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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Propaganda and Art After the Russian Revolution, Part Two

Alexander Rodchenko (1891-1956)

The Photomontage Poster

Alexander Rodchenko (1891-1956), formally a painter, retired from painting in 1921 and became a designer of posters that became iconic of the brief period of favoritism and freedom. A patriot, loyal to this new Russia he stated, “We had visions of a new world, industry, technology, and science. We simultaneously invented and changed the world around us. We authored new notions of beauty and redefined art itself.” In 1923, he supported, in a series of posters for Lenin’s New Economic Policy. The NEP was a temporary solution to post-war recovery of production, which allowed private enterprise to exist alongside state-owned enterprises. Rodchenko, now one of the Constructivist artists, working for the good of the state, created a series of posters extolling the virtues of government production. These productions, like his film posters, were complex, reflecting the principles of an organization of artists who identified themselves as the Left Front of the Arts, of which Rodchenko was a member, along with Sergei Eisenstein and the group’s leader, poet Vladimir Mayakovsky. The artists, including a stage director and a literary theorist, published a journal LEF from 1923, which became Novyi Lef (New Left) between 1927-28, with all covers designed my Rodchenko. LEF was a response to the government requesting that artists join in with the NEP in which the contributing artists wrote of the links between progressive art and leftist politics. The roster was an impressive list of prominent Russian intellectuals and artists, from the leader, the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein, stage director Vsevolod Meyerhold, and the writer Sergei Tret’iakov, who said that the artists wanted “the production of a new human being through art.” All of the artists of the Russian Revolution and its aftermath were convinced that a new way of life required new forms that expressed the sea change. By using new forms, signifiers of new ideologies which had replaced the old ways of thinking, art could send transformative messages which operated through viewer participation. Rodchenko’s posters and mass media designs were laid out with the intention of drawing the reader in and inviting him or her on a visual and ideological if not didactic message.

Rodchenko’s LEF cover

One of the most important theories for that group was that revolutionary art necessitated the participation of the spectator, meaning that the audience learned and was educated in the process of looking at visual images. Eisenstein, for example, used montage, editing, in his film, Battleship Potemkin, as effectively as Rodchenko in his posters. The breaking of the cinematic practice of sustained looking at a series of moving pictures, Eisenstein cut a scene with interacting images, speeded up into intense activity, meant to involve the viewer in his story of a Cossack massacre of innocent civilians in the 1905 uprising. The Odessa Steps sequence is still today one of the longest sustained sequences of edits, bringing a new visual vocabulary of dynamism and frenetic rhythm to a once staid medium. Although the LEF group asserted its politics as leftist avant-garde artists against the more conventional artists working for the Revolution, the work done by Rodchenko was, in its own way, humble. His designs, like the work of Eisenstein, were montages of works and images, arranged in a manner reminiscent of Futurist and Dada compositions, to extol the virtues of Soviet airplanes and Soviet cookies, charmingly named “Red October,” and Soviet caramels, amusingly named “Our Industry,” and beer. These otherwise mundane enterprises were government run and therefore, were worthy of Rodchenko’s attention.

Red October Cookie Design

Aside from the stunning packaging for caramels and the famous poster for the revolutionary cookies, his best-known poster is probably the advertisement for Lengiz state publishing house with the promise that the firm sells “books on all the branches of knowledge.” This 1925 poster for the Leningrad department of state publishing house “Gosizdat” shows a lovely fresh faced Russian worker, a young woman with a headscarf capping her short curly hair. Her hand is up to her open mouth and she is calling out, joyously. Indicating that her hand is a megaphone, a triangle of expanding letters shoots out to the right. In contrast to the usually subdued dull oranges and blacks of most his posters, Rodchenko used strong reds and greens, complementary colors that activated the eye. Toned down with a bit of blue around the front of the face, the black and white photograph of the woman nails the poster to the news of the day, to the revolutionary present. She is calling to her comrades to come and read, and, in the process, become educated by this state media agency. Education was deemed essential to the political conversion of a backward peasantry and illiterate proletariat to the new communist philosophy, meaning that literacy, teaching the population to read, was a primary goal of the Communist government. Posters, part of the broader agitprop campaigns were considered critical to the transformation of the unlettered masses to workers who felt empowered.

