Revolutionary Porcelain

The exhibition of the famous collection of Vladimir Tsarenkov in Spielzeug Welten Museum Basel

From April 22nd to October 8th, 2017, the special exhibit Malevich, Kandinsky, and Revolutionary Porcelain: Art and White Gold of the Russian Masters from 1917 to 1927 will be featured at the Spielzeug Welten Museum Basel. The unique special exhibit will display over 300 select porcelain pieces for the first time, as well as 20 drawings and designs by Kazimir Malevich, Wassily Kandinsky, and David Yakerson.

The porcelain pieces are by renowned avant-garde artists from the time of the Russian Revolution, including Nikolai Suetin, N. Ya Danko, and Mikhail Adamovich. Insightful information will be provided on the life and work of almost all of the artists, along with photo portraits. Due to the turbulent times, which constituted a period of change and upheaval in Russian society, the biographies of some of the artists are very moving and poignant.

This unique special exhibit in Basel is being held in collaboration with the Stellar Collection. The exquisite collection, with its more than 3,000 works of art, belongs to Russian art collector Vladimir Tsarenkov.

Vladimir Tsarenkov was born in Moscow; his mother was a high school teacher. His father, himself an art collector, died when Vladimir was only three years old. Vladimir grew up in his native city and became an English teacher; having married a Frenchwoman, he moved to Paris, where he became an art dealer. This was the foundation of his own collection. These days, Vladimir and his family reside in London.

What were the beginnings of your collection of porcelain from the time of the Russian Revolution? I started out as a collector of paintings, drawings, silver, and classical porcelain. Then I happened to step into the Popov Gallery in Paris, and an exhibit of porcelain made during the time of the Russian Revolution, especially Suprematist porcelain, caught my eye. This was a revelation — this was a much rarer thing than, say, classic Russian porcelain, which looks very much like Meissen porcelain, or English, Italian, or French porcelain. The Russian Revolution porcelain was only made during a very short period of time, and the only reason it was made at all was that the artists employed by the famous St. Petersburg porcelain factory, those who had worked for the tsar family before, were so inspired by the ideas of the Revolution that they breathed all their creative powers into this new porcelain meant to express those ideas. I don’t remember which object was the one I bought first. I immediately bought the entire, if small, collection that was there in the Popov Gallery. For example, the current Basel exhibition displays the figurines of a policewoman and a member of the Red Guard — and I can tell you those two were part of that first small collection I bought.

Was the Revolution porcelain initially meant as objects for regular use by regular citizens, or was it only meant for collectors? Initially the Bolsheviks planned to use this new porcelain as a propaganda tool, in order to spread their ideas and indoctrinate the masses. Yet it was impossible technically — any mass production of porcelain is prohibitively expensive. This meant that Revolution porcelain was only produced in limited series and shipped to international exhibitions in Paris and London, where everything was immediately bought up by collectors. European collectors were really eager to buy these things — they felt this was something new, something exotic. This was, by the way, the reason all this art survived. In Russia, there were huge losses of cultural objects, what with Russia’s wars, collectivization, seizures of private property, and executions. But in the West, the Revolution porcelain survived, and it was in the West that I found the people who owned these items and were willing to sell.

How many years did it take you to assemble the collection? Oh, it is impossible to buy so many items in any short time. I would say it took me some 20 years to get to this point, at the very least. The entirety of my collection comes from the West, and some 100 items that I own are unique in the whole world — even the factory that once made them doesn’t have any copies left. There are no copies in wider Russia either, because as I said, it was only made in small series. So yeah, my collection is so massive it was impossible to assemble fast. I invested a lot of effort in it, not to mention a lot of money.

Are there other collections like yours in the world? At first, these items were hugely popular and quickly spread around the world. As of late, however, there are only two serious collectors of these things — myself and Petr Aven, the former president of AlfaBank. There are some other collections, but they are not nearly as famous or as extensive. And yes, when Petr Aven takes part in an auction, what with his financial might, I have to spend a lot more than usual, dig deep into my purse. For example, the maximum sum an item of Revolution porcelain ever fetched at an auction was 700,000 USD — spent by Petr Aven on a porcelain figurine of Nijinsky, made for the Diaghilev ballet by Elena Danko in 1923. So lately, the prices for Russian Revolution porcelain have skyrocketed.

What other items do you have in your collection aside from the Revolution porcelain? My collection is multifaceted. I have classical Russian paintings from the 20th century, Russian avant-garde, Russian 20th-century drawings, classical 18th-century porcelain, then also manuscripts and autographs, a collection of Roman and Greek items, and let’s not forget Russian silver either, from the Viking era to modern times.

Which works by Malevich and Kandinsky exhibited here in Basel are especially interesting, according to you? First of all, let’s point out that Malevich and Kandinsky are the two most famous Russian artists who really made it onto the world art scene — they are truly the fathers of nonfigurative and nonrepresentational art, abstract art. Yet they only produced a small number of works in porcelain. For example, Kandinsky designed a few series of cup-and-saucer sets. I have two such sets, and they are so rare that even the factory that made them doesn’t have copies. So any museum that wants to mount a porcelain exhibition or a Kandinsky exhibition invariably turns to me. But my favorite item, the pride of my collection, is a half-cup designed by Malevich and painted by Suetin, one of his most talented pupils. Inspired by Malevich, Suetin joined the artists of the porcelain factory in 1923 to design Suprematist porcelain. The thing is, Malevich would make drawings and designs for the porcelain, but would never paint the items himself; by contrast, Suetin would both produce designs and actually execute them on the porcelain. Another element of my collection that I take great pride in is a set of some 40 items that were personally created by Suetin and another of Malevich’s students, Ilya Chashnik.

Do you still add items to your collection these days? Oh, I would love to! But see, everything of value that was available has already been bought by either myself or Petr Aven. Obviously, any collector will tell you that his collection is the world’s best, but as for mine, I can give you the opinion of museum professionals, and they do say it is, in fact, unique — some 20% of the items in existence today belong to me and to me only. So I am very happy to be able to display some of my most interesting items at Spielzeug Welten Museum Basel.