Varvara Stepanova (1894-1958)
Russian painter, photographer and designer. She was influential as member of the Russian avant-garde movement and, later in her career, she would refer to herself as a constructivist. Her work shows a direct influence of the Cubists and the Futurist art movements and she spent her career dedicated to trying to use her work to create revolutionary change within society.
Varvara Stepanova was born in a peasant family in Kovno (Kaunas), Lithuania. In 1910 she entered the Kazan Art School, where she met Rodchenko, her future husband and life-long colleague. Still at school she bought herself a Singer sewing machine, worked as a seamstress and learned dress design. She designed Cubo-Futurist work for several artists’ books, and studied under Jean Metzinger at Académie de La Palette, an art academy where the painters André Dunoyer de Segonzac and Henri Le Fauconnier also taught. She was a friend of the feminist artist and printmaker Lubov Popova.
In the years before the Russian Revolution of 1917 she and Rodchenko leased an apartment in Moscow, owned by Wassily Kandinsky. In 1917 Stepanova began creating her innovative non-objective and graphic poetry, based on expressive combinations of sounds and their corresponding expression in form and color. In 1918 she published her books of graphic poetry “Rtny Khonle”, “Zigra Ar”, “Globolkim”. In her 1919 series of “Figures” the artist has moved towards shematization of the human figure. She painted them in geometrical simplified forms, in vivid and bold colors, against dark background or made of larger forms, busy with some kind of well-familiar human activity and social interaction: dance, play, music, walk. Rarely did the subject repeat. There is almost no trace of brush strokes, the paint was applied directly over a stecil plate, making the texture uniform. For the figures of 1920 a white backround was introduced, disattaching the figures as it was from their surroundings. At this time she also worked as assistant director of the Art and Literature section of IZO Narkompros (1919-1920).
In the years following the revolution, Stepanova involved herself in poetry, philosophy, painting, graphic art, stage scenery construction, and textile and clothing designs. She contributed work to the Fifth State Exhibition and the Tenth State Exhibition, both in 1919.
In 1921, together with Aleksei Gan, Rodchenko and Stepanova formed the first Working Group of Constructivists, (the INKhUK 1920-1923) and was their research secretary. Together they redefined the concepts of composition and construction – they considered an object’s form already incorporated most of the construction and composition in its very structure; and therefore the designer artist’s role was to help bring it together in practical ways by use of colour and material design. They rejected fine art in favour of graphic design, photography, posters, and political propaganda.
In her paper on Constructivism Stepanova wrote: “Industry and technology are developing continuously. … The realization of ideal beauty is thereby eliminated as a function of artistic activity, forcing the artist to move into industrial production in order to apply his objective knowledge of forms and constructions.” And then: “The intellect is our point of departure, taking the place of the ‘soul’ of idealism. From this it follows that, on the whole, Constructivism is also intellectual production (And not thought alone) incompatible with the spiritualuty of artistic activity”.
In 1920-1921 the Constructivism group advanced from their definition “from invention to construction” to “from construction production”. They attempted to introduce various production art into the VKhUTEMAS.
In 1920-1922 Stepanova was a member of the Presidium of the IZO section of the Union of Art Workers (RABIS), and taught in the studio at Krupskaya Academy for Communist Education (1920-1925).
A pair of “5×5=25” exhibitions was held in the Union of Poets hall, with participation of five artists (A. Vesnin, L.Popova, A.Rodchenko, V.Stepanova, A.Exter), exhibiting five works each. The forum was used to announce the mvoe of the Constructivism artists from the easel to design and production. The second of the two, which was dedicated to graphic works, included designs for construction of stage portals. This attracted the interest of Meierkhold, who invited Popova nad Stepanova to work in his theater.
Stepanova declared in her text for the 1921 exhibition 5×5=25, held in Moscow:
- ‘Composition is the contemplative approach of the artist. Technique and Industry have confronted art with the problem of construction as an active process and not reflective. The ‘sanctity’ of a work as a single entity is destroyed. The museum which was the treasury of art is now transformed into an archive’.
She designed the sets for The Death of Tarelkin in 1922. An adaptaion of play by A.Sokhovo-Kobylin, this was a total innovation in the theatre world. Stepanova made her set fully interactive with the actors and their play. The set was a combination of individual mechanical devices, designed to look like the most basic furniture, uniform in appearance and transforming at the actor’s will. The play itself included acrobatics and other fair-entertainment performance techniques, which interacted neatly with the set. The costumes were made of dark blue and light gray fablic, in stark geometric design.
Clothing design and textiles
In clothing design Stepanova developed the approach of “prozodezhda” (professional clothing) at a new angle: she differentiated between several groups of clothing, according to utilization. She designed several basic models, which could then be modified for the particular profession. In all she made the distiction between working “prozodezhda”, “sportodezhda” (sport clothing) and “spetzodezhda” (specialized clothing incorporating extra requirements, as for pilots, surgeons, firement etc). In article printed in the journal “LEF” 1923 the following observation is made: “Fashion, which psychologically reflects our daily life, habits and aestethic taste, is giving way to clothing organized for working in various branches of labor, for a specific social function, to clothing which can be worn only during the work process, to clothing which had no self-sufficient value outside real life”.
In addition, she considered that the clothing has no need of additional decoration. The very seams, the design, the pockets, the fastening etc. are to provide the form; while the fabric design gives the color and visual pattern.
From here the next step of fabric design was a very logical transition. Stepanova wrote: “We are now approaching a point where a gulf separating the fabric itself and the ready-made garment is becoming a serious obstacle to improving the quality of our cloting production. Itis time to move from designing clothing to designing the structure of fabric. This will allow the textile industry to jettison its present excessive variety, and help it standardize and improve, at long last, the quality of its production”.
In the year the artist worked at the First Textile Printing factory she designed more than 150 different fabrics. About two dozen were put into production. This was the very action upon the slogan “from construction into production”. Popova and Stepanova did not limit themselves in the textile industry with pattern design of the fabric. They were actively involved in incorporating designs into the production process, perfecting the printing processes; worked out models and cuts. To understand the processes and work together with its technological developers and engineers was essential in their approach. They strived to incorporate the design from within the very fabric, weave it in, dye it in, design the very physical properties of the fabric. And outside the process – there was the advertising of the industry and its achievements.
In 1923 Stepanova became professor in the Textile Department at VKhUTEMAS. She held the view that the faculty needed to teach designer-artists, “artist-constructor in the textile industry, not an applied artist”. She made her students carry a special notebook, noting in it the people’s manner of dress, then anylizing it; created assignments of designing window-displays for fabric stores; designing actual clothes for people.Book illustration was Stepanova’s most consistent activity for over 30 years, from 1924 to 1958. In this field she was able to fully exploit her organizational and managerial skills along with the artistic and technical design of the polygraphic industry. She was a permanent staff member of the journals “LEF” and “New LEF” in 1923-1927. In 1933-1934 she served as an art editor for the “Partizdat” publishing house. When the conditions became difficult, in the 30s, 40s and 50s, she was forced to move more to the duties of technical editor, publisher and editorial secretary. But in the 20s this was the industry most suitable for the graphic expression of Constructivism – in the book, the poster, the periodicals of the time.
During the WWII Stepanova and Rodchenko were evacuated to Perm and Ocher in Molotov District, and worked in the Ocher Agit-poster studio (1941-1942). At the end of 1942 they returned to their old apartment in Moscow.
Varvara Stepanova has died May 20th 1958