Varvara Stepanova

1894Kaunas, Lithuania | 1958Moscow, Russia
Varvara  Stepanova — AWARE Women artists / Femmes artistes

© Photo: Aleksandr Rodchenko

Russian painter, poet, set designer, and graphic designer.

Varvara Fyodorovna Stepanova was born to a family of civil servants and in 1910 enrolled in the Kazan Art School, where she met her future husband and artistic collaborator Alexander Rodchenko. In 1913, she attended the workshop of Konstantin Yuon in Moscow. At the start of her career, she was predominantly interested in the convergence of genres, leading her to seek a “new quality” in painting by the merging of sound and image, achieved through the use of a type of visual, “transrational” poetry (zaum) focused on the acoustic dimension of words, which she made up and juxtaposed with elements of graphic design. Her works were exhibited as genuine pictures, much like some of Wassily Kandinsky’s similar experiments. She also designed and published several books of poetry using a similar process, among them Rtny Khomle (1918). Working under the pseudonym “Varst” or “Agaraykh”, she was one of the founding members of Russian Constructivism, a movement that rejected art for the sake of art in favour of a functional and practical art. In 1924, she became involved in the creation of new fabrics for the first Soviet printed cotton factory, designing structures and patterns to fit the function of the piece of clothing they were intended for. With a view towards standardisation – a principle valued by Constructivists – she hoped to create ideal clothes for each trade.

Resolutely focused on the future, she actively collaborated with the new Soviet state, taking part in the creation of its main artistic institutions – INKhUK (“Institute of Artistic Culture”, founded in 1920), IZO (“Department of Fine Arts” of the Narkompros, created in 1918), Vkhutemas (“Higher Art and Technical Studios”, founded in 1920). Within these institutions, she occupied high-ranking positions. She created a large number of posters with A. Rodchenko, some of which included verses by Vladimir Mayakovsky; they also produced several volumes of propaganda photography, including Pervaya Konnaya [First Cavalry, circa 1937], which were presented at the New York World’s Fair in 1939. In addition to this, she designed the new constructivist sets and costumes for Sukhovo-Kobylin’s play The Death of Tarelkin in 1920–1922. A dynamic and brave artist, she truly believed in a better future despite the material difficulties she faced on a daily basis. Her eclectic career makes her particularly hard to categorise. In her own words, she was not a painter, decorator, or graphic designer but a “Constructivist” in that she saw the movement as a vehicle to break free from old and self-satisfied art by way of a socially indispensable activity.

Hanna Murauskaya

Translated from French by Lucy Pons.

From the Dictionnaire universel des créatrices
© 2013 Des femmes – Antoinette Fouque
© Archives of Women Artists, Research and Exhibitions
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