Rodchenko. State Publishing House

From the very early years of the new Soviet government, art was an important weapon to be wielded in the service of the perpetual revolution. The presses that had once produced books or magazines were temporarily idle while the Reds battled the Whites, meaning that mass produced posters had to speak for the Bolsheviks or the Reds. Perhaps because they were supported by the Allied forces, America, Great Britain and Canada, Whites had no comparable agitprop machinery to call upon. The Bolsheviks marshaled public support until, finally in 1921, the civil war ended, with the Red, the color of revolutions everywhere since the French Revolution, being victorious. Unlike the Whites who were fighting for a more familiar status quo, the Reds promised a new world and a new future and they had a strong message to convey. Well into the 1930s, a continuous deluge of posters, which were plastered everywhere, sent the same few messages, repeating the story of revolution and the liberation and rise of the heroic workers. Just like the basic message of the promises of Communism, the posters themselves had to share similar visual themes, all based upon the unifying color and a common art language. During the early years, before doctrinaire formula were established, the former avant-garde artists were allowed by the government authorities to experiment with the new visual vocabulary circulating in Europe—ideas from Germany and Switzerland mingling with Constructivism in Russia—recycled back to and from the Bauhaus and De Stijl. Given the destruction of the Great War, this creative flourishing was an astonishing contrast to the very real economic difficulties and the political struggles in Germany and Russia, but during the 1920s, art and ideas traveled freely across borders. Pre-war Suprematism, with Futurist-inspired floating geometric shapes darting across the canvas, developed by Kazimir Malevich, was translated into a graphic language. The abstract forms became vehicles for images and words. The population–the masses, who were the target audience for the agitprop posters needed simple words or phrases and easily recognizable images.

El Lissitzky. Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge (1919)

For example, one of the most powerful and impactful designs of the Civil War period, Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge of 1919, was exactly what it said: a red triangle, long and sharp shoots in from the left and, in a thrusting phallic manner, penetrates a passive white circle, carved out of the black field on the right. The artist, El Lissitzky (1890-1941), scattered words completing the design, allowing the contending shapes to imply war with shrapnel shards of red splintered across the fields of white in a barrage of color. However, easy it was for viewer familiar with avant-garde styles to translate this abstract image, an uneducated person would have been puzzled. The solution to the problem of visual translation devised by Rodchenko was to insert photographic images into what were Suprematist shapes transformed into a constructivist ideology. The photomontage traveled from Germany to Russia where it was repurposed and reused in a less radical and more direct fashion. Working as an engineer with impersonal precision at the behest of the client, the revolution, the former artist backgrounded—as it were—avant-garde styles and foregrounded familiar photographs that had the advantage of being documents and carriers of truth.

Varvana Stepanova. Through Red and White Glasses (1924)

Therefore, in contrast to his own New Vision photography, the images Rodchenko used for his posters and journal covers were conventional and easily understood, directed at a mass audience who needed direct communication. Where his posters differed from the precursors, the ROSTA wood block prints, was the rejection of Russian tradition in favor of using the German practice of political critique—the photomontage—and transforming it into a signifier of modern art being mobilized in a modern fashion for a new form of mass media. These carefully designed photomontaged posters, created to catch the eye and to be legible, used powerful combination of words, lettering and colored segments and patterns. Some of these classic propaganda posters, designed by Rodchenko’s wife Varvara Stepanova (1894-1958), were unique contributions to avant-garde poster design. Bauhaus posters tended to not include photography and the Germans used photomontage as a political weapon against the government.

Rodchenko. Poster for the film Cine-Eye (Kino glaz) by Dziga Vertov (1924)

Rodchenko’s faithful service to the Soviet Union did not help him, although he also gave his time and talents of Stalin in the 1930s. However, as the Soviet Union became more normalized, losing its revolutionary edge, the focus of the government became consolidating power under one man, while siphoning power from the “soviets” or the local councils. After the death of Lenin and the demise of the original revolutionaries, Stalin and those around him were unsympathetic to a sophisticated art that could not be easily read by the masses. Despite their contributions to Soviet art in the formative hours of the Republic, Rodchenko and Stepanova lived out the last decades of their lives, during and after the Second World War in relative obscurity. Compared to their colleagues, they were lucky.

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

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

Thank you.

[email protected]