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VARVARA STEPNOVA

Wife and colleague in both life and art, Varvara Stepanova(1894-1958) was the wife of Aleksander Rodchenko. A comrade and friend, she was also a painter, photographer and designer. She was influential as member of the group of artists that worked in 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.

As a designer she created everything from posters and books to sets and costumes for local theaters. She became so involved with the world of theater design that she even designed textiles for use in the manufacturing of the costumes for the productions she helped design. Her work, along with the work of the rest of the Russian avant-garde and Constructivist artists, helped pave the way for all modern day graphic designers as they created art with a purpose in hopes of bettering the society in which they lived.

The short life of the equal woman

by Christina Kiaer

Remembering the work of Russian female artists under Stalin in the 1930s

The great generation of women artists of the Russian avant-garde, including Natalia Goncharova, Olga Rozanova, Aleksandra Ekster, Varvara Stepanova and Liubov Popova, is by now relatively well known, as is its largely gender egalitarian, or at least gender neutral, abstract imagery. But we know much less about women artists of the 1930s under Stalin. Work from this decade is most often simply dismissed as socialist realismor propaganda art, yet many worked in modernist figurative styles, and saw themselves as every bit as revolutionary as the previous generation. Like their constructivist forebears Stepanova and Popova, they continued to produce exhilarating images of emancipated Soviet women well into the 1930s, until the state ideology of woman reverted to a more traditional, feminine and maternal model of limited equality.

Take, for example, Popova’s famous costume designs for Fernand Crommelynck’s avant-garde play The Magnanimous Cuckold (1922). The actors all wore prozodezhda, or 'production clothing', in keeping with the Constructivist programme of 1921, which called for artists to abandon painting and enter instead into Soviet mass-media and mass-production as 'artist-engineers' or 'productivists'. Popova’s Production Clothing for Actor no. 5 (1921) shows a costume for a female actor: a plain blue dress in the style of workers’ overalls with a big black apron – all rectangles and straight lines, forms derived from her earlier Suprematist-style painting. This costume barely differed from those of the male actors. As Popova herself put it, she had 'a fundamental disinclination to making any distinction between the men’s and women’s costumes; it just came down to changing the pants to a skirt'. Her bold, consciously androgynous design is as good an icon as any for the new Soviet woman emancipated by Bolshevism, shedding the trappings of bourgeois femininity and becoming a productive worker equal to men.