Russian Artist, Painter and Designer
Moscow, The Soviet Union
Summary of Lyubov Popova
Lyubov Popova was a radical multimedia artist and designer, who was an active Communist in the 1917 Russian Revolution and the years that followed. She also worked at a time when there were extremely few women artists respected by art institutions or schools, or even in the revolution. Popova travelled Europe and brought a myriad of modern influences to Russian art, in particular Cubism and Futurism - movements focused on multiplicity in the service of showing several angles of an object simultaneously, and demonstrating movement.
Later in her career, she moved to complete abstraction and simplified geometric forms alongside her Suprematist comrades, who wanted to make art in keeping with the industrial zeal of the revolution, and to move away from illusionism and elitism. At this time she also started to make textiles, theatre sets and design work, expanding the meaning and uses of art into broader society. Popova died young, but in her short life had a prolific and varied career and demonstrated that art could have an important part in revolutionary politics and post-capitalist ideas.
- Lyubov Popova was extremely interested in dynamism, or, representing movement in art, a problem at the center of many artistic movements, and the focus of many individual artists' lives. At the start of her career, this took the form of Futurist-style paintings showing movement through visual repetitions. Later, she would design theatre sets that moved on huge cogs; paintings with warring colors that fought to escape the picture plane, and repetitive textiles suggesting optical illusions.
- Like her Suprematist comrades in the revolution, she believed that art should reflect the industrial, egalitarian future, and this meant making work that echoed the geometry and efficiency of machines, as well as moving into a pure abstraction unfettered by elitist ideas of skill, or "natural talent", common to ideas of artistic genius.
- She moved away from painting to follow her belief that a revolutionary art should be practical, accessible, and reproducible. She designed stage sets, publication covers, and textiles, and her work is instantly recognizable as emblematic of the (albeit brief) revolutionary hope and fervor of Russian art at the time.
Progression of Art
Composition with Figures
Popova's early works can be seen as a conjunction of Cubism and Futurism; movements and ideas she collected on her travels. Here the two figures of the title are constructed in sharp lines, with curving circles at their joints. The bright colors of the figures make them stand out from the grey of the background, with the dark blue of the woman's fan taking center stage. Familiar still life objects are scattered throughout the painting, as common in the work of Cubist artists Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque: the guitar, the fruit bowl, and the jug.
This work was painted shortly after Popova returned from studying in Paris under Henri Le Fauconnier and Jean Metzinger at the Académie de la Palette. Her frequent travel outside of Russia also introduced her to Italian Futurism, and together these styles heavily influence her work pre-Russian Revolution. Once back in Russia, Popova's own reinterpretation of these styles focused on the geometry of Cubism and the dynamic energy of Futurism. She was concerned with a new way of constructing a painting, rather than strict interpretation of a subject. The result is this fractured scene depicted through multiple angles, typical of Cubist and Futurist works of the period.
Unlike many of her contemporaries who wanted to free Russian painting from Western influences, Popova was an intentional internationalist, and this painting demonstrates a rigorous engagement with Cubism - the fragmentation, and multiplication of objects and figures; and Futurism - a dynamic expression of movement, energy, and technology with strong colors and lines. In Composition with Figures, Popova depicts feminine, but androgynous subjects brazenly inhabiting, and using the objects in the traditional Cubist still life; a figure leans on the guitar we recognize from her famous male contemporaries, and a fan moves in a hand of a figure crouched over the ubiquitous apple bowl. The painting is important in the way it brings Cubist painting to life, and resituates possibilities for the meeting of figurative, still life, and abstract painting all within one picture plane.
Oil on canvas - State Tretiakov Gallery, Moscow
This is one of a series of paintings Popova made in 1916. The crowded canvas is taken up with a series of overlapping squares and rectangles and a white background. Using the bright colors of Russian icon art, Popova adds a painterly dimension with the visible brushstrokes and white edges in the foremost shapes. The canvas feels busy and crowded, as though the shapes are intersecting and jostling to be at the front of the painting.
