Stepanova, Varvara (1894–1958)

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Stepanova, Varvara (1894–1958)

Innovative post-revolutionary Russian artist, graphic designer, textile designer, and theater designer. Name variations: (pseudonym) Varst. Born Varvara Feodorovna Stepanova in October 1894 in Kovno, Lithuania (Russia); died in Moscow on May 20, 1958; studied painting at the Kazan Art School, 1911; studied at the studios of Konstantin Yuon and Ivan Dudin, Moscow, 1912, and Stroganov School of Applied Art, Moscow, 1913; married Alexander Rodchenko (an artist); children: one daughter.

Constructivist artist, teacher, and theorist Varvara Stepanova worked primarily in the areas of textiles, apparel, graphics, and theater set designs, frequently in concert with her husband, artist and designer Alexander Rodchenko. As members of the Soviet avant-garde in the years prior to 1930, they counted among their colleagues Vladimir Mayakovsky, Vladimir Tatlin, and Liubov Popova .

Born in 1894 in Kovno, Lithuania (part of the Russian Soviet bloc), Varvara Feodorovna Stepanova was an accomplished student, earning a gold medal in high school. Her formal art education began at the Kazan Art School, where she started her studies in painting in 1911. She also met Rodchenko during this period, and the two formed a lifelong partnership. In addition to studying at the Stroganov School of Applied Art in Moscow, Stepanova furthered her understanding of art under the tutelage of Konstantin Yuon and Ivan Dudin at their Moscow studios. This extensive training was atypical among leading Russian avant-garde industrial designers, who usually had little or no formal education in the craft.

Early in Stepanova's career, she became interested in Cubo-Futurism, an increasingly important movement in the post-Revolution years because it criticized the previous political structure and confronted the traditions of representational art. During this time, Stepanova explored "zaum" poetry, which sought to coalesce abstractions of sight and sound. Using the technique of collage, she chose sounds rather than meanings to signify language, and the placement of words within the collages supplanted semantic foundation with a sense of texture. Her work in what is referred to as "graphic poetry," notes M.N. Yablonskaya , signaled her transition into a mature creative life.

Stepanova also painted a series of abstract human figures, focusing on the geometric or constructive elements of the human form in various

poses and outlining these elements with bold lines. "Also noticeable in these works, and an important aspect of Stepanova's future development as a textile designer," according to Yablonskaya, "is her sense of texture and her love of the tactile qualities of the paint." Figures brought Stepanova considerable praise from critics, and increased her stature in the Russian art world. Moving progressively away from the idea of composition in art, Stepanova abandoned painting for Productivism.

Stepanova turned to the theater in 1922, working with director Vsevolod Meyerhold on a set design for his reinterpretation of the classic play The Death of Tarelkin. She created a dynamic set that not only facilitated the highly animated movements of the cast but also, through the simplicity of its design, could adapt to different mechanical needs of the play. She designed the costumes to integrate with the geometric forms of the set as well. Although her work was important artistically and celebrated critically, it did not appeal to audiences of the day. However, Stepanova's work in costume design soon expanded into designing for the clothing industry. She believed that clothing ought to derive out of its distinct need, e.g., for specific activities or specific professions. Stepanova's clothing designs, like her textile work, utilized simple geometric shapes in patterns and colors that were appropriate to their use. In 1923, she began working in a Moscow textile print factory in an attempt to convert these designs into clothing of a more utilitarian or every-day use. Many of Stepanova's designs were eventually put into production. "The Constructivist aesthetic really did join forces with industrial mass production," according to Yablonskaya, "and for once the products of Constructivism actually reached the market to which they were ideologically directed."

In addition to her work in textile and clothing design during the 1920s, Stepanova is especially noted for her innovative graphic designs of contemporary magazines such as Cine-Photo, Soviet Cinema, and Red Student Life, as well as various books. This was a time of intense collaboration between Stepanova and her husband. Working closely with the Futurist poet Mayakovsky, Stepanova designed posters for his poetry and Rodchenko illustrated his books. They also collaborated on a journal, published by a group of Futurist poets and Constructivist artists, that reflected their commitment to "Communist Futurism." Rodchenko provided the cover designs and Stepanova provided illustrations. Together, they also worked on many other publications at the time, including Ten Years of Uzbekistan (1934) and USSR in Construction (1936).

With the eventual decline of Constructivism, Stepanova and Rodchenko abandoned their artistic experimentation and worked on albums of photograph collections, including 15 Years of Soviet Cinema, Moscow Rebuilds, and Soviet Aviation. Stepanova also returned to expressive figurative painting late in the 1930s, with landscapes such as the 1938 View from a Window with a Dirigible, and still-lifes. She died in Moscow on May 20, 1958.


Chilvers, Ian. A Dictionary of Twentieth-Century Art. NY: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Hillstrom, Laurie Collier, and Kevin Hillstrom, eds. Contemporary Women Artists. Detroit, MI: St. James Press, 1999.

Yablonskaya, M.N. Women Artists of Russia's New Age. NY: Rizzoli, 1990.

B. Kimberly Taylor , freelance writer, New York, New York