Billiard Players

Varvara Stepanova

Jugadores de billar

Stepanova, Varvara

Kovno (hoy Kaunas), 1894 - Moscú, 1958

Billiard Players, 1920

© Varvara Fedorovna Stepanova, (VARST), VEGAP, Madrid, 2015

Signed & dated lower right: ''Varst Step 20''.
Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection on loan to the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, Madrid.

Oil on canvas

66 x 129 cm

CTB.1986.18

Artwork history

  • Varvara Rodchenko, Moscow

  • Gmurzynska Gallery, Cologne

  • Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection, Lugano, 1986

  • Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection

1920

Exhibition of Four Artists, Moscú, Institute of Artistic Culture, n. 114

1920

XIX State Exhibition, Moscú, Art Salon, n. 14

1984

Sieben Moskauer Künstler 1910-1930, Colonia, Galerie Gmurzynska, n. 14, p. 275

1986

Pioniere der Abstrakten Kunst aus der Sammlung Thyssen-Bornemisza, Colonia, Galerie Gmurzynska, p. 140

1999

Puppen Körper Automaten-Phantasmen der Moderne, Düsseldorf, Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, pp. 344-345

1999 - 2001

Amazons of the Avant-Garde: Alexandra Exter, Natalia Goncharova, Liubov Popova, Olga Rozanova, Varvara Stepanova, and Nadezhda Udaltsova, Berlín, Deutsche Guggenheim; Londres, Royal Academy of Arts; Venecia, Peggy Guggenheim Collection; Bilbao, Museo Guggenheim Bilbao; Nueva York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, n. 67, p. 262 (sólo en Venecia, Bilbao y Nueva York)

2003

La Russie et les avant-gardes, Saint-Paul de Vence, Fondation Maeght, n. 122, pp. 208-209

2009 - 2010

Corpo-Automi-Robot: Tra Arte, Scienza e Tecnologia, Lugano, Museo d'Arte e Villa Ciani, p. 242, lám. p. 240-41

2013

Sisley, Kandinsky, Hopper. Col·lecció Carmen Thyssen, Sant Feliu de Guíxols, Espai Carmen Thyssen, p. 138, lám. p. 139

2017 - 2018

Scenarios. From Monet to Estes. From Trouville to Nueva York. Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection. Museu Carmen Thyssen Andorra, 16 March 2017-14 January 2018. p. 50-51.

  • -Lavrentiev, A.: Varvara Stepanova, A Constructivist Life. Cambridge (MA), 1988, p. 43. [ The work is listed as: ” Men playing billar”]

  • -Bowlt, John y Misler, Nicoletta: Twentieth-Century Russian and East European Painting: The Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection. Londres, Zwemmer, 1993 , n. 51, pp. 264-268, lám.

  • -Colección Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza. Arnaldo, Javier (ed.). 2 vols. Madrid, Fundación Colección Thyssen-Bornemisza, 2004, vol. 2, p. 398, lám. p. 399 [Sheet by John E. Bowlt y Nicoletta Misler]

  • -Sisley, Kandinsky, Hopper. Col·lecció Carmen Thyssen, Sant Feliu de Guíxols, Espai Carmen Thyssen, 2013,  p. 138, lám. p. 139 (Exhib. Cat.).

  • -Scenarios. From Monet to Estes. From Trouville to Nueva York. Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection. Museu Carmen Thyssen Andorra,  2017,  p. 50-51. (Exhib. Cat.) [Sheet by John E. Bowlt y Nicoletta Misler]

Expert report

Stepanova explored an entire mosaic of artistic trends from Symbolism to Socialist Realism, although she is now recognised above all for her interpretations of the Constructivist aesthetic. Stepanova was attached to the primary centres of the avant-garde movement after the Revolution, i.e., Inkhuk (Institute of Artistic Culture) and Svomas / Vkhutemas (Free Art Studios/State Free Art-Technical Studios) and was in touch with the leading artists, poets, and filmmakers of her time such as Gan, Kandinsky, Popova, Shub and, of course, her husband Rodchenko. Still, Stepanova was not a student of Rodchenko just as he was not a student of Stepanova, and, ultimately, her artistic physiognomy was different from his. For example, she was not especially drawn to non-objective painting, did not regard photography as a replacement for painting, and did not investigate the three-dimensional and architectural constructions that fascinated Rodchenko, even though her involvement in the 5 x 5 = 25 exhibition in Moscow in 1921 and her support of utilitarian Constructivism at Inkhuk might indicate otherwise. On the other hand, both Stepanova and Rodchenko approached the artistic experience as one of public, not private, communication. The enharmonic chords of her visual poetry play to us, her syncopated figures invite us to arise and move, her posters and book illustrations refer to the telephone, the radio, the movies and other instruments of mass media.

In this respect, Stepanova’s orientation towards the human figure on the one hand and to utilitarian art on the other is logical and understandable, for, far from ignoring the human figure in her experimental work of the late 1910s and early 1920s, Stepanova remained with it. Perhaps one reason why she investigated the medium of the collage, using photographic fragments, pieces of newspaper, and advertisements with their direct references to concrete life, is that it helped to reintroduce a “readable” content into the work of art and, in this sense, opposed the abstract systems such as Suprematism of the same period. Stepanova’s figures represent her concept of the new Socialist human being-robotic, efficient, dynamic-that also attracted Lissitzky, Malevich, Popova, and Rodchenko. These automatons such as Billiard Players represent action, for they all are engaged in some kind of sports, musical or motor activity, although, in spite of their mechanical quality, they also illustrate particular emotional states-excitement, obsession, serenity. As Stepanova’s grandson explains: Stepanova investigated typical poses: sitting, standing, dancing, jumping, talking. The area around the figures was composed of the same elements, though larger in scale. Figures embodied a particular view of the world, based on geometry, structure and order.”

Billiard Players is an unusually large work in the Figures series, although the basic theme and formal configuration recurs in many graphic and painted works of the time. Although Billiard Players is a painting, to a certain extent Stepanova used the approached the assignment as a graphic exercise, defining the shapes with strong clarity, emphasizing the grey and white areas, and adding the dotted, criss-cross patterns as if the base material were graph paper. Not surprisingly, Stepanova repeated the musicians, dancers, and sportsmen in indian ink, pencil and linocuts where the contrasts are particularly abrasive.

John E. Bowlt y Nicoletta Misler