Producing Soviet Culture

Producing Soviet Culture

Popova and Stepanova

The study of modern art and design is noteworthy for its lack of women included in the history. That is not to say that there were no women who were artists—to the contrary, there were numerous women who braved the odds against them and attempted to enter the boys’ club of the art world. The scarcity of women in the art the twentieth century is based in society that put artificial barriers against their talents and their thoughts and their contributions. The male artists themselves, as American artist Georgia O’Keeffe found out, were unwilling to accept any female artists in their ranks. Galleries and then museums followed the same gender biases without much thought, thus brushing aside the considerable contributions of women, leaving their art to be discovered by later generations. Subsequent historians buried these women, consigning their art to the margins of their pages, which were largely devoted to the males. One of the few exceptions to the rules of the avant-garde were the women in the Russian avant-garde who were fortunate enough to come of age as artists in a culture that—for a time—was determined to give at least lip service to gender equality.

Unfortunately, they, along with their male peers, were suppressed under the regime of Stalin and the process of rediscovering their contributions to art, design, and culture continues today. Art history tends to skim past the post-revolutionary art in Russia because this period stressed propaganda or the re-education of the Russian population and the next decade was not devoted to the bourgeois art of painting but was concerned with politics. After the Revolution, political and social experimentation took the place of formal artistic experimentation and, on the level playing field after 1917, men did not hold any special advantage. The women could step forward and take their places in remaking this brave new world. One of the arenas, new, open, and unguarded, was the Russian version of industrial design called Productivism. Productivism was the artistic response to the New Economic Policy, designed so that artists could participate in the economic revival of the nation through designing domestic items and propagandistic apparatus for the revolution. During the 1920s, the productivist aspect of post-war art in Russia was led by women, such as Liubov Popova (1889-1924) and Varvara Stepanova (1894-1958), who attempted to create new clothing that would separate the Old World from the New. The New Economic Policy was an emergency plan proposed by Lenin, who had run the nation’s fiscal policy during the Civil War in terms of an emergency “War Communism.” “War Communism” was a kindly name for the confiscation of private property for needs of the Red Army with starving citizens being left in the military dust. By 1921 the local revolts and mutinies in the Navy were multiple signals that the nation was in a state of emergency and was teetering on the brink of another revolution. Vladimir Lenin loosened economic control and allowed peasants to keep and sell their surplus goods in the capitalist marketplace. Small businesses and industries were given some freedom to make profits and a new class of entrepreneurs emerged, Russian style capitalists called “NEPmen.” But it was the factory itself where this new phase of the Revolution was fought. While the peasants were the recipients of the redistributed lands of aristocrats among themselves, and small businessmen became rich, the factory workers were desperately needed to produce goods for a nation in need. Therefore, in their situation of enforced labor, they did not benefit from the loosened restrictions. The temptation of the State was to overwork the laborers in the industries, who resented the unceasing demands and, in the factories, a very significant debate over the limits of Communism occurred. What was the relationship between the rights of the individual factory worker and the needs of the country?

Artists were part of the discussion on the future of workers mostly as onlookers who made art in relation to the painful birth pangs of the Revolution and its transformation into a viable government. The most direct link between Productivism and the artists and the conditions in the post-war factories was the discussion group, theINKhUK or the Institute of Artistic Culture. The role of the INKhUK was a theoretical one—to debate the role of art in the service of the nation. A first, the group was chaired by Vasily Kandinsky a former pre-war expressionist artist now out of his element in the wake of a revolution. His initial idea, to study how the formal elements of art impacted the viewers was clearly unsuited to the needs of Communism and Kandinsky was ousted in late 1920. In place of a late romantic approach to art, the rest of the group proposed “laboratory art” or experiments with untraditional non-artistic materials and “production art,” or what we could call today “industrial design.” The notion of artists actively intervening in and participating in the factory process itself was limited to the production of designs that could be mass manufactured was in and of itself a very revolutionary idea. Even the Bauhaus, which would later learn from the Russians, was still thinking in terms of arts and crafts in 1920 and would only partner with industry six years later. Out of Production Art came Constructivism, which centered less on design and more on abstract structures and visionary architecture. Predictably, males dominated Constructivism, which gave opportunities for individual recognition, and the females gravitated to Productivism and were in more direct contact with the needs of the people.

