Wish You Were Here
I will be doing this project based on fictional communication between myself and Varvara Fyodorovna Stepanova (1894–1958), Russian Constructivist. I am interested in her life as an artist, but also as a woman in the 20th century world.
My very first contact with Varvara Stepanova was through a postcard that I wrote to her introducing myself and explaining my interest with her.
Dear Varvara Stepanova,
My name is Arleen D. and I am a Graphic design student in the University of Greenwich, London. I am very excited to be able to study there and have many expectations about the course, as graphic design has always interested me.
This is my first year in the university and during this term in my studies I have been introduced to many interesting subjects like Visual Communications, Typography, Graphic Design Principles and Art & Design in Context to name a few.
Especially during my studies for the Art & Design in Context course I have learned more about Constructivism and its importance in the art history. One of the artists work that struck with me immediately was Yours. And because of that I really would like conduct a short interview with yourself to find out more about you and your work. Hopefully I can be as productive and original as an designer as you have been in your work, that has ranged across so many different mediums and experimentations.
Hope you would have the time to answer my letter and looking forward to hearing from you.
Thank you for your postcard! How wonderful to hear that young budding designers like yourself find my work still relevant.
And how exciting for you that you get to study in London. I am happy for you to commence this exchange of letters and I will try to answer your questions to the best of my ability. So fire away!
All the best,
So the next step was to commence and start with my questions to her.
Dear Varvara Stepanova,
Thank you so much for responding to me. And I cannot mention enough how much I appreciate you for being willing to answer my questions. I have just few starter questions for the structure but feel free to answers freely adding additional stuff if you like.
Should we start from the beginning, please tell me where were you born and about your studies?
When did you know that you wanted to be an artist? What other careers have you pursued?
Tell me more about your career achievements?
How did the Russian political state at the time affected you? Because there was several Revolutions in the year 1917, and a big social and political changes taking place.
Do you have a favourite medium? And what kind of artistic work have you done?
Who do you regard as your artistic influence or what movements did interest you?
Your views about Constructivism?
Well thank you again and I hope you have the moment to answer my questions.
And here is Varvara’s reply:
Oh dear Arleen,
I will try to do my best to chronicle my life and answer your questions. Hopefully my chronicles will not bore you. I will include some pictures with my letter for it can sometimes express more than million words. So here we go then:
I was born in October 23rd 1894 in Kovno (Kaunas), Lithuania. My family were simple peasants and we did not have much. Still I was encouraged to study and achieve highly at school so when it came to finish my gymnasium studies I graduated from the Kovno gymnasium with honors with a gold medal. My family was very proud of me and I knew I wanted to continue educating myself.
I had always been interested in art and so it happened that in 1910 as a young girl I entered the Kazan Art School in Odessa. I was living in another country and experiencing new things and meeting new people. Those years spent there are extremely important to me because I ended up meeting Alexander (Rodchenko) there. Well mainly because he became my future husband and life-long colleague, with him I have worked together in tandem in many projects. Also our collaborations have been very influential and important in both of our artistic work. Well but more about that later.
When still at school I bought a Singer sewing machine, worked as a seamstress and learned dress design, so that explains my interest in designing clothing and textile.
I did not graduate from Kazan school but instead moved to Moscow where I attended the Stroganov School (1913–14) and studied with Konstantin Yuon and Il’ya Mashkov.
Rodchenko remained at Kazan, and we were writing letters and poems to each other, longing to see each other.
In 1916 we managed to move in together with Alexander.
In the years before the Russian Revolution of 1917 we leased an apartment in Moscow, owned by Wassily Kandinsky.His influence was also pivotal in our life.
I have had other occupations as well, I worked as book keeper at a factory, then as a typist. One needs to earn their living as art on its own just sometimes wasn’t enough.
As you know well know there were big changes taking place in the society and especially the October Revolution in 1917 was something that I really felt strong sympathy for. I longed for the change and was really excited to be part of this new proletariat Soviet state. These changes were affecting my thinking and art hugely.
Again these were very formative years for me as I became involved with the Futurist poets, composing zaum’ (‘transrational’) poetry where I experimented with linguistic and sound symbolism. Trying to establish organic connection between the shape and the sound of words.I was even producing collage and handwritten books like Gaust Chaba, in which I wrote my zaum’ text
I was experimenting with lots of different forms and mediums. Working in different fields like propaganda posters to educate and inform the masses.
I found inspiration and influences from Cubism, Italian Futurism and traditional peasant art.
You asked about the term ‘Constructivist’ and it was used by the artists ourselves to describe the direction of our work. I became a member of the INKhUK (1920-1923) and was among the first artists forming in 1920 the first organization of designers – the Constructivism group at the INKhUK in Moscow (Institute of Artistic Culture), along with A.Gan, K.Medunetzky, A.Rodchenko, G.Stenberg. We believed that art was excisting to serve social purposes and idealism.
