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Sometime in the late 1970s, Miriam Schapiro and Elaine Lustig Cohen gathered a group of feminist artists and writers around my dining room table with a proposal: “Let’s form a consortium to buy the work of the Russian Constructivist women (Natalia Goncharova, Liubov Popova, Varvara Stepanova, Alexsandra Exter, Nadezhda Udaltsova, Olga Rozanova).” These six women and others were central figures in the Russian avant-garde between 1910 and 1925, a moment of revolutionary fervor and optimism, when gender equality was assumed, valued and legislated. And yet there was almost no market for their paintings at the time.
In fact, artist/designer Elaine Lustig Cohen recalls that on a trip with Museum of Modern Art curator Mildred Constantine to the Soviet Union in the late 1960s, they had great difficulty finding any examples of avant-garde art from the time of the Revolution. Rachel Adler, a dealer in early 20th-century European art, went to Russia in 1978 and found that modernist painting was not visible in museums, nor were there any accessible archives. It was “almost clandestine” and collectors were sneaking work out of the country in diplomatic pouches.
We knew and loved the Constructivist women’s art – some of us were teaching it. Participants included Carrie Rickey, Ida Applebroog, Sally Webster and Valerie Jaudon: we had just worked together on the fourth issue of the feminist art journal Heresies, “Women’s Traditional Arts/The Politics of Aesthetics.” Rickey recalls going to an auction house and locating a painting of a Spanish dancer by Alexsandra Exter; Jaudon thinks it was actually a Goncharova. Before we could act on purchasing the work as a group, there were the complexities of raising the money, storing the art, and agreeing on the terms of joint ownership. In the end, we had neither the resources nor imagination to pull it off. (Recently, a painting by Goncharova sold at auction for close to $11,000,000. We could have funded Planned Parenthood!)
These Russian women are often lumped together in histories of feminist art. After the passage of a full century, shouldn’t we recognize the uniqueness of a Stepanova or Udaltsova as readily as we do with a Rodchenko or El Lissitzky?
Over the years, I have returned again and again to Liubov Popova, whose art resonates for me, and so I am writing about her now, as a fan, hoping that others will write about her peers as singular figures in the history of modern art. In 1994, I picked up a small brochure with a Suprematist cover for a charming exhibition of Orientalist colored drawings at the Leonard Hutton Gallery in New York, Liubov Popova Illustrations for Tales of Wonder, executed in 1920. In 2008, visiting the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid, I was riveted by three brilliant Popovas from the “Painterly Architectonic” series (1915-18). Since I first discovered her in the ‘70s, Popova has benefited from much scholarly research and several excellent museum exhibitions and monographs. The exhibitions have included liubov popova at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1991, which traveled through 1992; Amazons of the Avant-Garde at the Guggenheim Museum, New York, which traveled from 1999-2001; Rodchenko and Popova: Defining Constructivism at Tate Modern, London, 2009, which traveled into 2010; and Women’s Power: Sisters of the Revolution, Russia 1907–1934 at the Groninger Museum, Netherlands, 2013.
In a 1991 review of liubov popova, Christopher Knight wrote, “The 55 paintings and 67 works on paper […] confirm Popova’s stature as an artist who […] ranks with Kazimir Malevich, Alexander Rodchenko and Vladimir Tatlin.” In the 2009 Tate Modern catalogue, Rodchenko and Popova: Defining Modernism, Magdalena Dabroski concurred, “Along with Kazimir Malevich, Vladimir Tatlin, and Alexander Rodchenko, she stands out as one of the four most accomplished artists of the Russian avant-garde in the first quarter of the twentieth century.”
First, a brief biography: Liubov Popova was born in 1889. Her father was a textile merchant and performing arts patron, and her mother belonged to a prominent, cultured family. She studied at private art studios in Moscow beginning in 1907, making lifelong friendships with future members of the Constructivist group.
Popova traveled extensively during the pre-World War I period, absorbing past and present art: Mikhail Vrubel’s religious Symbolism from the 1880s at the Church of St. Cyril, Kiev (1909); early Renaissance painting during lengthy trips throughout Italy (1910 and 1914); medieval icon painting in Novgorod, Pskov, and other ancient Russian cities (1910-12); the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg (1911); and Sergei Shchukin’s collection of modern French masters (1912); She and Nadezha Udaltsova lived together in Paris (1912-13), studying at La Palette under Cubists Jean Metzinger and Henri Le Fauconnier, where additionally, she first saw Futurist art and was particularly inspired by Boccioni. In 1916 she explored Islamic architecture in Samarkand, Uzbekistan.