Popova’s designs for Factory Worker and Urban Woman

While Liubov Popova and Varvara Stepanova were active elsewhere in the Revolution—Popova was famous for her inventive stage sets and Stepanova for her posters—they both shone in the design of textiles and fashions for the new Soviets of the 1920s. Before the Great War, the most productive industry in Russia had been that of textiles and this industry was among the first to be nationalized and under the NEP a certain amount of capitalism was allowed. In 1923, Popova and Stepanova, close friends and colleagues, began working with the First Factory of Printed Cotton in Moscow. The women had a philosophy of designs for clothing and fabric designs, insisting upon modernity over tradition and upon using uniquely Russian motifs as their inspiration. Traditionally fashion design and production, such as its was, before the war was based upon Parisian models that were not Russian at all. The aristocracy of Russia had always responded to Paris and the court spoke French, therefore, it seemed clear that Revolutionary clothes had to be Russian and revolutionary. The artists had to define both terms for the public and to do so both women based their designs upon the pre-war avant-garde art styles they had practiced before the Revolution. Popova, for example, had been a follower of Kazimir Malevich and was a Suprematist painter trained in Paris under the Cubist artist, Jean Metzinger. Stepanova had not been as advanced as a painter as Popova and her interests trended towards Futurist visual poetry. One could say that Stepanova was involved in the more theoretical aspects of verbal language and was exploring the concept of “zaum” or transrational poetry, and, like Popova, she had to shift away from the complex ideas of avant-garde art towards the practical needs of the Revolution.

Varvara Stepanova. Billiard Players (1920)

For both artists, the translation of abstract painting into fabric design was a natural step. Their work during the twenties was very similar to that of Sonia Terk-Delaunay but their audiences and markets were very different. Terk-Delaunay, a Russian artist, was based in Paris and was buoyed by the trend towards Art Deco and had access to a clientele that was wealthy and interested in wearing avant-garde designs. Her clothes and her abstract and colorful fabric designs were haute couture, while the proposals of Popova and Stepanova to the Moscow factory were destined for the masses. The masses had been accustomed to fabric designs that were floral or were covered with wildlife or were illustrative of scenes from history, but none of these motifs were commensurate with the goals of Communism. The Revolution needed new women who symbolized by their modernity the new era for socialism and Popova and Stepanova produced a wealth of fabric designs that are still modern today. During the 1920s, painter Kazimir Malevich found himself increasingly irrelevant as his followers morphed into constructivists or productivists, like Popova, or into poster designers, like Gustav Klutsis. The stylistic invention of Malevich, the abstract art style of Suprematism, became the basis of post-war art made by the former avant-garde artists turned revolutionaries. Like Cubism, which became a fashion in Paris, Suprematism became an applied art and would be the visual new face of the Revolution.

Stepanova’s sports outfits

Artists Liubov Popova and Varvara Stepanova entered into the new world for women in post-Revolutionary Russia in their roles as designers for a new way of life for the liberated woman. But beneath the jaunty new outfits they created and the vivid fabrics they designed was the lived existence of real women in the 1920s. As the avant-garde designers found, the old ways die hard; and men, used to being in power, were loath to share social prestige or economic advantages. Both Popova and Stepanova were involved with a Russian version of “dress reform,” which can be seen as part of the larger revolution. They wanted to create a new uniform with was democratic, that is, did not reveal class origins—now that everyone was equal. Their fabric designs were deliberately intended to be devoid of historical associations, in keeping with the new form of government and the unprecedented equality in society. Even though the early revolutionaries were eager to utilize the creative talents of women and hard labor of women was desperately needed to remake the post-war world, the Revolution itself launched a hundred-year struggle for equality between men and women.

During the Great War, women had moved into industrial positions once filled by men, but when the Civil War ended in 1921, the New Economic Policy caused huge shifts in the labor force, women were laid off so that men could be rehired. The repositioning of the economy from capitalism to socialism to a modified capitalism meant that women were caught up in years of employment insecurity and that, due to prevailing patriarchal attitudes, they would always be on the losing end. In 1918, women were granted the right to divorce and the courts were flooded with petitions from women eager to end arranged marriages—a deluge of requests for divorces that went on for almost ten years. By the mid-1920s Russia had the highest divorce rate in Europe and abortion was common, especially in cities. Until the economic situation of the late 1920s forced women to remain in unhappy unions for financial reasons, the divorce rate remained high.

