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 - 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