's dinnerware set and cobalt net. 100 years of the Museum of Ceramics featured in its exhibits

December 21, 2019

The history of the Museum of Ceramics originates in December 1919. Today, the Museum is a significant part of Kuskovo Estate Museum. Launched as the famous Alexei Morozov's collection, the Museum has been renamed many times during the century of its existence, with its collection extended to some 40,000 items.

'History Pages' exhibition dedicated to the anniversary tells the collection's history. Read about the most attractive items of the display’s 900 exhibit collection in and Mosgortur Agency's collaborative article.

Fantastic beasts and little Murano glass ship

The exhibition starts in a small hall with private collection items (nationalised in the 1920s) placed in vintage cabinets and showcases. The Museum of Ceramics' holdings mostly included collections of Alexei Morozov (2,600 items), Lev Zubalov (about 700) and Dmitry Shchukin (about 200) featuring many rare things.

Oilman Zubalov took pride in German porcelain and Murano glass he had in his collection. Art historians know one of the early sets of the renowned Meissen Porcelain Manufactory by his name. In around 1735, artist Adam Friedrich von Löwenfinck painted Zubalov's dinnerware set. His combination of European patterns with exotic Oriental characters gave Zubalov's set another name, a set with fantastic beasts. If you take a closer look at the animals on the plates, you will see that they differ from regular animals, as the camel has claws, and the deer lacks hooves.

Zubalov's Murano glass collection includes the oldest exhibit of the display, apart from antique ceramics. It is a bowl dating back to the 16th century. You will find a 19th century vessel shaped as a glass boat 'moored' nearby. The legends has it that these small glass ships were to be smashed against a real ship's side before the launch. Such an old ship is a very rare find.

From 'Profiteer' to 'Stalin's Constitution'

The first years of Soviet power were marked by the search for proletarian culture's expression. It affected museums, too. In the 1920s, authorities attempted to create a new industrial type Museum. The Museum of Ceramics was among the first to house a laboratory and workshops. So, from now on the Museum both displayed vintage masterpieces, and created its own ones. The lab lasted for a year to leave behind an extensive collection. The Museum's 'History Pages' exhibition shows the full collection for the first time.

Manufacturing products for export was one of the lab's priorities. Folk and oriental style ceramics, as well as replicas of Museum items were in demand in the western market. In particular, the latter included 'Rooster' and 'Parrot' majolica figurines. The first was a copy of a sculpture produced by the Imperial Porcelain Factory in the last quarter of the 18th century, the second one copied a Chinese figurine of the late 19th century.

A search for new images was most clearly manifested in the sculptures of 1929–1930s, 'Profiteer' and 'Old Pro', popular characters at the time, but hard to understand for a modern viewer. Black market businessmen who used to make profit supplying food from villages to the cities suffering from food shortage were called profiteers. Specialists of tsarist Russia, whom the new government barely tolerated but needed so much, were called 'old pros'. The country experienced a drastic shortage of qualified personnel.

Even after lab's closure, Soviet porcelain masters kept on showing the world subjects never seen before. Also, the hall with the exhibited 'Profiteer' features the work of sculptor Natalya Danko, a desk set 'Discussion of the draft Stalin's Constitution in a collective farm of Uzbekistan'. This massive composition is dedicated to the adoption of the Constitution of the USSR in 1936, in the discussion of which 75 million people took part with the help of printed media. Danko depicted the topic with the help of six items: apart from an inkwell, the set includes a vase 'Right to Education', a desk organiser and ashtray 'Right to Rest', a tray 'Right to Work" and a lamp 'Folk Singers'.

Restoration in the evacuation period

With the beginning of the Great Patriotic War, more than 2,000 items of the fragile Kuskovo collection were recognized as subject to priority evacuation. As early as in July 1941, the precious cargo was sent by rail to Gorky City (today Nizhny Novgorod), and by the end of October, the rarities reached their destination, Solikamsk, by barge. Also, this city located in Molotov region (today Perm Krai) became home to exported valuables of the Russian Museum, Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, Shchusev State Museum of Architecture, Zagorsk Historical and Art Museum Reserve and others.

It was a hurried evacuation with shortage of containers and packaging materials. Part of the valuable was damaged during transportation, including a rare vase made by German master Johann Gottfried Miller, who worked in St. Petersburg in the 1750s–1760s. A sample of porcelain made at the first Russian manufactory, and one of the first Russian chinoiserie-style items (Rococo style imitating Chinese forms and ornaments) arrived to Gorky broken into 32 pieces. However, the vase returned to Kuskovo as a whole piece, as in 1943 it was restored by the renowned art historian and Russian porcelain specialist Boris Emme.