Wedged between War Communism and Stalin’s Great Turn in 1928, the NEP, with its disruptions and inequities, was a halcyon time for women, who would be reassigned to their traditional orthodox roles as wife and mother under the conservative era of Stalin. In 1922, Lenin suffered the first of a series of strokes which left him paralyzed and limited to one-word utterances. When he died in 1924, Lenin was immortalized and Stalin, who out-maneuvered Leon Trotsky in a power struggle. Trotsky was an internationalist, who wanted to continue to fight the cause of communism across the world, but, given that the proletariat in other nations had shown little inclination to rise up and throw off their chain, Stalin’s nationalist position of making socialism succeed in Russia seemed preferable. However, Trotsky’s belief that being surrounded by capitalism meant eventual extinction for Communism in Russia was proved to be correct in 1989, and in the meantime, Stalin consolidated his power during the 1930s by murdering millions.

Luibov Popova Dress Designs

The artists worked during years that seemed filled with opportunity and optimism and during these exact same years, political forces beyond their control were gathering to put an end to artistic freedom. In the textile industry, now the world of Popova and Stepanova, 60% of the workers were women. But during the time the artists worked in the textile industry, women also were being laid off in massive numbers and those who were left behind were forced to compete with men. Industry and businesses preferred male workers over women were given protections against night work and restrictions on their jobs if they were pregnant or nursing. As a result, women employees became more expensive for management. Married women who had husbands were fired and sent home; unmarried women, the sole support of their families were also laid off. Unions, seeking to salvage employment for males, led the drive against women in the workplace. Because the liberation of women was critical to the Revolution, the Party attempted to step in and protect the women, but the managers continued to discriminate against women.

Textile designs by Varvara Stepanova

The Constructivist philosophy was that the artist would be of more use when participating directly in improving the existing society. In keeping with the Utopian ideals of the time, acted out in Germany as well as Russia, the artists believed that their efforts—whether through architecture or fashion–would make a new society. Popova’s fabric designs tended to use smaller motifs, well suited to the female form and her ideal woman tended to be urban and chic, rather Parisian. Popova was close to Terk-Delaunay in that she imagined the New Soviet Woman as a middle-class flapper in her very delightful and charming dresses. Stepanova envisioned another kind of woman, the athlete, the active woman who was taking advantage of her liberation by playing games and exercising her newly exposed body. There is a 1923 photograph of Stepanova posing in one of her own designs, a romper that frankly looks better as an abstract drawing than a garment worn by a real woman whose movements rumple the strict straight lines of the abstract designs. She used only a ruler and compass for her designs, tools which had the effect of enforcing a reductive simplicity for the most efficient design. Using two colors for the circle, the triangle, and the rectangle, she inferred that the universe of diversity– the old Russia–had been universalized into a new streamlined modern society working and playing in unison and harmony. Although Stepanova was not as adept as Terk-Delaunay in making sure that the abstraction could be adjusted to the body itself and that the designs on the fabric would hold their own while living on the active body, she was daring in her designs. The shortness of the pants on her gym outfits was shocking and extreme in the 1920s. In America, women who wore bathing suits were being subjected to having their skirt lengths measured so as to not expose too much tight, but Stepanova seemed happily untroubled by distant prudishness as she posed for a photograph with her legs apart, hands on hips, like the strong woman she was. Her striking sports clothes, characterized by bold stripes, red and black, could be worn by men and women alike, who could wear these geometric rompers playing any number of sports. When the women who modeled these utilitarian sports outfits were photographed, the garments seem poorly cut and constructed, perhaps a function of the lack of experience in how to fit pants for women.

Stepanova in 1923

Like Terk-Delaunay, who envisioned mass produced fashion that would eliminate the class division between prêt-à-porter and haute couture, Popova and Stepanova tried to design clothes that were a variation of Terk-Delaunay’s use of the tissu-patron which delivered the fabric and the dress design to the customer as an integrated product. Like architects in Europe who thought in term “typification” or standardization, Popova and Stepanova worked with templates which could be varied by fabric design not necessarily by changing the cut of the garment. In other words, a simple easy to make garment enlivened by bright bold designs could be mass manufactured by machines. The workers in the textile industry would be gainfully employed—and most of them were women—and the Soviet economy could be moved forward—thanks to art and artists. However, both Popova and Stepanova designed for a fantasy client and for an imaginary world that never came about in their lifetimes. The targeted clients were put off by the Suprematist motifs. Not quite understanding the origin of the designs, the average woman had been trained to prefer traditional floral designs and was not inclined to be avant-garde, nor did she seem to want to put on new clothes that would change her life, meaning her attitude. Adding to the difficulties of re-dressing a society, the Soviet authorities who visited the 1925 world’s fair in Paris, the exhibition that inspired the name Art Deco, saw the disturbing similarities between Cubism and Soviet revolutionary designs in art, design, and architecture. Of course, there were common roots, and this morphological affinity disturbed the ideologically pure Revolutionaries, who were dismayed by the decadent uses of decorative art in French culture, indicating the un-Russian roots of the ghosts of avant-garde art. Over the next ten years, government opinion would turn decisively against the avant-garde.