Back in Moscow, she synthesized her sources, working in an artists’ studio called the Tower (1912-15) alongside Tatlin and others. Unlike some contemporaries (Goncharova and Larionov), who wanted to free Russian art of Western influence, looking to national folk traditions instead, Popova was an internationalist. She presented her Cubist paintings in 1914 with the Jack of Diamonds group in Moscow.
Meetings of leftist artists, art historians and philosophers were held in her apartment. Alliances, ideologies and manifestos evolved at a dizzying speed. In 1915, Popova contributed to the historic Petrograd exhibitions Tramway V: The First Futurist Exhibition of Paintings and The Last Futurist Exhibition of Paintings: 0.10 with Tatlin, Malevich, Udaltsova, Exter, Rozanova and others. She had developed a singularly Russian Cubo-Futurist style. By late 1915, her “Painterly Architectonics” had become non-objective, and she joined Malevich’s Suprematist group in 1916. After the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, she and her colleagues began to produce applied and functional art.
They painted murals, executed propaganda posters and created decorations for massive public events. Popova designed embroidery sewn by proletarian women for the Verbovka Village Folk Centre, an artisan cooperative (1917), and joined the faculty of Svomas (Free State Art Studios) in 1918. That year, she married architectural historian Boris von Eding and gave birth to a son. Von Eding died in a typhoid epidemic in 1919; Popova, now a single mother and herself weakened by the disease, didn’t paint for a year.
Since “Subject From a Dyer’s Shop” (1914), painted when Popova was 25, is in MoMA’s collection, I’ve been able to spend time with it. It is encrusted, heavy-handed, overworked, as if she were trying out everything on one canvas: short, long, medium brushstrokes; assertive palette knife slashes; curlicues, dabbles, stipples and swirls; grisaille and full color. Cubist and Futurist tropes are rendered in sharp-edged and shaded passages, some gradating from light to dark, others from one color to another. Abstract underpinnings (a tightly constructed triangular vortex at the core) spar with recognizable imagery (gloves, plumage, tassels, fringes, ribbon-like fabrics wrapped in stripes over tubes). There are wide, shallow strips unrolling frontally above the dyer’s worktable, accentuated by bold, flat lettering and openings into interior space, as well as opaque, dry surfaces broken by shafts of light — a visual feast for a woman who dressed elegantly and loved textiles!
Popova’s more skillful 1915 works contain familiar Cubist subjects (still lifes, signage, guitars and other musical instruments), but she also painted several “Traveling Women,” implying, for me, an autobiographical reading. ( Just as we know that “The Philosopher” is a portrait of her philosopher brother, we also know that she was constantly traveling.) She depicted these women travelers in a witty, fractured, cacophonous, kaleidoscopic, kinesthetic, steam-powered, mirrored, Futurist fun house. No one can stop these women as they barrel their way through the cathedrals of 20th-century transit.
The Guggenheim owns a two-sided 1916 painting (“Birsk” and “Untitled”), which has some of these characteristics, but more broadly and loosely handled. Popova visited Birsk, Bashkortostan, in 1916, and the painting is a bird’s-eye view of that city as an unfolding accordion, where origami rooftops are encircled by a curved wall that looks like a row of giant, marching tea cups. The palette has been reduced to an assured black and white, red, blue, brown and green.
By that time, figuration was disappearing from Popova’s oeuvre. One can visit a 1917 “Painterly Architectonic” painting in MoMA’s permanent collection, hanging slyly next to a Malevich, both enhanced by zingy passages of pink. Its construction is similar to the “Dyer’s Shop”: thrusting diagonals reaching way beyond the edges of the canvas; paper-thin geometric planes laid one on top of another; and a bright, white shape that both pulls you forward and opens beyond. It is pristine, controlled, Apollonian.
The Modern also owns a portfolio of seven geometric linocuts with watercolor, gouache and oil additions, as well as other works on paper from this period (1917-19). The prints are as airy and fresh as the paintings are dense, with thin slices of line between the forms deliberately left off-register to add crispness and clarity. Some areas are printed in several colors that blend into more complex hues, while others allow the ground to breathe through. Studying these works — a virtual laboratory of possibilities — I could sense Popova preparing for her next steps.
By 1920, she had extended the boundaries of two-dimensional art with “Space- Force Constructions,” paintings on bare plywood, built up with sand, metallic powders, marble and sawdust. In 1921, artists were hotly debating “composition” versus “construction,” and Popova aligned herself with the latter. That fall, she submitted five pieces to each part of a two-stage exhibition, 5 x 5 = 25, with Rodchenko, Stepanova, Exter and her longtime friend and sometime collaborator, the architect Alexander Vesnin; all the show’s catalogues were unique, with each cover hand-drawn and colored by one of the artists.
