Lyubov Popova, 1889-1924
By Rada Georgieva
‘Artist-Constructor’ was the term applied to one of the most prominent artistic figures associated with the 20th Russian avant-garde. Despite her short life, Lyubov Popova produced an imposing amount of paintings and designs. Eventually focusing on criticism, theory and the application of art to the production of utilitarian objects, Popova’s work is characterised by her affinity with the political shifts in Russia during the first quarter of the 20th century. She has since then been associated with a number of modernist artistic movements such as Suprematism, Cubo-Futurism and Constructivism.
Popova was born in a town near Moscow into a wealthy family of a textile merchant who was also engaged as a patron of the arts. She started studying painting when she was eleven, eventually training under various renown Russian and French artists, among which Jean Metzinger proved to be a major influence. Popova cultivated a particular interest in Renaissance art, and in 1910 she travelled to Italy for the first time. This trip was followed by one to Paris in 1912 and upon her return to Moscow she held her first exhibition.
Her stay in Europe exerted a powerful impact on her future development as an artist, as her work possessed qualities particular to Italian Futurism and French Cubism. Her early and mature works alike embody a profound interest in the interaction of form, color and design, striving towards an inner harmony and structural unity. Her easel painting period is best exemplified by the series of works named Painterly Architectonics. Here, Popova’s intermittent exploration of the painterly possibilities of colour, geometry and levels of representation is clearly demonstrated.
The Painterly Architectonics in the Tretyakov Gallery (1916-17) clearly exemplifies how Popova delved into these relationships. The ‘architectonics’ share a morphological link with architecture, that is to say, construction, the putting together of parts in order to form a unified and compelling whole. It is a compact, coherent and grand composition. In the centre, a red rectangle is framed by white and black thinner ones, thus creating an allusion to a portal. There is a visible focus on the central figure and a recognisable logic of the colour scheme. The bright red is apparently the one that attracts the eye first, and it retains it. The rest of the forms gradually recede the further away they are from the center, while maintaining the colour scheme established by the main elements. Thus, it becomes evident how the forms are organised in separate levels and planes, essentially revealing a painterly construction.
In 1921, Popova and her fellow Constructivist artists declared the universal end of easel painting at the “5 x 5 = 25 exhibition”, during which Popova exhibited her very last easel paintings, Spatial Force Constructions. By that point, she had begun creating works in which planes of representation and line were treated as integral but self-sufficient elements. These paintings marked the beginning of a new stage in her career and were, in fact, prototypes for her future object designs. After the Revolution, Popova started teaching in the Institute of Artistic Culture and began thinking of ways to implement her talent for design into the production of objects for mass use. She conceived numerous stage sets, spectacles and books, while also starting to work in a textile factory. For the rest of her life, Popova maintained the opinion that fine art should exist only as long as it serves a goal greater than itself: as a means for exploration of new forms and as support to the future industrially manufactured utilitarian objects. This idea was at the heart of Constructivism.
Popova’s new fabric designs had much in common with her paintings. The fact that a main morphological structure in her artistic vocabulary was geometry was fortunate, given that at the time, geometry was generally associated with the machine, and the machine with the working class; a fundamental member of the Soviet society. Moreover, she further manipulated the possibilities of a restricted palette, the permutations of the same forms in different context and patterns of repetition which she used to imbue her works with dynamism and movement. In spite of the fact that the main components of Popova’s designs are usually minimalistic and simple, her ingenious way of exploring the same element through combination, repetition and variation, leads to complicated interweaving of patterns and motifs in the final product.
In the historical context of the Soviet Union, Popova was also the creator of numerous designs using symbols such as the five pointed star of the Red Army or the hammer and sickle. Nevertheless, her pictorial representation of these motifs was brought down to a maximum simplification of forms, in tune with the rest of her work, allowing for these and the rest of her fabric designs to easily be mass-produced.
Lyubov Popova died from scarlet fever at the height of her success. Although her works are little known in the Western part of the globe, she has left behind a prolific legacy and her role on the Russian avant-garde scene remains unquestionable. Her artistic vision was of a different kind: a vision of forms brought into being.
Lodder, Christina, ‘Liubov Popova: From Painting to Textile Design’, Tate, Autumn 2010, https://www.tate.org.uk/research/publications/tate-papers/14/liubov-popova-from-painting-to-textile-design
Sarabianov, Dmitri V. and Adaskina, Natalia L., translated from Russian by Shwartz, Marian,Popova, London, Thames and Hudson, 1990