Painted in the year she joined Kazimir Malevich's Suprematist group, this work demonstrates how geometry and abstraction were becoming more significant in Popova's work. What differentiates her work from Malevich, however, is her preoccupation with energetic movement. This work demonstrates the artist's move into purely nonrepresentational art, but is a precursor to the eventual uniform, repetitive, and machine-like style her work would take after the Russian Revolution of 1917. The painterly edges and use of shading verify that the work was created by a human rather than a machine.
In titling this series of paintings 'Painterly Architectonic Popova points to the most important and unique elements of this work - the painterly style, where thick paint is used and brushstrokes are visible, and the way she treats her painted lines, planes, and shapes as almost solid material objects. In this painting, she again combines influences to create an original and striking composition, here of vibrant objects crowding and pushing against the picture plane.
Oil on board - Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh
Untitled, from Six Prints
Using pure shapes and geometry, Popova illustrates physical and spatial dynamism. The angular forms of the triangle, rectangle, and semi-circle appear to continually rotate in space, giving the impression of energy and infinite movement. The colors in this work are derived from Popova's rediscovery of Russian folk art and icon painting, setting it apart from the abstract experiments happening concurrently in Western Europe at this time.
The Suprematist group, now including Popova, exhibited in regular shows in St Petersburg and Moscow, published a journal, and taught in art schools. In the advent and aftermath of the Russian Revolution in 1917, artists were reconsidering the role of culture and how art could contribute to the building of a new post capitalist society. This work, from the Six Prints series, illustrates the anti-materialist philosophy advocated by the Suprematists, in which a relationship was made between the unimportance of material goods and objects and the uselessness of figurative or representational art. Developing on Popova's Cubo-Futurist style of the early 1910s mixed with Malevich's influence, the print demonstrates her distinctive artistic evolution, both in theory and practice. It marks a further movement towards completely non-representational art. While evidence of the artist's hand remains, there is a lessening of paint on the surface, and a more balanced and ordered composition, which mirrored the desire for an efficient, egalitarian, and equal industrial workforce post Revolution.
Linoleum cut with watercolor and gouache additions - The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Set design for The Magnanimous Cuckold
Popova designed the revolutionary stage set for theatrical producer Vsevolod Meyerhold's first Constructivist performance, a production of The Magnanimous Cuckold. This play by Fernand Crommelynk is a farce that is also a cautionary tale about paranoia, censorship, and violence - all dangerous elements of what would become Stalin's official arts policy (many years later), under which Meyerhold would eventually lose his life, executed by firing squad in 1940.
The wooden set design brought the sharp geometry of her earlier works on canvas into the three-dimensional realm. The simplicity and efficiency of construction and functionalism is seen in the triangles, rectangles, and crisscrosses of the set. The actors are also a key part of the design: invited to use the set as a living prop throughout the performance, they feature as walking sculptures and bring to life the dynamic movement always at the center of Popova's work.
Popova's was one of the first theatre sets to include moving parts, with large wheels rotating behind a wooden framework. In keeping with Suprematist aims, the set moved away from illusionism towards pared back symbolism - something we see in theatre still today. The integration of actors and set was also a new innovation, which would be extremely important for future set design and stage direction worldwide.
Following the Russian Revolution, Popova had moved from painting into production art, or 'applied arts'. Breaking with the Suprematists, she believed painting to be obsolete and that art "must be applied to the design of the material elements of everyday life, to industry or to so-called production". In the early 1920s, she collaborated widely with other Constructivists, including Varvara Stepanova, Alexander Vesnin, and Alexander Rodchenko, on a vast range of applied arts projects, including theatre set and costume design, textile designs and clothing, and book covers. Her contribution to theatre design shows her interpretation of how the popular arts could shape the building of a new post-revolutionary society.
In 1923 Popova began designing fabrics to be manufactured by the First State Textile Printing Works in Moscow after the enterprise published an open invitation to artists to work in their factory. Where she had previously represented industry and machines in her moving cogs and abstract forms, the Russian textile industry provided Popova with a perfect opportunity to make art that could be mass-produced in a genuine industrial enterprise.
