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Varvara Stepanova (9 November 1894 – 20 May 1958)

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Varvara Stepanova at work, 1924, Photography by Alexander Rodchenko
(image source: Tony Nudo on Pictify)

 

Stepanova sits transfixed, staring with intense concentration. Her short-cut hair is swept to one side and her hands clutch at a graphic pencil and a long metal ruler. She wears a shirt covered in angles and zig-zags, and surrounding her, are a mixture of paintbrushes and pots, rulers and measures. She is determined, confident, her gaze entirely uncompromised; there is something quite androgynous about the way Stepanova is presented here.

In 1924, Stepanova is captured in a photograph taken by Aleksandr Rodchenko, in which she is depicted at work, sketching designs upon a drawing board.  Surrounded by a mixture of traditional tools, such as paintbrushes, and graphic design tools, such as set squares, Stepanova is depicted in such a way that references her wide variety of artistic abilities. Seen in the act of drawing, this photograph references her identification as a draughtsman – a worker, which especially during the mid 1920’s, proves her defiance of the expected role of women at this time.

Stepanova was a leading figure in the Russian avant-garde and played a crucial role in the development of Constructivism. She was involved in a large array of creative avenues, including poetry, philosophy, painting, graphic art, stage scenery construction, textiles and clothing designs, all of which were influenced by her fascination with Modernist art movements such as Cubism and Futurism, alongside traditional peasant art. During the early 1920’s, despite the more traditional and restricted expectations of women at this time in Imperial Russia, Stepanova frequently exhibited her designs, produced work with functional purposes and taught at the Kruspskaia Academy of Social (Communist) Education.

In 1921, Stepanova moved exclusively into the realm of production, in which she felt her designs could achieve their broadest influence in assisting the progress of the Soviet society. Rather than being identified as solely ‘artist’ or ‘designer’, Stepanova like many other Constructivists, took up the role of ‘artist-engineer’ or ‘productivist’, in keeping with their revolutionary and utilitarian ideals.

 

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Students in sports clothing designed by Stepanova, in performance of An Evening of the Book,1924
(image source: The Charnel-House)

 

Stepanova produced costume designs for various different purposes, including sportodezhda [sports clothing] or prozodezhda [production clothing] for performers. Many of her clothing designs and textile patterns had a distinctive disregard for gender. This is most notably captured in her preparatory designs, which show the body reduced to geometric forms. Stepanova’s treatment of the body lacked any natural curvature or individuality; her mechanical drawings were collectively part of her Constructivist approach to costume design, incorporating a move towards utilitarian functionality. Stepanova used a logical, efficient process, using simplistic designs and an economic use of materials to enhance the functional element of the clothing, both in terms of its manufacture and the end product. Ultimately, Stepanova combined textiles (often traditionally regarded as a ‘feminine’ peasant craft) with graphic design (which was often regarded as having a relatively ‘masculine’ geometric aesthetic) thus producing an art form which rejected gender difference, both aesthetically and artistically.

 

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Designs by Varvara Stepanova in LEF magazine, 1923 (image source: The Conversation)

 

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Varvara Stepanova, Circle Points—Teal and Orange, 1923
(image source: The Charnel-House)

 

By the late 1920’s, continuing for the rest of her artistic career, Stepanova continued to work in graphic design and typography, producing designs for publications such as Sovetskaya Zhenshchina (‘Soviet Woman’). Varvara Stepanova passed away in 1958 as a pivotal figure of the Russian avant-garde, whose bold, colourful and geometric designs appear just as innovative and relevant today as they did almost a century ago.

 

Selected Recommended Reading:

Atkinson, D., Dallin, A. & Lapidus, G.W., Women in Russia, Stanford University Press: Stanford,1977

Harte, T., Fast Forward: The Aesthetics and Ideology of Speed in Russian Avant-Garde Culture,Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 2009

Lodder, C., Russian Constructivism, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985

Rudenstine, A.Z., ed., Russian Avant-Garde: The George Costakis Collection, New York: Albrams

Salmond, W.R., Arts and Crafts in Late Imperial Russia, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,1996

Bowlt, J.E., ‘Women of Genius’ in Amazons of the Avant-Garde, ed. Bowlt, J.E. & Drutt, M.,Guggenheim Museum: New York, 2000

Budanova, N., ‘Utopian Sex: The Metamorphosis of Androgynous Imagery in Russian Art of the Pre-and Post-Revolutionary Period’ in Utopian Reality: Reconstructing Culture in Revolutionary Russiaand Beyond, ed. Lodder, C., Kokkori, M., & Mileeva, M., Brill, 2013

Douglas, C., ‘Six (and a few more) Russian Women of the Avant-Garde Together’ in Amazons of theAvant-Garde, ed. Bowlt, 2000

Dyogot, E., ‘Creative Women, Creative Men, and Paradigms of Creativity: Why have there been greatwomen artists?’ in Amazons of the Avant-Garde, ed. Bowlt, J.E. & Drutt, M., Guggenheim Museum: New York, 2000

Engelstein, L., ‘Between the Old and New; Russia’s Modern Women’ in Amazons of the Avant-Garde, ed. Bowlt, J.E. & Drutt, M., Guggenheim Museum: New York, 2000

Lavrentiev, A., ‘Varvara Stepanova’ in Amazons of the Avant-Garde, ed. Bowlt, J.E. & Drutt, M.,Guggenheim Museum: New York, 2000

Rodchenko, A., ‘The Line’ 1921, in Khan-Magomedov, S.O., Rodchenko

Stepanova, V., ‘Organizational Plan of the Programme for a Course in Artistic Composition at the Faculty of Textile of the Vkhutemas, 1925’ in Zaletova, L. et al., Costume Revolution: Textiles,Clothing and Costume of the Soviet Union in the Twenties trans. Dafinone, E., London, 1989