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.

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The Russian Avant-Garde


1896 – 1930

The story of Russian Avant-Garde art is the story of the journey by rail from Moscow to Paris and back again. Art flowed from Paris to Moscow and artists traveled from Moscow to Paris. From 1896 there were Russian exhibitions of new currents of European art–Impressionism, Symbolism, Fauvism, and Cubism—that brought the newest art movements to Russia. There were also many Russian artists in Paris, such as Marc Chagall, Sonia Terk, and Luibov Popova. Other Russian artists were in Germany, such as Vasilly Kandinsky, who would return when the Russian Revolution ended the power of the Tsars in 1917. Russian art magazines disseminated new ideas in the pages of The Golden Fleece and The Scales and Apollon. In addition, Russian artists had invitation-only access to important collections of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art seen in the collections of merchant princes, Ivan Morozov, who purchased from and personally knew the avant-garde artists of Paris, and Sergei Shchukin, whose collection inspired the Russian Avant-Garde.

Sergei Shchukin began acquiring French avant-garde art by 1897 and was famous for his independence of dealers, his habit of buying art out of artists’ studios and for his open-mindedness towards even the most adventurous art. He collected Gauguin, Monet, Cézanne, Matisse, Picasso, until the Great War broke out in 1914. Shchukin was a private collector but opened his collection to artists once a week up to the Revolution of 1917. His famous dining room and salon contained masterpieces such as Matisse’s Harmony in Red (1909), purchased as Harmony in Blue but repainted by the artist, who also did two commissioned panels for the collector, Music and Dance (1910). Shchukin left Russia after the Russian Revolution, without his fabulous collection, which was seized by the new government. Shchukin gave up collecting art and died in Paris in 1934. Not until 1965 was this collection of French avant-garde art seen again in the Hermitage Museum.

The Avant-Garde Before the War


The Russian Avant-Garde before 1917 was marked by a parallel development reflecting avant-garde in Paris and Germany. These pre-war interpretations of Western European art were countered by a genuine desire to make art that was genuinely “Russian.” The first attempt to create “Russian” art was based upon the distinctive icons of the Russian Orthodox Church and upon uniquely Russian folk art. This Neo-Primitivism of 1908 was similar to the “primitivism” seen in the appropriation of tribal art among French artists. Its adherents, Kasimir Malevich, Natalia Goncharova and Mikhail Larinov, were soon attracted to Cubist art. Shchukin had over fifty examples of Picasso’s work, but the Russian artists combined Cubism with the works of the Italian Futurists. The artists appropriated this Italian style and adapted it to Russian needs without accepting the antics of Futurist poet, Fillippo Marinetti. Evolving out of the “Cubist School” and combined with Cubism, Futurism in Russia had little to do with Italian concepts of modern speed and contemporary dynamism and became absorbed into the more mystical approach taken from Theosophy. Led by founder David Burliuk, the Cubo-Futurist artists believed that “futurism” would lead to a transcendental reality when a new kind of person would have a new kind of vision and create a new universal language. Followers, Natalia Goncharova and Mikhail Larinov, would split way from these Theosophical ideas to start their own movement, Rayonism. Although he too left the original group, Kasimir Malevich would continue concepts of the transcendental into his own movement, Suprematism (1915-21).

Regardless of the cacophony of local developments, the swift assimilation of the newest “isms” seen in the Russian combination of Cubism and Futurism into Cubo-Futurism put the Russian artists in Moscow in the forefront of avant-garde art in Europe. These movements, Neo-Primitivism (1908-12), Cubo-Furturism (1912-15), Rayonism (1912-13), came and went swiftly, reflecting the power and theoretical struggles among the artists. Before the Russian Revolution, avant-garde artists were struggling to keep up with the latest artistic trends to the west, after the Revolution, the Russian Avant-Garde was utterly transformed. The artists ceased analyzing art within the context of the history of art and began reconsidering art as a form of technology in the service of the Revolution.

