When the Empress Elizabeth founded it in 1744, the Saint Petersburg Porcelain Factory was regarded as the epitome of ruling-class luxury and delight. Under Catherine the Great, it became the "Imperial", celebrating that its lustrous products were made exclusively for privileged members of the court. So when the 1917 revolution swept away regal power, the factory might well have been closed down for ever.
Instead, the grand building on the banks of the River Neva was transformed. The Bolsheviks renamed it the State Porcelain Factory, and in March 1918 it was taken over by Narkompros, the People's Commissariat for Enlightenment. Blanks surviving from the Imperial production line were decorated with heretical new designs. To the horror of all the aristocrats who had relished the delicately embellished ware of the tsar's reign, the aim now was to produce porcelain "revolutionary in content, perfect in form and flawless in technical execution".
From the outset of the new regime, this porcelain was regarded as a propaganda tool. A special set was made for the October revolution, the agitprop train bent on spreading communism's message throughout the nation. But everyone familiar with the banality of official Soviet art in the 1930s and beyond will be astonished to find, at a ground-breaking exhibition at the Hermitage Rooms, Somerset House, how fresh and radical these early examples of people's porcelain could be.
Sergei Chekhonin played a vital role in rallying avant-garde artists to the factory's cause. Himself a talented illustrator and graphic designer, he invited artists as innovative as Ivan Puni to design plates and cups. At that stage in the revolution, cubists and futurists were regar-ded as allies rather than capitalist scum. Chekhonin displayed his own ability to fuse modernism and propaganda in a plate called Cubist With Hammer, made in 1919. At first glance, it looks almost abstract: the usual ribbon motif has been reduced to a sequence of sharp, brilliantly coloured forms dancing round the edge. But on closer scrutiny, both hammer and sickle emerge from the geometric play of diagonals and semi-circles enlivening the plate's main area. Marshalled with dynamic simplicity, the design embodies the irrepressible energy of those first revolutionary years.
Chekhonin even managed to attract the prodigious talent of Wassily Kandinsky. In 1921, when he co-founded the Russian Academy of Artistic Sciences, Kandinsky designed at least three tea sets for the factory. Although the rapturous forms leaping over his cup, bowl and jug may seem non-representational, it is possi- ble to detect hints of kites, exotic birds and pioneering flights through outer space. Kandinsky's involvement was short-lived: by the end of 1921, he had abandoned his native Russia for Berlin. But a year later, when Nikolai Punin was appointed artistic director, the factory truly succeeded in embracing the avant-garde.
Kazimir Malevich, who had pushed his painting to a purged extreme of abstraction before the revolution, soon became involved. In 1923, he donated an ink and watercolour design called Dynamic Composition. Within its oblong contours, blue, black and orange forms float freely on a white ground. Redolent of the aircraft that fascinated Malevich in his attempt to arrive at an audacious new art, the design was transferred wholesale to an unsuspecting porcelain plate. Even the thin lines of his ink-drawn border are retained here, and they waver uncomfortably near the plate's edges. But Malevich's Teapot With Lid, made in the same year, is wholly successful. One contemporary critic likened it to a hurtling railway engine. The great white forefront of the teapot, pushing forward in a proud rectilinear mass before culminating in a shamelessly phallic spout, reminded me of a battery siege gun from the Great War. Pointing its barrel at the unseen capitalist enemy, this formidable utensil seems to be saying: "Drink from me at your peril!"
Malevich may also have designed two arresting cups, each of which has been sliced on one side so that the natural curve is brutally terminated. But besides their devotion to geometric purity, some of the most extreme designs can be surprisingly organic. A pale jug, swollen like a belly in an advanced stage of pregnancy, is the work of Nikolai Suetin. Both he and Ilya Chashnik were pupils of Malevich and designed the most daring of the factory's abstractions.
Chashnik was a master of black, allowing it to dominate a magnificent dinner service inscribed with the name of the art movement Malevich had founded: suprematism. Just as his teacher might wish, Chashnik elsewhere spread a heraldic grey-green cross over a plate. However, he also knew how to deploy more sumptuous colours - most dramatically in the cup and saucer aptly named Vibration in Orange, where burnished bars blaze on the white surfaces. Suetin's creations are no less impressive. One of his finest plates rejoices in a constellation of red rectangles and a circle suspended in a porcelain void. The formal language employed here could hardly be more minimal, yet these incisive designs retain a sense of visionary fervour.
Tragically, this high point in experimentation was not allowed to last long. By April 1924, the suprematist artists had been dismissed from the factory as part of major cutbacks. The following year, it was renamed the Lomonosov Porcelain Factory, in honour of the great Russian scientist. From now on, as the nation's leaders grew increasingly scornful of the avant-garde, work in the factory became more conventional in style. Chekhonin had won his agit spurs in 1920 with a fiery dish bearing the slogan "Only labour and labour to bloody blisters will bring us final victory". But in 1925 he adopted an unashamedly old-fashioned approach in a dish that commemorated, in a cluster of profile portraits, the leaders of the 1825 uprising against Nicholas I.
Suetin still managed to work for the factory occasionally in the late 1920s, but his designs now look ominously funereal. One of his plates, Invalid, decorated only with a coal-black silhouette, is far more figurative than his earlier suprematist masterpieces. It could hardly be more dejected, and one of Suetin's colleagues later remembered that he had "spent the entire summer painting a plate with a 'scarecrow'". He had good reason to feel pessimistic and alienated. The latter stages of this show are awash with propagandist cliches: heroic factory chimneys, saintly portraits of Lenin and glistening red stars.
In the early 1930s, the hectoring tone became risible. Natalya Danko modelled a feeble statuette of a young female "shock-worker" (so-called because of her exceptional skill and productivity). Smiling, she clutches a scroll with the smug words "Plan fulfilled 100%". Beside her, a series of ascending coloured bars recalls the influence of the suprematists, who had produced similar models for their architecture of the future. Here, however, Danko intends the bars to represent a chart showing the fulfilment of production plans. If Malevich ever saw this ludicrous figurine, he would surely have dismissed it with an embittered laugh.
By this time, formal abstraction was being denounced as elitist. Socialist realism became the official state style in 1932, and the old spirit of adventure soon vanished. Just over a decade earlier, Rudolf Vilde had designed a plate alive with the rotating movement of a cogwheel's crossbars, bearing the words "Dare, dare, dare once more and for ever". But by 1935, when the disillusioned Malevich died, exuberance had given way to a fearful conformism, betraying earlier hopes for the rebirth of art in a vibrant new world.
"Circling the Square: avant-garde porcelain from revolutionary Russia" is at Somerset House, London WC2 (020 7845 4630) until 31 July