Lyubov Popova - Biography and Legacy
Russian Artist, Painter and Designer
Moscow, The Soviet Union
Biography of Lyubov Popova
Lyubov Popova was born in Ivanovskoe, a district on the outskirts of Moscow, to an affluent family in 1889. Her father, Sergei Maximovich Popov, a successful textile merchant, and her mother, Lyubov Vasilievna Zubova, were both keen patrons of the arts and encouraged Popova's interest in art.
Raised in this creative environment, Popova pursued drawing and sketching, and had a particular fondness for the Italian Renaissance. At eleven years old her parents arranged formal art lessons for her at home, before enrolling her in the School of Painting and Drawing in Moscow. Here she learnt about light and color and became acquainted with recent developments in Western European art, including Impressionism. She went on to study at the Moscow art studio of the Polish-Russian landscape painter Stanislav Zhukovsky, who also counted the young artist and poet Vladimir Mayakovsky amongst his students.
Early Training and Work
Unlike contemporaries like Varvara Stepanova, who had peasant origins, Popova's prosperous background allowed her to travel widely to expand her artistic education. In 1909, she travelled to Northern Russia and Kiev to view murals and mosaics in churches and monasteries. The bright colors of Russian icon painting inspired her; drawing similarities in the work of Giotto and other Renaissance painters she had enjoyed as a child.
Popova's art education flourished further in 1912 when she travelled to Paris with fellow painter Nadezhda Udaltsova to study at the private art school, the Académie de la Palette. Studying in the studios of the Cubist painters Henri Le Fauconnier and Jean Metzinger, she began to use the canvas to dissect objects and explore shape and structure. She studied the figure as depicted in the works of Fernand Leger and the dynamic sculptures of the Italian Futurist Umberto Boccioni.
Upon returning to Moscow, she continued learning about the French avant-garde by visiting the collection of Sergei Shchukin. A successful businessman and avid art collector, Shchukin regularly opened his home for public viewings, introducing Russian society to as the works of visionary artists such as Gauguin, Picasso, and Matisse.
Popova met Vladimir Tatlin whilst working in his studio, The Tower. Impressed by Tatlin's work in the three-dimensional, Popova experimented with collage and produced increasingly non-figurative painted reliefs using materials such as cardboard alongside thickly applied paint. She began to exhibit with her contemporaries; artists such as Mikhail Larionov and Natalia Goncharova, who were also finding new ways of combining traditional Russian motifs with modern art.
As Popova developed artistically, so did Moscow. By the mid-1910s it had become a creative hub where the Russian avant-garde gravitated. Popova participated in many exhibitions in the advent and aftermath of the Russian Revolution of 1917, such as the Jack of Diamonds (1914, 1916), Tramway V: First Futurist Exhibition of Paintings and 0.10: The Last Futurist Exhibition (1915), The Fifth State Exhibition: From Impressionism to Non-Objective Art (1918), and The Tenth State Exhibition: Non-Objective Creativity and Suprematism (1919).
Popova's move towards non-representational art became official when she joined the Suprematist group in 1916, alongside its founder Kazimir Malevich. Since displaying his work Black Square at the 0.10: The Last Futurist Exhibition (1915), Malevich promoted a move into purely abstract art as celebration of a world without capitalist signs and values. In his Suprematist Manifesto of 1916, he declared "Color and texture are of the greatest value in painterly creation - they are the essence of painting; but this essence has always been killed by the subject". Popova demonstrated these abstract values in a series of six paintings called Painterly Architectonics, which she displayed at the Jack of Diamonds (1916) exhibition in Moscow.
Moscow continued to be the epicenter of cultural exchange following the Russian Revolution in 1917. Described by the American journalist John Reed as "ten days that shook the world", the events of October 1917 had profound and long-lasting repercussions throughout the world. Popova, like many of the Russian avant-garde, identified with the aims of the Revolution and was excited by the new possibilities and the role art would take in future society. She became politically active through her art, producing posters and book designs for the cause.
During the subsequent Civil War, which took place between 1917 and 1920, Popova joined the Left-Wing Federation of the Moscow Artists' Union and later became a member of the Institute of Artistic Culture (Inkhuk), run by Wassily Kandinsky. She worked in the Fine Art Department of the People's Commissariat for Enlightenment and taught at the State Free Art Schools, later known as the Higher Artistic and Technical Workshops (Vkhutemas).
The years following the Revolution were also significant for Popova on a personal level. In 1918, she married the art historian Boris von Eding. Given the closeness of the artistic community in Moscow, it was common for creatives to marry within the circle. Varvara Stepanova married fellow Constructivist Alexander Rodchenko, and the Suprematist Olga Rozanova, before her early death from diphtheria in 1918, married the poet Aleksei Kruchenykh. Disease was rife in the uncertain years following the Revolution. Von Eding died of typhoid fever in 1919, with the disease nearly taking Popova and their newborn son as well.
The Revolution also changed the way Popova saw her art. Following 1917, there was a tension between the Suprematists, who saw art as anti-material and spiritual, and the Constructivists, who saw it as serving the Revolution in a practical way. She continued painting abstract work until joining Aleksander Rodchenko's Constructivist circle, which declared an abandonment of easel painting at their 1921 exhibition 5 x 5.
The events of 1917 and the years that followed underpinned Popova's abandonment of her middle-class upbringing and travelling life in favor of serving the Revolution. As Rodchenko put it, she was "an artist from a wealthy background, regarded us with condescension and contempt, since she considered us unsuitable company...Later on, during the Revolution, she changed greatly and became a true comrade".
In the last few years of her life, Popova worked in a range of media with the aim of contributing to the making of the new society. She created designs for theatre sets and costumes, produced new typography and book covers, and designed fabric and printed textiles for the First State Textile Printing Works in Moscow. Throughout her artistic work, she also continued to teach art theory at Vkhutemas and contribute to LEF, the journal of the Left Front of the Arts. In 1924 Popova died of scarlet fever in Moscow, soon after her young son succumbed to the same disease. She was only 35 years old.
The Legacy of Lyubov Popova
Popova's intense but short career inspired many other Soviet artists of the era. She shaped the development of Russian Revolutionary art through her education, travels, and relationships with other artists and influencers. She is particularly renowned as one of the most influential female artists of the 20th century and noted for her collaboration with other women artists including Nadezhda Udaltsova, Aleksandra Ekster, and Varvara Stepanova. Together they demonstrated the new role women could take as workers following the Revolution.
Shortly after her death, an exhibition of her work was shown at the Stroganov Institute in Moscow. In the catalogue, her contemporaries described her as an "Artist-Constructor," an enviable title, which indicated artists' collective hope post Revolution, which lasted until Stalin's suppression of the Russian avant-garde in the late 1920s.