Our motto changed “from invention to construction” to “from consruction to production”.
I did declare in my text for the exhibition 5×5=25, held in Moscow in 1921: ‘Composition is the contemplative approach of the artist. Technique and Industry have confronted art with the problem of construction as an active process and not reflective. The ‘sanctity’ of a work as a single entity is destroyed. The museum which was the treasury of art is now transformed into an archive’. A pair of “5×5=25” exhibitions was held in the Union of Poets hall, with participation of five artists ( myself, A. Vesnin, L.Popova, A.Rodchenko, A.Exter), exhibiting five works each. The forum was used to announce the move of the Constructivism artists from the easel to design and production.
I had several projects on the go, I designed the sets for theatre preformance ”The Death of Tarelkin” in 1922.
Also my friend Lyubov Popova and myself, became designer of textiles at the Tsindel (the First State Textile Factory) near Moscow, bringing textile design part of everyday life. I actively developed designs for fabrics and styling of a new type of clothing – for the citizens of the socialist state. Soon after that in circa1923 I became professor of textile design at the Vkhutemas (Higher Technical Artistic Studios) while continuing typography, book design and contributing to the magazine LEF.
What comes to me and my husband Alexandr Rodchenko we did form a creative unit of two, that worked at times on joint ventures and at others independently, sharing a studio. At times I did not fully share his ideas about the abstract art, even as I was experimenting with the non-objective.
So for one letter this is very long as I have told you about these very formative happening in my life and artwork which have always been very related to each other.
I am looking forward to your response and I guess with some new questions…haha!
Thank you again Varvara! Amazing response and I have got to know you so much more! The amount of work you have created is truly exciting. You are definitely Avant-garde Amazon! Hope you don’t mind me saying that but it just is so apt!
Yes you did guess correctly, I do have one more question. I would like to know more about your work in the textile field how you came to do what you did?
Hope you don’t mind me asking 🙂
All the best, Arleen
And of course I don’t mind. I am happy to share my thoughts. Here I also have included some of my quotes from some articles about my ideas concerning the matter. Textile design and construction is very close to my heart and I am very happy that you wanted to hear more about it. As you know I did have a background in making and designing garments previously, but I was very eager to develop it to another level. My work at the Moscow textile factory really did aid with that, and I immersed myself with that world completely.
I dreamed of creating fabrics with new physical properties – based on the patterns weave, organically combining them with graphic designs. I also wrote in an article” Problems of the artist in the textile industry, published in 1928 in the newspaper” Evening Moscow “: “The artist’s work in the textile industry, yet still follows the line of decorations and attachment to the finished fabric decorative the figure. The artist works in her as an appendage, it is not involved in the application of the new features coloring pages, nor for invention of new materials for textiles. He keeps on industrialized factory all the features of handicraft artisans. He became a decorative executors of ripening without his so-called “demand” and “requirements” of the market. Therefore, the value of the artist in the textile industry is negligible compared even with the artist-designer of the automobile plant – the latter made for several years with extraordinary strength and expressive forms of modernity.”
I also studied the issues of consumer demand for fabrics and clothing.
I strongly believed that in the Soviet Union, for the first time in world history has eliminated social differences and we had created gender equality. I believed that we urgently required a new concept of clothing for the workers – the equal working force. I designed several basic models, which could then be modified for the particular profession. Creating working “prozodezhda”, “sportodezhda” (sport clothing) and “spetzodezhda” (specialized clothing incorporating extra requirements, as for pilots, surgeons, firemen etc).
In my designs, clothing has no need of additional decoration. The very seams, the design, the pockets, the fastening etc. are to provide the form; while the fabric design gives the color and visual pattern.
I wanted to develop my designs from construction into production.
When working for First Textile Printing factory I designed more than 150 different fabrics. About two dozen were put into production. I wasn’t just a textile designer but also actively involved in incorporating designs into the production process, perfecting the printing processes; worked out models and cuts. To understand the processes and work together with its technological developers and engineers was essential in my approach. They strived to incorporate the design from within the very fabric, weave it in, dye it in, design the very physical properties of the fabric.
And when I became professor in the Textile Department at VKhUTEMAS (Higher Art and Technical Studios in Moscow). I wanted to teach designer-artists, artist-constructor in the textile industry, not an applied artist. So I feel that in my work I managed to achieve that and I guess Mayakovsky was correct when he called me a frenzied artist, because the surrounding environment at the time was hectic and the pace was fast when I gave my all to create to better the Socialist vision. I hope my answers have been engaging for you to read. As I feel this part of my art was very important part of my life. If there is anything else please let me know.
Thank you for interest and I hope my answers have been interesting for you!
Best regards, Varvara Stepanova
My final letter to Varvara:
Once again Thank You so much for shearing your story with me. This has been very interesting. I hope one day I would have as productive career as you did.
Best Regards, Arleen