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Lyubov Popova (Russian, 1889–1924)

About this artist

Source: Oxford University Press

Russian painter and designer. She was born into a wealthy family and trained as a teacher before beginning her artistic studies with Stanislav Zhukovsky (1873–1944) and Konstantin Yuon. Their influence, particularly through their interest in luminous tonalities reminiscent of Impressionism, can be seen in early works by Popova such as Still-life with Basket of Fruit (1907–8; Athens, George Costakis Col.; see Rudenstine, pl. 725). Popova travelled extensively: in Kiev (1909) she was very impressed by the religious works of Mikhail Vrubel’; in Italy (1910) she admired Renaissance art, especially the paintings of Giotto. Between 1910 and 1911 she toured many parts of Russia, including Suzdal’, Novgorod, Yaroslavl’ and Pskov. Inspired by Russian architecture, frescoes and icons, she developed a less naturalistic approach. A more crucial influence was the first-hand knowledge of Cubism that she gained in Paris, which she visited with Nadezhda Udal’tsova during the winter of 1912–13. She studied at the Académie de la Palette, under the direction of Henri Le Fauconnier and Jean Metzinger, and her paintings of this time clearly display the influence of these artists (e.g. Two Figures, 1913–14; Moscow, Tret’yakov Gal.). Numerous sketchbooks attest to the rigour with which Popova applied Cubist analysis to the human figure (e.g. notebook C313, 1913–14; see also Cubo-futurism). This approach was extended to paintings, for example Seated Figure (1914; Cologne, Mus. Ludwig), which has affinities with work by Léger and the Italian Futurist Umberto Boccioni; here, Popova shows a new confidence and fluency, and a more sophisticated integration of form and space into the transparent structures of curved and rectilinear planes. A more complex and dynamic fragmentation appears in canvases such as Travelling Woman (1915; Los Angeles, CA, Norton Simon A. Found.; see Rudenstine, pl. 808).

In Russia, Popova was influenced by Vladimir Tatlin and worked at some time between 1912 and 1915 in his studio in Moscow, the Tower. Inspired by his constructions, Popova experimented with collage and in 1915 began to produce painted reliefs in which projecting curved elements made of cardboard are juxtaposed and enlivened with strongly coloured, impasto paintwork (e.g. Jug on a Table, 1915; Moscow, Tret’yakov Gal.). In 1916 she produced her first non-objective canvases, six of which she exhibited as Painterly Architectonics (two repr. in Rudenstine, pls 826–7) at the November Jack of Diamonds exhibition. Earlier that autumn Popova had joined Malevich’s Suprematist circle, producing several designs for the magazine Supremus (which was never published). Although she adopted the rectilinear geometry and white grounds of the Suprematists, Popova’s abstract canvases were distinctive. She produced very powerful and dynamic paintings in which large geometric planes, boldly coloured but with elements of modelling, abut and interpenetrate to create taut and thrusting diagonal compositions (e.g. Architectonic Painting, 1917; New York, MOMA).

During the Civil War Popova worked in the Fine Art Department (IZO) of Narkompros (the People’s Commissariat for Enlightenment), producing agitational posters, and also taught workers at Proletkul’t (Proletarian Cultural Organization). In 1918 she joined the staff of the State Free Art Studios (later known as Svomas), and when these became the Vkhutemas (Higher Artistic and Technical Workshops) she and Aleksandr Vesnin taught colour construction on the Basic Course. A member of Inkhuk (Institute of Artistic Culture) from 1920, Popova was active in discussions concerning the new art and was commissioned to write a paper on the teaching of art, ‘K voprosu o novykh metodakh v nashey khudozhestvennoy shkole’ (‘Towards the question of the new methods in our art school’; unpublished; Moscow, priv. col.). She also participated in the crucial theoretical debates that led to the formation in March 1921 of the First Working Group of Constructivists. Although not a member, Popova collaborated with two of its founders, Aleksandr Rodchenko and Varvara Stepanova, in the 5×5 = 25 exhibition (1921), showing five works she described as ‘experiments with painterly force structures’. By this time her paintings were more complex in their geometric and spatial construction, making greater use of linear elements (e.g. Spatial Force Construction, 1921; four in Moscow, Tret’yakov Gal.; three in Athens, George Costakis Col.; one in New York, priv. col.; see Rudenstine, pl. 874).

Popova seems to have stopped painting in 1921 and, by her own declaration to Inkhuk in December, she espoused more fully the Constructivist emphasis on the utilitarian role of the artist. Her principal contribution to Constructivism was her subsequent work in theatre and textile design. In 1920 she had collaborated with Aleksandr Vesnin on a project for a mass outdoor festival in honour of the Third International, to be directed by Vsevolod Meyerhold. The following year she was invited to teach a course on the ‘Analysis of the elements of material design’, at the Higher Theatrical Workshops. These were organized by Meyerhold, who in 1922 invited her to design the sets and costumes for his production of Crommelynck’s farce The Magnanimous Cuckold at the Actors’ Theatre in Moscow. Popova created a Constructivist environment by transforming the water-mill of the setting into a multi-levelled, skeletal apparatus, with enormous wheels that rotated at crucial moments in the action. She dressed the actors in overalls, which she conceived as prototypes for workers’ clothing in that they were functional, suitable for mass-production and expressed the new proletarian ideology. In 1923 her set for Meyerhold’s production of Sergey Tret’yakov’s Zemlya dybom (‘The earth in turmoil’) consisted of a gantry crane, and the stage properties were selected from mass-produced objects such as projectors and motorcycles. By this means, together with the use of political slogans and newsreel film, Popova created an industrial montage.

Late in 1923 or early in 1924 Popova, together with Stepanova, started to design textiles for mass manufacture at the First State Textile Factory in Moscow. In accordance with Constructivist principles, both artists considered it imperative, in order to rationalize cloth production, to replace traditional floral patterns with designs consisting of rigorous combinations of one or two geometric forms in an economic colour range. Popova also designed working clothes, dresses made from her own textiles, and garments that utilized available materials such as flannel to combat current shortages. Popova’s theatrical experiments and textile designs were published in Lef (‘Left front of the arts’), a magazine set up in 1923 to promote Constructivist ideas in all the arts. She contracted scarlet fever from her son and died prematurely.

Christina Lodder
From Grove Art Online

© 2009 Oxford University Press

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