Pyotr Aven, whose porcelain formed part of an acclaimed exhibition at the Royal Academy last year, came to Cambridge last month to speak about his collection publicly for the first time.
Of all the words in the English language that have ever been paired with ‘revolutionary’, it is hard to think of one more deadeningly prosaic than ‘porcelain’. Rarely without at least a hint of irony are two words brought together that seem to have such intrinsically jarring evocations. The explosive power and upheaval of revolution clashes awkwardly with the utter banality of the domestic tea service.
And yet, behind this title that sounds like the subject of a Chris Morris Antiques Roadshow parody lies the genuinely astonishing story of Pyotr Aven, a Russian billionaire who has spent the past twenty years collecting not football teams, super-yachts or Caribbean islands, but some 1500 items of Soviet porcelain artwork. His is now the largest collection in the world, trumping even that of the Russian State Hermitage Museum, whose seemingly endless assortment of exhibits would famously take 15 years to view if one were given a minute per item. ‘Collecting is a disease,’ says Aven playfully. ‘Once you start, you just can’t stop!’ And the enthusiasm isn’t feigned, either. His sincerity is quite palpable as he warmly tells of a lifelong love of ‘cataloguing things’ – he was a dedicated collector of stamps in his childhood (something that apparently came in handy many years later when looking to barter for a highly prized tea set).
Truly astonishing to an outsider, however, are the really remarkable works of art that comprise this collection. Porcelain of the 1920s and ‘30s is, as Aven shows, a true encyclopaedia of early Soviet life: its highly varied and imaginative depictions and designs chart the rapidly evolving ideological and aesthetic movements of the period. It offers a rather unlikely window into the era, not only representing the key historical events but also encompassing virtually every conceivable aspect of life – there are figurines of people ranging from schoolchildren to soldiers, novelists to ballerinas, drunks to fortune-tellers. The most moving and poignant pieces, however, detail the extraordinary hardships faced during the period – a painfully beautiful set entitled Hunger shows an emaciated family starving to death during the ravaging famine of 1921-22. The ever-shifting party slogans and state imperatives of the era are also documented with marvellous clarity and precision – ‘Proletariat of the world unite!’ features prominently on many ornately crafted plates of the early ‘20s, but disappears altogether in items of the latter part of the decade, as initial Bolshevik plans for world revolution were replaced with Stalin’s policy of Socialism in One Country.
The colour and intricacy of these pieces is phenomenal – there’s a serving platter whose decoration features tiny painted-on newspaper clippings with text that can actually be read. And the sheer variety is almost boundless – there are sculpted elephants and polar bears, a full set of chess pieces depicting the opposing Red and White armies of the Civil War, even functioning porcelain smoking pipes. The artistic style of the depictions flows with the period, as the instantly recognizable suprematist images of Kazimir Malevich (painter of The Black Square) that appear often in the early displays gradually make way for the lean, muscular workers and signing peasants of Socialist Realism.
The actual production of these works is a fascinating story in itself. Porcelain services and figurines in the Soviet Union were made exclusively in a single state-run factory in Leningrad, crafted by a small group of select sculptors and artists led by Natalia Danko, whom Aven repeatedly lauds as a genius. Interestingly, most of the actual porcelain was not newly manufactured but reclaimed from the palaces and residences of the Tsars. In an amusing irony, this inherently expensive, luxury ceramic material so beloved by the late Romanovs ended up recast in the shifting aesthetics and ideologies of the very movement that had overthrown them. Despite the great abundance of Tsarist porcelain at the artists’ disposal, the process of creating these pieces was still itself an expensive one, and initial plans for mass production of these items were never realised.
Aven’s collection is, therefore, a sight to behold even among the greatest collections of artwork around the world. There is something unique about the extensive and highly detailed record that these items provide of life during the ceaselessly volatile and chaotic first two decades of the USSR. But they are also remarkable for their intrinsic beauty, variety and complexity – there developed an entire language of symbols specific to these works that continues to bear relevance to Russian cultural identity even to this day (with the image of flowers as intensely symbolic of friendship and devotion one very notable example). It would appear that Aven has achieved the very thing he set out to accomplish when deciding to embark upon his journey to acquire this vast assembly – to find things that are beautiful and unique, but also crucially that tell a story and reflect the times out of which they emerged. ‘You have to love what you collect’, he says, and his own personal passion is certainly unmistakeable. It’s wonderfully refreshing to see one of the world’s wealthiest men show such relish for something other than hyper cars and private jets, and particularly to care so deeply about the kind of artwork that might otherwise easily be abandoned and forgotten.
The preservation of great pieces of art is heavily dependent on the work of collectors like Aven, and although he would like to see his porcelain in a museum one day, sadly for us the full collection resides in his family home for the time being. I suppose we will have to stick to the catalogue (itself an extraordinary record) until the day comes when these rare and unlikely jewels of Russian art history are finally put out on permanent display for all the world to admire.