For decades, the former avant-garde artists in the Soviet Union were isolated under Stalin from the rest of the world; their work was suppressed and censored and hidden away. Only in the 1960s did some preliminary scholarship begin to emerge with Camilla Gray’s 1962 The Great Experiment: Russian Art 1863-1922. Because much of the post-Revolution art production was still obscured, Gray’s seminal study tended to give pride of place to the importance of the pre-war avant-garde movements. But from the perspective of the twenty-first century, these art-based movements seem much less important than the Constructivist tendencies that followed.

By the late seventies and early eighties, major exhibitions were mounted in the west, extending the knowledge of artists and the understanding of the art made after the Revolution. It is now clear that Russian artists continued to make avant-garde art under differing and difficult conditions into the 1930s. Once the Berlin Wall fell, scholarship could continue to advance and slowly the extent of the artistic explosion—from Suprematism to Constructivism to Productivism—is being revealed. Controversy surrounds the question of the artists’ involvement in the Revolution itself as scholars queasily approach to question of politics and art under a brutal Communist regime. But the connections between avant-garde art and the Russian Revolution needs to be understood within the context of a desire by a diverse group of artists to be modern…in a uniquely Russian way…within the context of a modern revolution. The real significance of the Russian Avant-Garde is the struggle over the nature of art, the role of art in society and the place of the artist in a communist society that regarded the intellectual as a parasite.


The Avant-Garde after the Revolution

For the years between 1917 and 1921, avant-garde art in Russia was closely allied to the political revolution that removed the Tsar from power and swept Lenin to a leadership position until his death in 1924. All that was old was removed, renounced, obliterated or killed, including academic bourgeois art. Initially the new government worked closely with the avant-garde artists, using Anatoly Lunacharsky, the newly appointed Soviet Minister for Enlightenment, as the liaison to the artists. Lunacharsky had known Russian artists, such as Marc Chagall at the artists’ studios, La Ruche, in Paris. Although Lunacharsky had not exactly appreciated the works of the Parisian avant-garde, he had understood its importance and strove to understand their endeavors. Perhaps because of his previous acquaintance with Chagall, the Minister appointed this artist head of the Vitebsk art school and twelve of his works were purchased by the new state in 1919.

Although the tastes of both men were more conservative, Lenin supported Lunacharsky’s alliance with the avant-garde. In 1919 the first Agit-Train was sent off to the countryside to educate the people through striking graphic messages. To reeducate the artists, in 1920 the Institute of Artistic Culture–Inkhuk–was established, and the younger Moscow artists banded together as Obmokhu. In order to organize the teaching of art into a less individualistically based practice, the Higher State Art-Technical Studio, or Vkhutemas, was established to train artists for the benefit of the state. In Vitebsk, ideological and doctrinaire debates quickly surfaced as Malevich took over Chagall’s school and retitled it Unovis, the “Confirmation of the new art.” Despite Malevich’s domination in Vitebsk and the importance of his pupil, El Lissitsky, his position as the head of the Russian Avant-Garde was threatened by Vladimir Tatlin, the undisputed leader of Constructivism.

The Vkhutemas became a cradle of Constructivism. With an illustrious faculty, including Alexandre Rodchenko and Kandinsky (who never really flourished in Russia), this was probably the most advanced art school in the world and its famous “Basic Course” could be considered one of the models for the Bauhaus. In Vitebsk, Malevich also stressed the “new economic principle” above individual personality. “Three cheers for the overthrow of the old world of art. Three cheers for the new world of things. Three cheers for the common all-Russian auditorium for construction,” said Malevich. Shortly after this hostile takeover Chagall subsequently managed to leave Russia for good, but other artists stayed in Russia longer, putting their faith to the Revolution. Like Chagall, Kandinsky was out of sympathy with Constructivism and resigned. His place was taken by those who were involved with Laboratory work, which stressed the analysis and practicality of art making, and the marriage between art and revolution continued, until the Soviet Union decided the avant-garde artists were more trouble than they were worth.

The next sections will discuss Suprematism and Constructivism and the Women of the Russian Avant-Garde.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]