Popova, Liubov (1889–1924)

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Popova, Liubov (1889–1924)

Talented Russian artist of the first decades of the 20th century who absorbed the currents of Impressionism, Cubism, Futurism, Suprematism, and Constructivism, and turned her energies to practical forms of art to further the goals of the Bolshevik Revolution. Name variations: Lyubov. Pronunciation: Lyoo-BOFF Pa-POE-va. Born on April 24, 1889, in the village of Ivanovskoe, near Moscow; died of scarlet fever in Moscow on May 25, 1924; daughter of Sergei Maksimovich Popov (a Moscow merchant) and Liubov Vasilievna Zubova Popova; attended secondary schools in Yalta and Moscow, 1902–06; studied art formally under private teachers, 1907–11; married Boris Nikolaevich von Eding (a Russian art historian); children: one son.

Moved to Moscow (1906); first visited Italy (1910); toured ancient Russian cities (1911); set up studio in Moscow (1912); visited Paris and rendered first purely Cubist painting (1913); visited Paris once more, outbreak of World War I, exhibited painting in Moscow (1914); began association with Malevich (1915); exhibited her first non-objective paintings (1916); death of her husband, contracted typhus, joined Council of Masters (1919); taught at Higher State Artistic and Technical Studio (1920); shifted interests to utilitarian art (stage design, textiles, 1921); posthumous exhibit of her work in Moscow (1924–25).

Selected works:

Still Life: Milk Pitcher; Plein Air (Costakis Collection, Athens, 1908); Italian Still Life (Tretiakov Gallery, Moscow, 1914); Birsk (Guggenheim Museum, New York, 1916); Painterly Architectonics (Tretiatkov Gallery, Moscow, 1916–17); Work uniform design for Actor No. 5 (Private Collection Moscow, 1921); set design for The Magnanimous Cuckold (Tretiakov Gallery, Moscow, 1922).

Liubov Popova played a major role within the lively Russian artistic world of the early 20th century. It was an artistic scene in which competing groups sometimes operated under their own dynamics and sometimes responded to intense political experiences. She joined those who made the passage to Cubism and abstract art, and she entered the group of artists who sought to serve the ideals of the Bolshevik Revolution. Nonetheless, in the view of leading critics, her work retained a notable originality. In a 1962 pioneering study of Russian avant-garde art, Camilla Gray claimed: "After Tatlin and Male-vich, Popova was the most outstanding painter of the post-1914 abstract school in Russia." Art historian Magdalena Dambrowski cited "the high quality of her achievement," calling her "a versatile, innovative artist who drew on diverse influences … and made them the basis of her own distinctive means of expression." Popova "was tall," wrote her friend and fellow artist Vera Mukhina ; "she had a good figure, marvelous eyes and luxuriant hair. Despite all her femininity, she had an incredibly sharp eye for life and art." Another of her colleagues, Alexander Rodchenko, the son of a laundress, allegedly found Popova intimidating and "snobbish." But Soviet-era scholars Dmitri Sarabianov and Natalia Adaskina painted a more convincing picture. They thought she was "by nature straightforward, courageous, and outspoken." They noted how she possessed a magnetic personality that always brought a crowd of friends and admirers to her side. In any case, Popova speaks to us eloquently and decisively through her art.

In the first decades of the 20th century, members of Russia's artistic avant-garde went through rapid and dramatic transitions. Artists such as Kazimir Malevich, Vladimir Tatlin, and Alexander Rodchenko moved in colorful stages from art that depicted real objects to art that consisted of abstract forms. And there were factors that cut across the talents and wishes of each individual. For example, the artistic community was divided and racked by quarrels between those who rejected foreign influences and those who sought to learn from the dramatic developments in French art.

Women were significant within this art world. Both in their numbers and in the prominence they achieved, they far outstripped their counterparts in Western and Central Europe. Fully half of the Russian artists who pioneered the techniques of abstract art at the start of the 20th century were women. M.N. Yablonskaya has referred to Popova and her fellow artists such as Natalia Goncharova, Olga Rozanova , and Alexandra Exter as "the Amazons of the Avant-Garde." Some writers believe that the integration of women into the radical political circles of the 19th century paved the way for their acceptance as equals in the art world.

