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Utopian Visions and/of Production Technologies in the Early Soviet Period

Following Altmann’s own research trajectory, seminar three from When Technology Was Female moves back in time, turning from the last decade of state socialism in East Germany (c.1980s) to the earliest years of the Soviet Union (c.1917). At this historical turn, technology and industrialization had not yet been ideologically subsumed within rigidified party lines and were enthusiastically welcomed. With this hope-filled history as its background, seminar three gives glimpses inside the practices of avant-garde figures like Alexandra Exter, Liubov Popova, Varvara Stepanova and Alexander Rodchenko, placing them alongside the writings of Soviet educational theorist Anton Makarenko, as well as stills from a propaganda film like World in Our Hand (Davyd Maryan, 1929). Taken together, the materials sketch a contour of the fraught ideological field in which bodies and their gender presentations were being imagined in that post-revolutionary moment. As with seminar two, “Utopian Visions” emerges from a masterclass workshop at the University of Amsterdam led by Altmann in November 2022 (more info here), which, together with a public lecture and roundtable the preceding day (more info here), looked at changing notions of ‘the collective’, ‘collectivity’ and ‘collective practice’ from 1918 to 1989 and since.

Talk Me Through...

Left: Drawing of a design for a stage. Around it, several words in Cyrillic script. The year 1922 is written on the top left corner. 
Right: A black and white photograph shows a group of young people posed in front of a building wearing athletic costumes. One of them is raised on the shoulders of the person at the centre, and another crouches down below them.

Talk Me Through... is a five-episode podcast series that take listeners inside works of art that have been key in the development of Susanne Altmann’s research project When Technology Was Female. Drawn from audio documentation of Altmann’s public lecture at the University of Amsterdam’s SPUI25 in November 2022, episode three features a short overview of the Soviet avant-garde’s entanglements with Leninist ideals of production, standardization, collectivization, and so forth – entanglements that Altmann introduces through a look at the stage and costume design projects of “artist constructors” Liubov Popova and Varvara Stepanova. Listen to episode three here.

Left: Liubov Popova, stage design for Vsevolod Meyerkhold’s The Magnificent Cuckold (1922). Right: Varvara Stepanova, sports costumes in performance, as worn by students at VKHUTEMAS State Academy (1924).

Visual references

Image of an embroidered book cover in a white, blue and black pattern.

Liubov Popova, embroidered book cover (1917).

Drawing for a working clothes costume. The costume features a dress, an apron, a hat and shoes with low heels. The costume is surrounded by Cyrillic script.

Liubov Popova, working clothes for actor nr. 5 (1921).

Schematic drawing for a machine, using the colours red, grey, cream and white.

El Lissitzky, Announcer from Figurines: The Three-Dimensional Design of the Electro-Mechanical Show Victory over the Sun (1920–21, published 1923).

Drawing of four different sports costumes, using red, white, grey and green. The costumes are short jumpsuits with short sleeves.

Varvara Stepanova, designs for sports clothes (1923).

Black and white photograph of a female-presenting person wearing a sports costume, consisting of a short jumpsuit with short sleeves. They are standing on top of a table with both hands on the hips.

Varvara Stepanova poses in sports clothes of her own design (1923).

Black and white photograph depicts a group of people. They are standing in a diagonal line, with their backs facing the camera. They are all wearing sports costumes, consisting of a short jumpsuit with short sleeves. On their backs, they each have a letter, together making up the word or acronym: “!AHTPAKT!

Varvara Stepanova, sports costumes in performance (1924).

Drawing of a white female-presenting person wearing a long flapper-style dress with red stripes. In the background, to the right, there is a drawing of the front grill of a car.

Liubov Popova, design for a store window (1924).

Poster consisting of blue stripes with a hexagon with brown lines at the centre. Inside it, there is a child eating a biscuit, which is followed by other biscuits going up in a line to the right of the child’s head. On the bottom left corner, there is a picture of a kiosk showing the advert in place, in a banner above it.

Alexander Rodchenko, maquette for a biscuit advert (1924).

Black and white photograph of a large group of people standing in a square, with a building in the background. They are all wearing a similar costume: white t-shirts and black or white shorts.

Student athletes of VKHUTEMAS (Moscow, 1925).

Black and white photograph of a building. On top of it, there have been drawn: red banners, a red flag, two words, and a big white cross on top of a red square.

Alexander Vesnin, Project design of the external facade of VKHUTEMAS (1927).

Textual references


Douglas, Charlotte. “Six (and a few more) Russian Women of the Avant-Garde Together” in Bowlt, John, et al. Amazons of the Avant-Garde, edited by John Bowlt, et al., 39–58 (New York: Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 2000). ›››


Mally, Lynn. “Utopias Lost and Found: In Search of Soviet Culture” in Radical History Review 59 (1994): 181–189. ›››


Gough, Maria. “In the Laboratory of Constructivism” and “Formulating Production” in The Artist as Producer: Russian Constructivism in Revolution, 61–120 (Berkeley, University of California Press, 2005). ›››


Kiaer, Christina. “The Short Life of the Equal Woman: Remembering the Work of Russian Female Artists under Stalin in the 1930s,” Tate Etc., October 20, 2017. ›››


Tupitsyn, Margarita, ed. Rodchenko and Popova: Defining Constructivism (London: Tate Publishing, 2009). ›››


Constructing a New World”, an exhibition review by Rachel Aspden in The New Statesmen, January 26, 2009, 40–43. ›››


Makarenko, Anton Semenovič. “Discipline” (173–183), “Education by Work” (189–195), and “My Experience” (245–252) in Makarenko, His Life and Work: Articles, Talks, Reminiscences, translated by Bernard Isaacs, (Foreign Publishing House: Moscow, 1978). ›››