In this design, she represents the hammer and sickle insignia of the new Communist state in Russia, which symbolizes the unity of the peasant and industrial worker. Her interpretation of the hammer and sickle design is particular in its simplification of the instantly recognisable symbol, reducing it further to its geometric, non-representational elements. Already breaking away from the mould of the artist as separate and special genius with her theatre work, her foray into textile design was an important move to legitimise this kind of work as important and artistic, and to produce 'wearable art' for the general public.
Gouache on paper - Private Collection
Textile Design, reproduced on the cover of Lef no. 2
Using a pared-back color palette of just red and black, Popova creates a standout graphic for the second edition of the journal of the Left Front of the Arts. The only text reads ЛЕФ (LEF), the journal's title, accompanied by the number 2. The letters are cut horizontally by alternating colors, the block font signaling a departure from historical scripts, and a nod to Constructivist geometry. Black and red rectangles form a border around a central pattern of monochromatic diagonals and red circles.
Made in the year of her death, Popova had by this time moved fully into making applied art and design that served post-revolutionary society. The geometric shapes and limited color palette of her textiles and works on paper evidenced in the cover of Lef no. 2 are in keeping with both Constructivist and Suprematist assertions that revolutionary art should oppose realism and illusionism, not to try to be something else in the service of propaganda nor trickery, and to celebrate the industrial future. The art historian Christina Lodder draws parallels between Popova's use of geometry and its association with the machine, which "reflected the essential character of the industrialized working class, the new masters of the Soviet state". The repetitive nature of the artist's designs and her complete rejection of representational art removes the sense of the individual in favor of the mass-produced and the industrial, and, as Lodder proposes, expresses a "more collective ethos".
Ink and gouache on paper
Biography of Lyubov Popova
Lyubov Popova was born in Ivanovskoe, a district on the outskirts of Moscow, to an affluent family in 1889. Her father, Sergei Maximovich Popov, a successful textile merchant, and her mother, Lyubov Vasilievna Zubova, were both keen patrons of the arts and encouraged Popova's interest in art.
Raised in this creative environment, Popova pursued drawing and sketching, and had a particular fondness for the Italian Renaissance. At eleven years old her parents arranged formal art lessons for her at home, before enrolling her in the School of Painting and Drawing in Moscow. Here she learnt about light and color and became acquainted with recent developments in Western European art, including Impressionism. She went on to study at the Moscow art studio of the Polish-Russian landscape painter Stanislav Zhukovsky, who also counted the young artist and poet Vladimir Mayakovsky amongst his students.
Early Training and Work
Unlike contemporaries like Varvara Stepanova, who had peasant origins, Popova's prosperous background allowed her to travel widely to expand her artistic education. In 1909, she travelled to Northern Russia and Kyiv to view murals and mosaics in churches and monasteries. The bright colors of Russian icon painting inspired her; drawing similarities in the work of Giotto and other Renaissance painters she had enjoyed as a child.
Popova's art education flourished further in 1912 when she travelled to Paris with fellow painter Nadezhda Udaltsova to study at the private art school, the Académie de la Palette. Studying in the studios of the Cubist painters Henri Le Fauconnier and Jean Metzinger, she began to use the canvas to dissect objects and explore shape and structure. She studied the figure as depicted in the works of Fernand Leger and the dynamic sculptures of the Italian Futurist Umberto Boccioni.
Upon returning to Moscow, she continued learning about the French avant-garde by visiting the collection of Sergei Shchukin. A successful businessman and avid art collector, Shchukin regularly opened his home for public viewings, introducing Russian society to as the works of visionary artists such as Gauguin, Picasso, and Matisse.
Popova met Vladimir Tatlin whilst working in his studio, The Tower. Impressed by Tatlin's work in the three-dimensional, Popova experimented with collage and produced increasingly non-figurative painted reliefs using materials such as cardboard alongside thickly applied paint. She began to exhibit with her contemporaries; artists such as Mikhail Larionov and Natalia Goncharova, who were also finding new ways of combining traditional Russian motifs with modern art.
