The great Russian artist Varvara Fedorovna Stepanova (1894-1958) delved into to a wide range of artistic trends from Social realism to Symbolism. However, she is mostly known for exploring and furthering Constructivism.
New Abstract Art in Russia began around 1909 – some say, actual Constructivism started in 1919 when first mentioned by Rodchenko. The term was actually used by the Russian artists themselves. In some ways, it was influenced by Cubism, Italian/Russian Futurism and traditional peasant art. Constructivist artwork is characterized by abstract, geometric forms and a technique in which various materials, often industrial in nature, are assembled rather than carved or modeled.
Constructivism replaced traditional art with socially-instrumental art. Artists in this field invited their audiences to be active viewers of their artwork. In line with this vision, they were innovators in fine art painting; but also in 3-D constructed objects; typographic design including posters; textiles & fashion designs, furniture, and theater sets and costume design.
Constuctivist lead-playing artist Stepanova expressed her wide range of talents in all of these art outlets and media. For a long time, Varvara substituted her painting for production art. She worked with functional materials manufactured in an equal relationship between artist and industrial worker, with an objective to bring art into life.
Stepanova carried out her ideal of engaging with industrial production and designed comfortable clothing for ease of movement of workers. She used striking fabrics in geometric patterns that suited the industrial printing methods. Her modernist practicality combined with sophistication made her popular in Paris in the mid ’20s.
Even though from peasant origin, Varvara went to the Kazan School of Art in Odessa. There she met her live-long art collaborator and then future-husband, Alexander Rodchenko. She moved to Moscow in 1912 with Rodchenko to attend the Stroganov School.
Together Stepanova and Rodchenko became an important part of the Russian art avant-garde, both in terms of their collaborations, and each in their own right. For an example of a collaborative artwork with Rodchenko, is NYC’s Museum of Modern Art.* Both artists considered the artistic experience as public communication rather than a private introspection.
The couple was involved with many influential artists of that time. Before the Russian Revolution, around 1917, they shared an apartment with Wassily Kadinsky in Moscow, and were introduced to many other famous Russian artists.
In the earlier parts of her career, Varvara loved Futurist poetry. She autonomously developed what came to be known as ‘non-objective visual poetry’. An example of ‘non-objective visual poetry’ is featured at MoMA. It is called ‘Gaust chaba’, 1919. * This is watercolor manuscript text on found newspaper leaves.
Stepanova designed Cubo-Futurist artwork for use in artists’ books. This kind of artwork combines the Cubist use of forms. At the same time, it adopts the Futurists’ passionate loathing of ideas from the past, especially political and artistic traditions, and a love for action and technology. She participated in world-famous art shows, including the ‘Fifth State Exhibition’ & the ‘Tenth State Exhibition’ in 1919, and the ‘5×5 = 25 Exhibition’ in Moscow in 1921.
Many of her works feature figures who she displays as robotic, efficient and dynamic, i.e. new socialist human beings. In one of her most famous works ‘The Billiard Players’ Stepanova depicts mechanical action and emotional states simultaneously.
Even more than her husband’s work, Stepanova’s work in the 1920s epitomized the Russian Avant-Garde. Her constructivism flourished through the mid 1930s. From 1920 to 1925, Varvara taught at the Krupskaia Academy of Social Education.
* direct links to these artwork samples can be found at http://www.eArtfair.com
copyright A. Lee, 2008 – all rights reserved.