Lyubov Popova was born into a wealthy family. She grew up with a strong interest in art, especially Italian Renaissance painting. At eleven years old she began formal art lessons at home. Popova travelled extensively and her work has contributed to, and influenced by, many of the major art movements of the early 20th Century.
1907-1908 Impressionism: She studied first with Stanislav Zhukovsky and Konstantin Yuon whose interest in luminous tonalities reminiscent can be seen in early works by Popova such as Still-life with Basket of Fruit (1907–8)
1909 she was very impressed by the religious works of Mikhail Vrubel’.
1910: Renaissance she travelled to Italy and admired Renaissance art, especially the paintings of Giotto.
1910- 1911: Russian art she toured many parts of Russia, including Suzdal’, Novgorod, Yaroslavl’ and Pskov. Inspired by Russian architecture, frescoes and icons, she developed a less naturalistic approach.
1912-1914: Cubism and futurism she went to Paris and Italy. She studied at the Académie de la Palette, under the direction of Henri Le Fauconnier and Jean Metzinger. In numerous sketchbooks she applied Cubist analysis to the human figure. She was also influenced by Léger and the Italian Futurist Umberto Boccioni (see e.g. Two Figures, 1913–14; Moscow, Tret’yakov Gal.; Seated Figure (1914; Cologne, Mus. Ludwig). By 1913, in Composition with Figures, she was experimenting with the particularly Russian development of Cubo-Futurism: a fusion of two equal influences from France and Italy. Popova shows a new confidence and fluency, and a more sophisticated integration of form and space into the transparent structures of curved and rectilinear planes. A complex and dynamic fragmentation appears in canvases such as Travelling Woman (1915; Los Angeles, CA, Norton Simon A. Found.; see Rudenstine, pl. 808).
1912-onwards: Constructivism and suprematism
From 1914–1915 Popova’s Moscow home became the meeting-place for artists and writers.
Popova was influenced by Vladimir Tatlin and worked at some time between 1912 and 1915 in his studio in Moscow, the Tower. Inspired by his constructions, Popova experimented with collage and in 1915 began to produce painted reliefs in which projecting curved elements made of cardboard are juxtaposed and enlivened with strongly coloured, impasto paintwork (e.g. Jug on a Table, 1915; Moscow, Tret’yakov Gal.).
In 1916 she joined the Supremus group with Kazimir Malevich, the founder of Suprematism, Aleksandra Ekster, Ivan Kliun, Nadezhda Udaltsova, Olga Rozanova, Ivan Puni, Nina Genke,Ksenia Boguslavskaya and others who at this time worked in Verbovka Village Folk Centre. The term ‘supreme’ refers to a ‘non-objective’ or abstract world beyond that of everyday reality. The aim was creation of a new kind of painting as part of the revolutionary urge of the Russian avant-garde to remake the world. However there was a tension between those who, like Malevich saw art as a spiritual quest, and others who responded to the need for the artist to create a new physical world. In 1916 she began to paint completely abstract Suprematist compositions, but the title ‘Painterly Architectonics’ (which she gave to many of her paintings) suggests that, even as a Suprematist, Popova was more interested in painting as a projection of material reality than as the personal expression of a metaphysical reality. Popova’s superimposed planes and strong colour have the objective presence of actual space and materials. In 1916 she produced her first non-objective canvases, six of which she exhibited as Painterly Architectonics (two repr. in Rudenstine, pls 826–7) at the November Jack of Diamonds exhibition. Earlier that autumn Popova had joined Malevich’s Suprematist circle, producing several designs for the magazine Supremus (which was never published). Although she adopted the rectilinear geometry and white grounds of the Suprematists, Popova’s abstract canvases were distinctive. She produced very powerful and dynamic paintings in which large geometric planes, boldly coloured but with elements of modelling, abut and interpenetrate to create taut and thrusting diagonal compositions (e.g. Architectonic Painting, 1917; New York, MOMA). Color is used as the iconic focus; the strong primary color at the center drawing the outer shapes together.
During the Civil War Popova worked in the Fine Art Department (IZO) of Narkompros (the People’s Commissariat for Enlightenment), producing agitational posters, and also taught workers at Proletkul’t (Proletarian Cultural Organization). In 1918 she joined the staff of the State Free Art Studios (later known as Svomas), and when these became the Vkhutemas (Higher Artistic and Technical Workshops) she and Aleksandr Vesnin taught colour construction on the Basic Course.
A member of Inkhuk (Institute of Artistic Culture) from 1920, Popova was active in discussions concerning the new art and was commissioned to write a paper on the teaching of art, ‘K voprosu o novykh metodakh v nashey khudozhestvennoy shkole’ (‘Towards the question of the new methods in our art school’; unpublished; Moscow, priv. col.). She also participated in the crucial theoretical debates that led to the formation in March 1921 of the First Working Group of Constructivists. Although not a member, Popova collaborated with two of its founders, Aleksandr Rodchenko and Varvara Stepanova, in the 5×5 = 25 exhibition (1921), showing five works she described as ‘experiments with painterly force structures’. By this time her paintings were more complex in their geometric and spatial construction, making greater use of linear elements (e.g. Spatial Force Construction, 1921; four in Moscow, Tret’yakov Gal.; three in Athens, George Costakis Col.; one in New York, priv. col.; see Rudenstine, pl. 874).
Popova seems to have stopped painting in 1921 and, by her own declaration to Inkhuk in December, she espoused more fully the Constructivist emphasis on the utilitarian role of the artist working in poster, book design, fabric and theatre design, as well as teaching.
Her principal contribution to Constructivism was her subsequent work in theatre and textile design. In 1920 she had collaborated with Aleksandr Vesnin on a project for a mass outdoor festival in honour of the Third International, to be directed by Vsevolod Meyerhold. The following year she was invited to teach a course on the ‘Analysis of the elements of material design’, at the Higher Theatrical Workshops. These were organized by Meyerhold, who in 1922 invited her to design the sets and costumes for his production of Crommelynck’s farce The Magnanimous Cuckold at the Actors’ Theatre in Moscow. Popova created a Constructivist environment by transforming the water-mill of the setting into a multi-levelled, skeletal apparatus, with enormous wheels that rotated at crucial moments in the action. She dressed the actors in overalls, which she conceived as prototypes for workers’ clothing in that they were functional, suitable for mass-production and expressed the new proletarian ideology. In 1923 her set for Meyerhold’s production of Sergey Tret’yakov’s Zemlya dybom (‘The earth in turmoil’) consisted of a gantry crane, and the stage properties were selected from mass-produced objects such as projectors and motorcycles. By this means, together with the use of political slogans and newsreel film, Popova created an industrial montage.
Late in 1923 or early in 1924 Popova, together with Stepanova, started to design textiles for mass manufacture at the First State Textile Factory in Moscow. In accordance with Constructivist principles, both artists considered it imperative, in order to rationalize cloth production, to replace traditional floral patterns with designs consisting of rigorous combinations of one or two geometric forms in an economic colour range. Popova also designed working clothes, dresses made from her own textiles, and garments that utilized available materials such as flannel to combat current shortages. Popova’s theatrical experiments and textile designs were published in Lef (‘Left front of the arts’), a magazine set up in 1923 to promote Constructivist ideas in all the arts. She contracted scarlet fever from her son and died prematurely.
Popova died of scarlet fever in 1924 in Moscow. A large exhibition of her work opened in Moscow on December 21, 1924.