Liubov Popova had the advantages of a wealthy family who supported her artistic endeavors. She was born in the village of Ivanovskoe close to Moscow on April 24, 1889. Her father was a prosperous merchant and factory owner, deeply interested in music and the theater. Her mother came from a similar background. Popova was educated by private tutors, one of whom was a professional artist. She produced watercolors by the time she was 15, including one that she displayed in her studio in her adult years.

No artistic success has given me such satisfaction as the sight of a peasant or a worker buying a length of material designed by me.

—Liubov Popova

In 1906, the family settled in Moscow. There she finished secondary school and studied literature with a private instructor. In 1907, at age 18, she committed herself to a career as an artist, studying with two prominent artists and art teachers, Stanislov Zhukovsky and Konstantin Yuon, who taught her the techniques of Impressionism, a style that had recently arrived in Russia from Paris. It was with this technique, reflecting the French Impressionists and Paul Cézanne, that she produced her first works, such as her Female Model of 1912. Thus, at an early stage in her career she became one of those Russian artists who drew inspiration from Western Europe rather than relying solely on Russia's own cultural impulses.

Meanwhile, her artistic horizons widened in a variety of ways. The newer influences of the art world of Western Europe, such as Cubist paintings by Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso, were available for her consideration at the start of 1912 and possibly influenced her even at this early date. Second, she had already begun a series of visits abroad, starting with a trip to Italy in 1910. In addition, she explored the legacy of ancient Russia: her travels in search of artistic inspiration took her to historic cities like Pskov, Yaroslavl, and Suzdal.

Most ambitious European artists of the time were drawn to Paris, and Popova's admiration for the work of painters like Cézanne made her determined to visit the capital of the Continent's art world. Along with fellow young artists Nadezhda Udaltsova and Vera Pestel , Popova settled in Paris for an extended stay beginning in the fall of 1912. There she found a colony of upand-coming Russian artists such as Tatlin and the sculptors Boris Ternovets and Vera Mukhina.

Although Popova had encountered Cubism in Russia, she now studied with noted figures in the Cubist movement such as Jean Metzinger and Henri Le Fauconnier at La Palette, a renowned studio. In later years, she pointed to 1913 as the true beginning of her artistic achievements. The change in her painting was striking: she now absorbed and adopted the Cubist techniques which were dominating the Parisian art scene. She first produced cityscapes, then moved on to the human figure. Her nudes, for example, took on the appearance of a connected set of cones and cylinders. She may also at this time have become acquainted with Futurism. Note critics Sarabianov and Adaskina: "Like many other Russian painters of the early twentieth century, in half a decade Popova completed a journey that should have taken several generations."

A second visit to Western Europe in late 1914 and early 1915 brought her back to both France and Italy. By this time, the Futurist movement of the Italian art world had definitely begun to influence her. Her works, notably Italian Still Life in 1914, reflected such Futurist techniques as brilliant color and a repetition of forms designed to produce a dynamic sense of movement. Her confidence as a painter allowed her to shift with apparent freedom among various styles. Some art historians describe her at this juncture as a practitioner of "Cubo-Futurism," a movement centered in the Russian art world that brought together the shapes of Cubism with the aforementioned characteristics of Futurism.

World War I deprived most of the Russian population of contact with the outside world. Within the now closed environment of Russian avant-guard artists, Popova took on greater influence. She held a weekly salon at her home where artists and critics presented papers, and she exhibited her work widely. Incorporating devices such as collage allowed her to move her paintings away from the flat surface of the easel. Like other Russian artists, she was interested in heightening the texture of a painting: beyond her use of collage she added sand or sometimes marble dust to raise a picture's surface.