As Popova developed artistically, so did Moscow. By the mid-1910s it had become a creative hub where the Russian avant-garde gravitated. Popova participated in many exhibitions in the advent and aftermath of the Russian Revolution of 1917, such as the Jack of Diamonds (1914, 1916), Tramway V: First Futurist Exhibition of Paintings and 0.10: The Last Futurist Exhibition (1915), The Fifth State Exhibition: From Impressionism to Non-Objective Art (1918), and The Tenth State Exhibition: Non-Objective Creativity and Suprematism (1919).
Popova's move towards non-representational art became official when she joined the Suprematist group in 1916, alongside its founder Kazimir Malevich. Since displaying his work Black Square at the 0.10: The Last Futurist Exhibition (1915), Malevich promoted a move into purely abstract art as celebration of a world without capitalist signs and values. In his Suprematist Manifesto of 1916, he declared "Color and texture are of the greatest value in painterly creation - they are the essence of painting; but this essence has always been killed by the subject". Popova demonstrated these abstract values in a series of six paintings called Painterly Architectonics, which she displayed at the Jack of Diamonds (1916) exhibition in Moscow.
Moscow continued to be the epicenter of cultural exchange following the Russian Revolution in 1917. Described by the American journalist John Reed as "ten days that shook the world", the events of October 1917 had profound and long-lasting repercussions throughout the world. Popova, like many of the Russian avant-garde, identified with the aims of the Revolution and was excited by the new possibilities and the role art would take in future society. She became politically active through her art, producing posters and book designs for the cause.
During the subsequent Civil War, which took place between 1917 and 1920, Popova joined the Left-Wing Federation of the Moscow Artists' Union and later became a member of the Institute of Artistic Culture (Inkhuk), run by Wassily Kandinsky. She worked in the Fine Art Department of the People's Commissariat for Enlightenment and taught at the State Free Art Schools, later known as the Higher Artistic and Technical Workshops (Vkhutemas).
The years following the Revolution were also significant for Popova on a personal level. In 1918, she married the art historian Boris von Eding. Given the closeness of the artistic community in Moscow, it was common for creatives to marry within the circle. Varvara Stepanova married fellow Constructivist Alexander Rodchenko, and the Suprematist Olga Rozanova, before her early death from diphtheria in 1918, married the poet Aleksei Kruchenykh. Disease was rife in the uncertain years following the Revolution. Von Eding died of typhoid fever in 1919, with the disease nearly taking Popova and their newborn son as well.
The Revolution also changed the way Popova saw her art. Following 1917, there was a tension between the Suprematists, who saw art as anti-material and spiritual, and the Constructivists, who saw it as serving the Revolution in a practical way. She continued painting abstract work until joining Aleksander Rodchenko's Constructivist circle, which declared an abandonment of easel painting at their 1921 exhibition 5 x 5.
The events of 1917 and the years that followed underpinned Popova's abandonment of her middle-class upbringing and travelling life in favor of serving the Revolution. As Rodchenko put it, she was "an artist from a wealthy background, regarded us with condescension and contempt, since she considered us unsuitable company...Later on, during the Revolution, she changed greatly and became a true comrade".
In the last few years of her life, Popova worked in a range of media with the aim of contributing to the making of the new society. She created designs for theatre sets and costumes, produced new typography and book covers, and designed fabric and printed textiles for the First State Textile Printing Works in Moscow. Throughout her artistic work, she also continued to teach art theory at Vkhutemas and contribute to LEF, the journal of the Left Front of the Arts. In 1924 Popova died of scarlet fever in Moscow, soon after her young son succumbed to the same disease. She was only 35 years old.
The Legacy of Lyubov Popova
Popova's intense but short career inspired many other Soviet artists of the era. She shaped the development of Russian Revolutionary art through her education, travels, and relationships with other artists and influencers. She is particularly renowned as one of the most influential female artists of the 20th century and noted for her collaboration with other women artists including Nadezhda Udaltsova, Aleksandra Ekster, and Varvara Stepanova. Together they demonstrated the new role women could take as workers following the Revolution.
Shortly after her death, an exhibition of her work was shown at the Stroganov Institute in Moscow. In the catalogue, her contemporaries described her as an "Artist-Constructor," an enviable title, which indicated artists' collective hope post Revolution, which lasted until Stalin's suppression of the Russian avant-garde in the late 1920s.