The ethnographic and milieu-descriptive figures displayed at the exhibition together create a big and diverse set of delicate and refined, yet at the same time vibrant and merry porcelain people.
Russia started manufacturing porcelain in the middle of the 18th century, taking after Western Europe. Already in the 1760s, at the beginning of the reign of Catherine II, began the manufacturing of the first ethnographic series of porcelain statuettes representing the peoples of the Russian Empire. These were made in the first porcelain enterprise in Russia – St. Petersburg Imperial Porcelain Factory – and the oldest pieces in the exhibition – a Sami figure from the series “The Peoples of Russia” and the figures representing the types of people in the capital, from the series “Merchants and Craftsmen” – derive from the same era.
The majority of items at the exhibition come from the most important private porcelain manufactory in Russia, established by the Englishman Francis Gardner in 1767 in Verbilky, near Moscow. The work quality of this manufactory did not fall short of that of the Imperial Manufactory. In the 19th century the most popular pieces of the Gardner Factory were the miniature sculptures representing Russian peasantry. The graceful figures from the beginning of the century were often based on the gravures of the issue “The Magic Lantern” (1817) – for example, “Woman with a Fruit Basket”, “Woman with a Fish”, “The Baker Boy with Cake” (Kadriorg Art Museum).
The compositions of the Gardner biscuit porcelain from the1880s that represent the peasantry form a group of its own – their more realistic representation and multi-figureness is what differentiates them from the pieces made at the beginning of the century. The figurines show the peasantry at their work, but also different types of people as well as family scenes. Topic-wise these biscuit porcelain groups have a lot in common with the Russian genre painting at that time. The theme of peasantry is also represented among the figures of other Russian private porcelain manufactories – namely, the ones of Popov and Miklashevsky. The porcelain figures of Popov are particularly significant quality-wise and they are in many ways similar to the sculptures of Gardner.
A very characteristic feature of the Gardner Factory outlet was the representation of different nationalities. The figures made at the beginning of the 19th century are elegantly modeled, such as, for example, “The Hungarian” or “The Kirgiz” (both in Kadriorg Art Museum). The biscuit figures from the end of the century – for example, “The Estonians” (Tallinn City Museum), “The Kolosh Man” (Kadriorg Art Museum), “The Kirghiz” (Narva Museum) etc – are characterized by their detailed painting of folk clothing. The making of these sculptures was inspired by the gravures in T. de Pauly’s book on ethnography – Le Peoples de la Russie – which was published in 1862.
Porcelain, or the way it was called in Europe – white gold – is an exquisite and precious material, and is more likely associated with the word ‘nobility’ than FOLK. Yet the porcelain figures representing different nationalities and the common folk formed a significant part of the production of the porcelain factory in Imperial Russia already since the end of the 18th century.
The figurines reflect the life, milieu and appearance of the people at the time of their making, but naturally in a very decorative and beautiful way and at their Sunday best. Looking more closely into the “mirror”, we see the Imperial machine of ideology behind the beautiful figurines in folk clothing, because what else could the series “The Peoples of Russia” mean than the idea of “peoples’ friendship”, the idea of an “enlightener” and “savior” of the small nations, subdued by the Russian Empire. This is supplemented by the series of miniature sculptures representing Russian peasants, merchants and craftsmen which echo the nobility’s interest (after all, only they could afford collecting porcelain figures!) in the life of the folk, which concurs with the Enlightenment ideas at the end of the 18th century and with the ideology of nationalism that gained ground in the middle of the 19th century.
Exhibition is compiled by Anu Allikvee and Aleksandra Murre
Designer of the exhibition is Inga Heamägi