Adventures in Feministory: Stepanova and Popova

Stepanova and Popova, Stepanova textile

As a graphic designer, my interests in innovative women of history are often strongest for those involved in visual arts. And as a former student of Russian and a devoted Russophile, my obsession with designers of post-revolutionary Russia is off the charts. Enter Varvara Stepanova and Liubov Popova. These two artist/designers were part of the original crew of Constructivists
working within Lenin's ambitious "Plan of Monumental Propaganda"
(1918). Although it sounds kind of scary—monumental propaganda?!—imagine the opportunity to be involved, from the ground up, in bringing art to the masses—'to reconstruct not only objects, but also the whole domestic way of life', bringing form and function to art and creating a new philosophy around the design of utilitarian objects (clothing, housewares, packaging, magazines etc.).

As always, the male artists of this period tend to get the major recognition (Alexandr Rodchenko, Vladimir Tatlin, Vasilii Kandinsky). But Stepanova and Popova were working quite equally along side their colleagues. They were
talented in many mediums—painting, set design, costume design, graphic/book design and textile design. Their contributions to this new 'proletariat art' were significant and as a designer who hopes to inject meaning (not simply visual beauty) in to the work I do, I always come back to their work for inspiration.

Exhibit design by Popova and Alexandr Tatlin, Stepanova's magazine cover for 'Soviet Cinema

While Stepanova's paintings combined a sort of graphic style with a decidedly fine art quality in a way that spoke specifically to the work coming out of Russia at that moment (I'm actually preparing to have a quote from one of her pieces tattooed on my arm when I get up the guts and the cash), it's possible that her philosophy and design in the realm of textiles were her greatest achievement during this period.

Stepanova painting, Stepanova textile

Combining aesthetics of Cubism, Futurism and traditional peasant art, Stepanova and Popova created pieces of propaganda that literally weaved their way in to the average Soviet's day-to-day life. Creating motifs around themes of agriculture, electrification, struggles against illiteracy, factories and production, they, along with many talented textile designers (see below), helped inform the masses of the importance (in the mind of the government, of course) of these concepts.

Textiles by: Unknown, Darya Preobrazhenskaya, Marya Anufrieva

In addition to her graphic textiles, Stepanova also worked to design clothing styles that fit the new paradigm shift in Russia for a proletariat society. She said: "Fashion, which used to be the psychological reflection of everyday life, of customs and aesthetic taste, is now being replaced by a form of dress designed for
use in various kinds of labor, for a particular activity in society. This form of dress can be shown only during the process of work. Outside of practical life it does not represent a self-sufficient value or particular kind of 'work of art'.

Clothing designs by Stepanova

Now don't get me wrong. This group of artists, while visionary and, I believe, genuine in their efforts, were guilty of their own elitism. This was an intense time of transition for a nation that was in need of the basics—food and clothing. As Alexandr Blok points out in the voice of an old woman in
one of his poems: "What's that poster for, that great big piece of material? It would make quite a few socks for our guys, and none of them has any clothes or shoes". There was definitely a certain naiveté that was at work here. But I can't help but look at their works and feel moved ultimately by a earnest goal to bring art out of the gallery and out to the masses.

Further reading:

Soviet Textile Design of the Revolutionary Period by I. Yasinkskaya

Russian Constructivism by Christina Lodder

by Briar Levit
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2 Comments Have Been Posted

This is excellent! I just

This is excellent! I just did a project on Russian Constructivism for my History of Western Design class. I love, love Varvara Stepanova's work in poster production. El Lissitzky was pretty awesome as well..
When doing my research, I was happy to find that there seemed to be more women accepted in Constructivism and Post-Revoluntionary Russian design than there were in a lot of other artistic circles at the time.
This is awesome to see posted here!


Thanks for reminding of me of these awesome ladies, Briar. I'm designing my website right now and this is great inspiration. Plus, I'm a sucker for Russian and Soviet art of all kinds - especially anything produced by women.

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