Between 1916 and 1918, Popova turned increasingly toward non-objective painting. By this time, the young artist was working under the influence of Malevich, whose Suprematist movement was at the cutting edge of Russian abstract art, and she exhibited her paintings alongside his. Malevich's style featured squares and rectangles set against a background painted white. At the close of 1916 and the start of 1917, she was a member of "Supremus," Male-vich's society of painters, and she designed a logo for a journal the group hoped to publish. Commenting on the young artist's works in 1916 such as Grocery Store and Box Factory, Dambrowski noted that "figuration becomes a vestigial element, and pictorial structure becomes dominant." Popova showed her new artistic direction more emphatically in a group of works produced in these years under the collective title of Painterly Architectonics.

Nonetheless, Popova maintained an original approach that departed from the path set down by Malevich. For example, her abstract art contained elements such as colored planes drawn from the Islamic architecture which she had examined in a visit to Russian Central Asia in 1916. Moreover, she continued to draw from the artistic legacy of Cubism, employing some forms, albeit distorted ones, that resembled real-life objects. She also reflected the influence of another leading Russian artist, Vladimir Tatlin. Tatlin in these years was experimenting with art that employed real objects in space, the initial stage in the movement known as "Constructivism," which he founded and to which Popova made her way after 1917.

Russia itself was in the midst of great changes. The poor, rural country, under the rule of the absolute monarch Tsar Nicholas II, had been buffeted by government-sponsored industrialization, and by disastrous wars against Japan (1904–05) and Imperial Germany (1914–18). Russia's peasants and her newly urbanized factory workers rose in revolt. The twin Russian revolutions of 1917 soon made themselves felt in the artistic world Popova inhabited. The March Revolution of 1917 in the nation's capital took place in the midst of the defeats of World War I. Women demonstrators joined by factory workers and then by mutinous soldiers forced the tsar to abdicate and helped install a Western-style Provisional Government committed to continuing the war and to deferring major reforms until the conflict had ended. It lasted six months until it was overthrown by V.I. Lenin. Under the impact of Lenin's Bolshevik Revolution of November 1917, whose leaders claimed to put the factory workers in power for the first time, leading Russian artists sought to create works comprehensible and useful for the masses.

As early as 1918, Popova joined a group of artists known as Svomas (Free State Studios), who were sympathetic to the Bolshevik Revolution. In late 1919, she joined the Council of Masters, a group of artists which grew in May 1920 into the Institute of Artistic Culture (Inkhuk). From the new government the Institute received the task of developing a novel approach to art consistent with the goals of the Bolshevik Revolution. It was to find innovative ways to teach art to a mass audience. Thus, it sought both new artistic techniques and materials that would be suitable for post-revolutionary Russia.

One guiding force for art in this world was an extreme version of Constructivism, which now called for a complete move away from painting on an easel. Only three-dimensional objects using real materials and presenting an easily recognizable shape were acceptable art. This radical Constructivism pointed toward art that derived its images from industrial society, an art that would be useful and comprehensible to the masses. Though Popova participated in the development

of Constructivist ideas, she was slow to reflect the implications of those ideas in her own work. For example, she continued to paint in an abstract vein, employing what she called "painterly values." Far from developing art forms accessible to the factory workers, she experimented with abstract techniques that stressed linear compositions, works destined to appeal to her fellow artists.

The young woman's private life, about which little has been recorded, took a clear turn in this period. She married a historian of art, Boris von Eding, in March 1918 and gave birth to a son at the close of the year. In the summer of 1919, von Eding died in one of the typhus epidemics that were common in the chaotic circumstances of the Russian Civil War. Popova herself became infected with both typhus and typhoid, but she survived to continue her painting in Moscow.

In 1921, her work turned in a final, dramatic direction. The influence of the Revolution became her guideline. In November of that year, the leading artists in Inkhuk, including Popova, formally abandoned easel painting. The extreme form of Constructivism now flourished, and the slogan "Art into Life" set the tone. Art was something that had to serve society. It had to be accessible to the masses and tied to the industrial process. As Anne Sutherland Harris and Linda Nochlin noted, this was "a revolutionary challenge to the whole mystificatory, reactionary ideology of traditional 'high art.'" Along with like-minded colleagues, Popova turned her talents to such practical forms of art as designing clothing and stage sets.

