Women are and always have been half the world’s population so it stands to reason that half the artists in the world are women. But as in so many other disciplines, there is a marked absence of women in art and design. It is well known that until the twentieth century, women, whether in Europe, Asia, Africa, or America were not allowed to participate in any form of public life. Only in the 1920s did women acquire the right to vote in England, Germany and America, but professional barriers remained intact. However, compared to the past, the 1920s was a good one, compared to the conditions of the past and, as often happens when women are given even the smallest opening, an unusual number of prominent artists emerged. These women pushed themselves forward, fighting against long held social and cultural biases against the female of the species. 

Therefore, the apparent scarcity of women in the worlds of art and design during the twentieth century is based in the artificial barriers set up against their talents and their thoughts and their contributions. The men themselves, as American artist Georgia O’Keeffe found out in the 1920s, were unwilling to accept any female in their ranks. Still, O’Keeffe persisted and became the most famous and most valuable painter among the artists who surrounded Alfred Stieglitz. But she was one of the few exceptions that proved the rule—there was a tremendous and long standing prejudice against women, that mirrored the equally strong bigotry shown towards people of color. In America, in the African-American neighborhood of New York, a few blocks uptown from O’Keeffe, the 1920s was also an excellent decade for Harlem which experienced a “Renaissance.” Sadly, these gains were eroded in the subsequent decades, blotted out by the Depression and the Second World War. The achievements of the women and the residents of Harlem were forgotten, and, when art history of the 1920s was written after World War II, the narratives concentrated exclusively on the white male.

Even during the 1920s, 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. Later historians buried these women, consigning their art to the margins of their pages, which were devoted to the males. These post-war exclusions were deliberate, but there were other women who were neglected out of sheer historical ignorance—and these were the artists of the Soviet Union. To a Western art audience, Kazimir Malevich was the best known Russian Avant-Garde artist, and the women who were his colleagues were almost entirely unknown. Natalia Goncharova, for example, died forgotten and in poverty in Paris in 1962. As for the rest of the women who were artists in Revolutionary Russia, their existence and their art and their contributions had been buried by a Stalin dominated Russia where the Avant-Garde was ruthlessly repressed. 

Only in the 1970s did knowledge of the contributions of women to art and design before and after the Revolution in 1917 begin to come to light. Knowledge of these women is still being built as Western scholars struggle to discover the full extent of what was a very extensive and exciting time for creativity in Russia. For a few short years, the women in the Russian avant-garde were fortunate enough to come of age as artists in a culture that seemed determined to give at least lip service to gender equality. Unfortunately, they, along with their male peers, were suppressed under the regime of Stalin. Another problem for recreating a history for these women is that art history tends to skim past the post-revolutionary art. Art history has a clear understanding of Constructivism, a Dada-esque rejection of “art,” but its counterpart, Productivism, which was essentially product design, has received less attention. As was pointed out in the last chapter, Constructivism, produced propaganda and products, so what accounts for the short shrift that used to be given to Productivism? The possible answer could be that this field of Soviet art was dominated by women.

The suspicion of art that was dedicated towards utilitarian ends is theoretical and philosophical—aesthetic—linked to the received definition of “art.” Western art historians used to take a dim view of art in the service of society, giving preference to art for art’s sake. The post-Revolutionary period in Russia, as we have seen, stressed propaganda or re-education of the Russian population. The decade of the 1920s was not devoted to the bourgeois art of painting, but was concerned with Communist politics and the artists dedicated themselves to re-making an old world into something unprecedentedly new. 

After the Revolution, political and social experimentation took the place of formal experimentation and, on the level playing field after 1917, men did not hold any special advantage. 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 and Varvara Stepanova, who attempted to create new clothing that would separate the Old World from the New. 

The New Economic Policy was an emergency plan brought on line 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 confiscation for the Red Army and starving citizens 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 to the brink of another revolution. Lenin loosened control and allowed peasants to keep and sell their surplus goods in the marketplace. Small businesses and industries were given some freedom and a new class of entrepreneurs emerged, profit making capitalists called “NEPmen.” But it was the factory itself where this this new phase of the Revolution was fought. While the peasants redistributed the lands among themselves and small businessmen became rich, the factory workers were desperately needed to produce goods for a nation in need. The temptation of the State was to over work the laborers who resented the 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, the INKhUK 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 traditional 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 learn from the Russians was still thinking in terms of arts and crafts in 1920, and would partner with only industry six years later. Out of Production Art came Constructivism which centered less on design and more on structures and architecture. Predictably, males dominated Constructivism, which gave opportunities for individual recognition, and the females gravitated to Productivism which was in more direct contact with the needs of the people. 

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 War the most productive industry 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 poetery, and, like Popova, she had to shift away from the complex ideas of avant-garde art towards the practical needs of the Revolution. 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-Deluanay 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, Malevich found himself increasingly irrelevant as his followers morphed into constructivists or productivists or into poster designers, while his invention, the abstract art style of Suprematism, was the basis of post war art made by the former avant-garde artists turned revolutionaries. Like Cubism, Suprematism became an applied art, became fashion in Paris and the new face of the Revolution.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.
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