“We are breaking with the past, because we cannot accept its hypotheses.”
“We are breaking with the past, because we cannot accept its hypotheses,” wrote Liubov Popova a few years prior to her untimely death at the age of 35. “We ourselves are creating our own hypotheses anew and only upon them, as in our inventions, can we build out new life and new world view.” Widely known for her abstract paintings, Popova was also an influential theoretician and educator who declared painting obsolete and committed herself to the applied arts, which became fundamental to the building of a new Soviet society after the October Revolution.
Born on April 24, 1889, on the outskirts of Moscow to a prosperous Russian family, Popova studied painting under Polish-Russian Impressionist Stanislav Zhukovsky in 1907, and with painters Konstantin Yuon and Ivan Dudin in 1908. In the years that followed, she made several trips within Europe, including visits to Kiev in the fall of 1909, Italy in 1910 and 1914, as well as Pskov, Veliky Novgorod, and Yaroslavl in Russia. It was during this period that Popova became familiar with the work of 15th- and 16th-century Italian masters, as well as that of Symbolist painter Mikhail Vrubel and Russian painters of traditional icons. Back in Moscow in 1912, she joined Vladimir Tatlin’s co-operative studio, the Tower, and for the first time encountered the paintings of Georges Braque, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, and other French Impressionists and Post-Impressionists in Sergei Shchukin’s private collection. Popova’s work of this period consists primarily of still lifes, landscapes, and nudes characterized by thick contours, simplified forms, and vivid colors reminiscent of the style of Paul Cézanne and close colleagues Natalia Goncharova and Mikhail Larionov.
The evolution of her art culminated during a trip to Paris in the fall of 1912, where she studied at the Académie de la Palette. “Our intention had been to work with Matisse, but his school was already closed…someone then told us about La Palette, the studio of Le Fauconnier. We went there and immediately decided that it was what we wanted,” recalled her close friend and travel companion Nadezdha Udal’tsova.
In 1914, Popova made her debut with the leading Russian avant-garde group Jack of Diamonds, exhibiting two paintings showing influences of both Cubism and Futurism. In the following year, she took part in the notable Petrograd exhibitions Tramway V: The First Futurist Exhibition of Paintings and The Last Futurist Exhibition of Paintings: 0.10, which also included Kazimir Malevich’s Suprematist paintings and Tatlin’s Counter-Reliefs. There, Popova introduced her first completely abstract Painterly Architectonics, consisting of triangular and rectangular forms as well as lines superimposed to create numerous dynamic and multidimensional designs.
Throughout the early 1920s, Popova was closely involved with the Institute of Artistic Culture (INKhUK), a research-based organization established under the leadership of Vasily Kandinsky, and the Higher State Art-Technical Studios (VKhUTEMAS), where she taught classes on color and design. It was during this time that Popova, along with other members of the INKhUK, called for a rejection of easel painting, writing, “Our new aim is the organization of the material environment, i.e., of contemporary industrial production, and all active artistic creativity must be directed towards this.”
In her last easel painting series, Spatial-force Constructions, a series of densely intersecting painted lines on plywood are covered in wood dust, emphasizing the materiality of the surface. She explained her works as “a series of preliminary experiments leading to concrete material constructions,” allying herself more closely with the Constructivist language and utilitarian art forms of the new Soviet state. Invited in 1921 by the renowned theater director Vsevolod Meyerhold to teach a design course in his Theater Workshop, Popova delved deeper into the design of theater sets and functional costumes. Within a short time, she began to work at the First State Textile Factory with her colleague Varvara Stepanova, designing patterns for printed fabrics and experimenting with ideologically oriented book covers, posters, murals, dresses, and other everyday objects intended for mass production. Despite her early death in 1924, her contributions were among the most important for the evolution of the Russian avant-garde, displaying a highly innovative, versatile, and politically charged body of work.
Damasia Lacroze, Department Assistant, Department of Painting and Sculpture, 2021