Both the Children's Theater and the Comedy Theater in Moscow used her stage designs. Her most notable success came in collaboration with the director Vsevolod Meyerhold. In designing the stage set and costumes for Meyer-hold's production of The Magnanimous Cuckold in April 1922, Popova combined the techniques of her work in abstract art with real objects like moving doors and wheels to produce a striking result. Her costumes were combinations of basic geometric shapes. Her stage settings used dramatic combinations of horizontal and vertical planes. Meanwhile, she taught her techniques to a new generation of Soviet artists at the State Higher Theatrical Studios.

This flourishing career came to a tragic conclusion when Popova was only 35. Her young son died of scarlet fever, following which she became infected with the disease. She died in Moscow on May 25, 1924. Shortly after her death, Popova received a splendid tribute in the form of a posthumous exhibit.

Ironically, had she lived, Popova likely would have faced increased pressure and criticism from the government. During the years after 1929, when Joseph Stalin had consolidated his dictatorship, imaginative artists of her caliber found themselves in perilous conditions. The regime demanded cartoon-like images of happy workers and dedicated peasants to serve its propaganda purposes. By 1932, Stalin's regime outlawed all independent artists' associations. The doctrine of "Socialist Realism" dominated both the visual arts and literature. Male-vich was only one of Popova's contemporaries who was broken and humiliated by the demands of the new era. He returned to a representational genre most Russian artists had abandoned in the years prior to the Revolution. Popova would surely have been pushed in the same direction.

After decades in which Popova's talents went unrecognized, scholars in her own country and the West in the 1980s and 1990s began to appreciate her achievements. A number of her paintings appeared in the 1981 exhibit entitled "Art of the Avant-Garde in Russia; Selections from the George Costakis Collection" at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York. This important showing introduced a range of scarcely known Russian artists of the early 20th century to a Western audience. "It became apparent that the paintings by Liubov Popova stood out on the basis of their quality and originality," noted Dambrowski. Eight years later, the Tretiakov Gallery in Moscow organized an exhibit on the 100th anniversary of her birth, the first Soviet public showing of her work since the one following her death. A further exhibit of Popova's work was presented in 1991 at New York's Museum of Modern Art. In 2000–01, she was one of the featured artists (along with Goncharova, Rozanova, Exter, Udaltsova, and Varvara Stepanova ) in the exhibit "Amazons of the Avant-Garde" at New York City's Guggenheim Museum.

Shortly after Popova's death, an open letter from a group of her friends offered one assessment of her importance: "Her work, like her worldview, was linked in the closest possible fashion with the construction of a revolutionary culture." A more clear-sighted evaluation of her entire body of work came from Sarabianov and Adaskina in 1989. They noted how the crucial elements in her career "were not the dogmas of ideological directives but vital creativity itself." Her work contained nuances, variety, and complexity. She belonged to "that glorious tribe of turn-ofthe-century Russian artists … who passionately bared their art to the upheavals of the era."


Dambrowski, Magdalena. Liubov Popova. NY: Museum of Modern Art, 1991.

Gray, Camilla. The Great Experiment: Russian Art, 1863–1892. NY: Harry N. Abrams, 1962.

Harris, Anne Sutherland, and Nochlin, Linda. Women Artists: 1550–1950. NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1976.

Rudenstine, Angelica Zander. Russian Avant-Garde Art: The George Costakis Collection. NY: Harry N. Abrams, 1981.

Sarabianov, Dmitri V., and Natalia L. Adaskina. Popova. Translated from the Russian by Marian Schwartz. NY: Harry N. Abrams, 1989.

Yablonskaya, M.N. Women Artists of Russia's New Age. Edited by Anthony Parton. London: Thames & Hudson, 1990.

suggested reading:

Chadwick, Whitney. Women, Art, and Society. London: Thames & Hudson, 1990.

Russian Constructivism, 1914–1932: Art into Life. NY: Rizzoli International, 1990.

Slatkin, Wendy. Women Artists in History: From Antiquity to the 20th Century. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1985.

Neil M. M. , Professor of History, San Diego State University, San Diego, California