Liubov Sergeevna Popova (1889-1924) was one of the preeminent artists of the Russian and Soviet avant-garde during the early 20th century.
Liubov Popova was born just outside of Moscow, near the village of Ivanovskoe, on April 24, 1889. Her family's wealth—her father was a textile merchant—and philanthropic interests ensured a thorough education in the arts and humanities, which led her, after completing gymnasium in 1906, to initially pursue a degree in literature.
Although she received instruction in painting and drawing throughout her childhood, Popova's first serious encounter with art dates from 1907-1908, when she entered the Moscow studios of Stanislov Zhukovski and Konstatin Yuon. Both artists favored a landscape tradition influenced by Impressionism, a style that in Popova's hands was rapidly modified to suit her interests in the works of Cézanne, van Gogh, and Gauguin, as well as the Neoprimitivism of Natalia Goncharova. By the end of 1908 her painting had moved well beyond naturalism to a distinct post-Impressionist treatment employing simplified forms, cloisonné, and unmodulated colors.
The next several years were marked by an ambitious travel schedule that greatly enhanced Popova's artistic development. Between the summers of 1909 and 1911 she experienced a wide diversity of art, ranging from the icons in Novgorod and Pskov to Mikhail Vrubel's symbolism in Kiev, and from the frescoes of Giotto in Italy to the Old Masters of the Hermitage in St. Petersburg. The impressions garnered during these excursions encouraged her to explore a style more independent from the direction she had taken under the guidance of Zhukovski and Yuon. In the fall of 1911, together with her friend Liudmila Prudkovskaia, she opened her own studio.
In 1912 Popova joined the collective studio organized by Vladimir Tatlin known as The Tower, where in her examinations of the human figure she confronted the synthetic conflict between direct observation and the construction of the drawing, which Picasso and Braque had resolved a few years earlier. This work, along with an introduction to European modernism through her visits to the Sergei Shchukin collection in Moscow, encouraged her to visit Paris during the winter of 1912-1913 in order to study French Cubism. There she enrolled in the "Académie La Palette, " where under the instruction of Jean Metzinger and Henri Le Fauconnier she received a version of Cubism considerably modified from the purely analytical approach developed by Picasso and Braque. At the same time she became familiar with Futurism through the sculptural work of Umberto Boccioni, whose three-dimensional explorations of the relationship between the object and its surrounding space soon became central to her own painting.
When Popova returned to Russia in the fall of 1913, she was fully prepared to play a role in the uniquely Russian confluence of French Cubism and Italian Futurism. Her work over the next few years, bolstered by a second trip to Paris and Italy in 1914, focused on balancing the cubist analysis of a static object with the representation of movement and light favored by the futurists. In 1915 she showed a number of her Cubo-Futurist canvases in two important Petrograd exhibitions-"Tramway V: The First Futurist Exhibition of Paintings, " which opened on March 3, 1915, and in December, "The Last Futurist Exhibition of Paintings: 0.10."
At the latter exhibition Kasimir Malevich demonstrated the path he had taken through Cubo-Futurism to abstraction with several of his Suprematist paintings. Although all the time Popova was closely allied with Tatlin's direction—several of her entries in the "0.10" exhibition were constructions similar to Tatlin's three-dimensional counter-reliefs—she was so taken by the radical departure of Malevich's non-objectivism that within a year she had fallen within the Suprematist orbit. The association resulted in a series of paintings entitled Painterly Architectonics, compositions of overlapping planes of color, which by 1917 had become completely nonreferential.
Like many of her colleagues, Popova was integrally involved with the cultural response to the social upheavals caused by the October Revolution of 1917. She worked on public projects, designed propaganda posters, and in 1918 joined the faculty of Svomas (Free State Art Studios, reorganized in 1920 as Vkhutemas: Higher State Art-Technical Studios), where her foundation course on color helped to form a curriculum oriented toward fusing art and industry. In March of 1918 she married the Russian art historian Boris von Eding, and in November gave birth to her son. A year later, while on a summer trip to Rostov on the Don, her husband died of typhoid fever. She nearly died of the illness herself.
In 1920 Popova became active in Inkhuk (Institute of Artistic Culture), the eventual bastion of Constructivism that oversaw the gradual rejection of aesthetic valuation in favor of art created with real materials and in real space for utilitarian purposes. Although for a time Popova attempted to reconcile her work with the three-dimensional Constructivist ideal by asserting that her paintings were essentially two-dimensional constructions, by the fall of 1921 she too had accepted the inclination within Inkhuk toward production art. In the catalogue to the exhibition "5 × 5 = 25, " which opened in September 1921 with the intention of being the final display of painting as an expressive medium, she described her contributions as "a series of preparatory experiments for concrete material constructions." In November of the same year she was one of 25 Inkhuk artists to sign a proclamation renouncing easel painting altogether.
Popova turned her attention toward the theater in 1922. She joined Gvytm (State Higher Theater Workshops), where she taught a course in set design and created Constructivist sets and costumes for Vsevolod Meyerkhold's productions of The Magnanimous Cuckold and, in 1923, Earth in Turmoil. At the same time she devoted herself to production work, executing designs for posters, book covers, porcelain, and, beginning in the fall of 1923, textiles and clothing. Her efforts in this direction were unfortunately short-lived. On May 25, 1924, a few days after her son, she died of scarlet fever.
Further Reading on Liubov Sergeevna Popora
There are two publications in English on Popova: Dmitri V. Sarabianov and Natalia L. Adaskina, Popova, trans. Marian Schwartz (1990), a thorough examination of her life and work; and Magdalena Dabrowski, Liubov Popova (1991), a catalogue that accompanied the 1991 Popova exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. For an overview of the avant-garde in Russia and the Soviet Union, start with Camilla Gray, The Russian Experiment in Art, 1863-1922, revised and enlarged by Marian Burleigh-Motley (London, 1986). Other good texts include Angelica Z. Rudenstein, ed., The George Costakis Collection: Russian Avant-Garde Art (1981); Christina Lodder, Russian Constructivism (1983); Art into Life: Russian Constructivism, 1914-1932, exhibition catalogue (1990); and The Great Utopia, the Russian and Soviet Avant-Garde, 1915-1932, exhibition catalogue (1992).