Dulyov falcon, cobalt net and gift to the Queen of Belgium

Revival of World Exhibitions was a symbol of a peaceful life regained. Expo 1958 in Brussels was the first major international exhibition of achievements to be held after World War II. Over the six months, about 30 million people visited the USSR pavilion with models of the first artificial Earth satellite, Lenin nuclear-powered ship and the largest and fastest turboprop passenger aircraft Tu-114.

The Soviet Union received over a thousand awards of nearly four thousand honorary awards granted at the exhibition. Soviet ceramists were granted a considerable part of them. At the exhibition in Kuskovo, the winners and awardees of Expo 1958 occupy as many as six showcases.

Along with a satellite and Tu-114, 'Hen' and 'Falcon' by Alexei Sotnikov, sculptor of Dulyov Porcelain Factory, were granted Grand Prix Expo 1958. A cobalt net designed by artist Anna Yatskevich, which had become a hallmark of the Leningrad Porcelain Factory, was the Brussels exhibition's highlight. The drawing referred to the first Russian 'Sobstvenny' tableware set, which belonged to the Empress Yelizaveta Petrovna.

Yatskevich's plight, who stayed in Leningrad for all 900 blockade days, became the basis for the legend that the cobalt net was inspired by war. The artist allegedly translated to porcelain the things she saw in the besieged city every day, such as strips of paper pasted crosswise on the window panes to prevent them from being blown out by blasts. This myth came up after the artist's death, but there is no documentary evidence proving it.

There is an insightful story related to the set 'Princess on a Pea', which received a bronze medal in Brussels. Dulyov Porcelain Factory's sculptor Asta Brzhezitskaya made it as a box with a Princess laying on a feather bed, with bottles shaped as King and Queen figures, several powder boxes decorated with pugs and a tray with two pages.

The Ministry of Culture of the USSR bought the set to make a gift to Queen Elizabeth of Belgium, who had taken a keen interest in the Soviet Union, could read and write in Russian and was the Honorary Chairman of the Belgian Women's Peace Association. However, the Queen never got 'Princess on the Pea'. The removable bottle caps were actually made as heads, so one had to behead the Royal couple to fill the containers. Such a gift could be misinterpreted, so Brzhezitskaya's masterpiece was sent to Kuskovo.

Not by porcelain alone

After Brussels triumph, the Museum's holdings continued to be replenished with works of Soviet world-acclaimed ceramists. The exhibition presents the ceramic composition 'Herd' by architect and artist Vladimir Vasilkovsky and majolica 'Mammoth Hunt' piece by Gleb Sadikov, Konakovo Faience Factory’s scupltor, which won gold and silver medals at the International Ceramics Exhibition held in Prague in 1962. Both pieces feature an allusion to primitive art. 'Herd' stands out with its silhouette on the vessel’s wall looking like a 3D figure.

Another milestone is the 'Flower' composition by the master of Neman Glass Factory Anatoly Fedorkov, awarded Grand Prix of the International Glass and Porcelain Exhibition in Jablonec nad Nisou (Czechoslovak SSR) in 1973. 'Flower' is made in the 'Neman thread' technique invented by Fedorkov. The pattern reminds Venetian filigree with the finest threads of sulfide-and-zinc glass.

Dmitry and Lyudmila Shushkanov made a great impact on the glassmaking art. When blowing out a certain shape, they introduced glass tubes with dyes (metal oxides) into the hot glass. Due to high temperature, the tubes melted, with their contents mixed with the glass during rotation, creating a unique combination of texture, colour and air bubbles. The exhibition features a number of works made by the couple in the 1970s and 1980s.

Napoleon's Egyptian gift

A separate exhibition space is dedicated to Museum's foreign exhibition projects of the 1990s-2000s. 'From Empire to Avant-garde Style' exhibition displayed in Germany in 2003 has been fully recreated. It shows a special collection of Museum highlights, which has brought together the most significant exhibits from Kuskovo’s holdings of the 19th–20th centuries.

You can view here one of the key collection's masterpieces, the Napoleon's Egyptian tableware set. This set called the highlight of the Empire style in porcelain ware, was made at the Manufacture nationale de Sevres in 1804-1806 and presented by the French Emperor Alexander I on the occasion of the Treaty of Tilsit's conclusion.

The idea to create a set came up during the Egyptian campaign of Bonaparte. The paintings are based on the drawings by artists accompanying the French Army. The main table decoration, surtout de table, features small porcelain replicas of the pylons of the Horus temple in Edfu, the Sphinx Alley in Thebes and other Egyptian monuments. Over the past 20 years, the renowned set has been exhibited at major world museums, including Versailles and Louvre.

'History Pages. To the 100th Anniversary of the Museum of Ceramics' exhibition will run until 2 August 2020.


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