Six months after the inauguration of Lenin’s New Economic Policy in 1921, she was one of twenty-five artists who signed a statement, “Art into Life,” rejecting easel painting altogether. Despite widespread famine, disease and poverty, it was a period of intense creativity. She and Vesnin were planning street spectacles for the masses. She drew book and magazine covers, and designed porcelain cups and workers’ clothing.
Popova’s breakthrough “Space-Force Constructions” of 1920, however, remain her most innovative works. They perfectly encompass her five principles: painterly space; line; color; “energetics”; and texture. She had tackled space in her Cubist period, color in her Suprematist period, and energy in her Futurist period. Finally, line and texture moved to the forefront.
There was much discussion of faktura (the physicality of surface) as content. Popova’s mixed media, non-objective paintings on wood met these conditions gracefully. Lines zigzag across their surfaces, weaving in and out of patches of color, breaking up and crossing, some in concentric circles, others zooming upwards in parallel formation toward a cosmic unknown, and still others ripping diagonally through hovering shapes and shadows.
Like the scaffolding of a building under construction, they reveal their processes and interstices. Paint handling is delicate, washy and transparent, laid alongside bold, opaque impasto passages fabricated from substances new to fine art. These pieces emerged four years after her visit to central Asia, where she absorbed the surfaces and infrastructure of Islamic architecture. The historic great mosque, mausoleum and madrasas of Samarkand contain the same kinds of juxtapositions (curved domes against straight-edged towers; soaring movements against earthy weights; fine decorative details against unornamented stretches of wall; rough, dusty brick against shiny, high-key glazed ceramic tiles, their tight tessellations negating Western notions of figure and ground).
Liubov Popova’s “Space-Force Constructions” were low-relief companions to Tatlin and Rodchenko’s constructions in space. Upon completing the series, Popova ceased to be a studio artist. Transported by a society in motion, she put her energy and talent into “production art,” reinventing objects for everyday life, accessible to a broad public.
Popova taught at the State Higher Theatrical Studios, and her groundbreaking sets for Vsevolod Meyerhold’s productions of The Magnificent Cuckold (1922) and Earth in Turmoil (1923) find echoes in everyone from Richard Foreman to William Kentridge. In The Magnificent Cuckold, the dynamic geometric forms that she had practiced in her paintings morphed into movable wooden platforms, stairs, rigging, slides, scaffolds, ladders, gears, blades and bridges for gesticulating, tottering, charging men and women in loose-fitting, everyday clothes.
Within this aural and visual cacophony, searchlights casting deep shadows create a powerful graphic unity. In Earth in Turmoil, Popova abandoned constructed stage flats, utilizing only industrial props (automobiles, motorcycles, machine guns, cranes, projections, trucks, soldiers, model airplanes dropping leaflets), but she did not achieve her ultimate goal – to make a larger impact through “agit-performance” in the real world.
In 1923-24, Popova and her friend Varvara Stepanova were employed at the State Textile Print Factory, designing fabrics and dresses. Their forever-fashionable textiles move comfortably with the body – the only Russian avant-garde projects that were actually mass-produced. The fabrics are zany and smart, perfect to mix and match. They are of their time too — a moment when flappers were kicking up their heels in Europe and the United States – but Popova’s clothes are practical, not coy or seductive. Geometric patterns cleverly composed, they are the direct outcome of her paintings.
She reported that she had never gotten as much satisfaction from her art as she did from seeing women in the streets wearing her designs. In photos of Popova, there is a playfulness and spiritedness that is contagious. My friend Melissa Meyer said, “Popova, isn’t she the one with the haircuts?” There are only a few extant photographs, all by Rodchenko (who was married to Stepanova) but they are instantly recognizable.
In 1924, her young son died of scarlet fever during another virulent epidemic, and Liubov Popova died four days later, at age 35. She was vivacious, audacious, and passionately political, a meteor. After Lenin’s death in 1924 and Stalin’s subsequent rise to power, Popova’s colleagues either emigrated or adapted to the changed circumstances, producing the Socialist Realist art demanded by the regime. She was never faced with that choice.
In May 1991, Deborah Solomon wrote in The New Criterion, “Popova seems so very young: something about her face, her expression, suggests qualities of a child — naïveté, innocence, or just plain earliness. She looks like an incarnation of the childhood of modern art.”