A poet, painter, photographer, and designer of books, magazines, posters, stage scenery, textiles and clothing, Stepanova defied societal norms of “women’s work” as she and other members of the Russian Constructivist movement subverted the notion of art as a rarified activity for elites and intellectuals.
Born in Kovno, Lithuania, on this day in 1894, Stepanova was raised in a peasant family before enrolling in the renowned Kazan art school in Odessa in 1910, a time of great creative and political upheaval in Russia.
In 1918, she published a series of books containing her “nonobjective visual poetry” whose words were chosen for sound and shape as much as meaning. By the 1920s she found herself at the forefront of the Russian avant-garde, co-founding the Constructivist movement along with her partner Aleksandr Rodchenko and such distinguished colleagues as Kasimir Malevich, Vladimir Tatlin, and Lyubov Popova.
In 1922 Stepanova created the sets for Aleksandr Vasilyevich Sukhovo-Kobylin’s play The Death of Tarelkin. Her clothing designs, using geometric shapes and utilitarian designs suited to particular activities fell into two broad categories: prozodezhda, or production clothing—which provided peasants, industrial workers, and theatrical performers alike with modern stylish and functional garments—and sportodezhda or sports costumes, which were designed to highlight the athletic body in motion. All of her clothing designs pioneered what is now known as “unisex” fashion.
Along with Popova she designed textiles at Tsindel, the state textile factory, using overlapping geometric shapes to create complex patterns in what many considered a lesser art form, later becoming a professor of textile design. Although wartime shortages prevented many of these groundbreaking designs from being realized, Stepanova’s vision and legacy lives on.
C Днём рождения, Varvara Stepanova!