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White Gray Black

Varvara Stepanova (Russian, 1894–1958)

About this artist

Source: Oxford University Press

Russian painter and designer of Lithuanian birth. She trained at the Kazan’ School of Art (c. 1910–11) where she met Aleksandr Rodchenko, whom she subsequently married. In 1912 she moved to Moscow where she attended the Stroganov School (1913–14) and studied with Konstantin Yuon and Il’ya Mashkov. In 1919 Stepanova became involved with the Futurist poets, composing zaum’ (‘transrational’) poetry herself and producing collaged and handwritten books, including Rtny Khomle, Zigra ar and her masterpiece Gaust Chaba (all 1918; copies in St Petersburg, Rus. Mus.), in which she wrote her zaum’ text on newspaper. After the Revolution, Stepanova worked in the Museums office of the Department of Fine Arts (IZO) in Narkompros (the People’s Commissariat for Enlightenment) and from c. 1921 taught at the Academy of Social Education.

Stepanova participated in numerous exhibitions organized by IZO, including the Fifth State Exhibition and the Tenth State Exhibition. She was one of the first members of Inkhuk (the Moscow Institute of Artistic Culture), was an active contributor to the Institute’s debates and, together with Aleksey Gan and Rodchenko, was one of the founder-members of the First Working Group of Constructivists set up in March 1921. In December 1921 she presented a paper at Inkhuk entitled ‘On Constructivism’ and became an energetic expounder of Constructivist ideas in Lef (Zhurnal levogo fronta iskusstv: ‘Journal of the left front of the arts’) and elsewhere. Under the pseudonym ‘Varst’ she wrote articles such as ‘O rabotakh Konstruktivistkoy molodyozhi’ (‘Concerning the work of Constructivist youth’, Lef, 3 (1923), pp. 53–6).

In September 1921 Stepanova had contributed to the exhibition in Moscow 5×5 = 25, exhibiting compositions based on a mechanical and geometrical analysis of the human figure, including Two Figures (1920; Athens, Costakis priv. col., see Rudenstine, p. 467). In the accompanying catalogue she announced that ‘Technology and industry have presented art with the problem of Construction as effective action, not as contemplative figuration’. In 1922 she designed the set and costumes for vsevolod Meyerhold’s production of Sukhovo-Kobylin’s play Smert’ Tarelkina (‘The death of Tarelkin’). She devised a series of collapsible structures made from wooden slats, painted white, which like circus props could perform several functions and were used by actors to reinforce the action of the play. The costumes were made from simple geometric shapes in two colours, functional identity being indicated by geometric variations.

Stepanova elaborated such ideas for standardized production clothing and sports clothing in articles for Lef, such as ‘Kostyum sevodnyashnevo dnya—Prozodezhda’ (‘The Costume of Today—Production Clothing’, Lef, 2 (1923), pp. 65–8), in her designs and also as teacher in the Textile Faculty of the Vkhutemas (Higher Artistic and Technical Workshops) (1924–5). Using similar principles of economy of means and the simple combinations of geometric elements, she produced textile designs for the First State Textile Print Factory (1923–4; see Lodder, pl. IX). In 1922 she contributed geometric woodcuts of figures such as Charlie Chaplin to Gan’s cinematic magazine Kino-Fot and in 1925 began to design posters in collaboration with Vladimir Mayakovsky, becoming increasingly active in this area towards the end of the 1920s. From the 1930s to the 1950s she worked as a graphic and typographical designer for publications such as SSSR na stroyke (‘USSR in construction’) and Sovetskaya zhenshchina (‘Soviet woman’).

Christina Lodder
From Grove Art Online

© 2009 Oxford University Press

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