Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Liubov Popova

Liubov Popova

Last month, when we visited the Norton Simon Museum, David Sumner, one of the "Gang of Four" was struck by a painting by Liubova Popova. Like many, he'd never heard of her and since I had, I was glad to share what little I knew. I don't know how her work came to my attention. Maybe I felt empathetic toward her because she was a woman artists, living in a revolutionary time who was ultimately betrayed by that revolution. Maybe it was because she was yet another woman artist who deserved to be remembered and yet, had been marginalized and forgotten. 

She was born April 24, 1889, and grew up on an estate outside Moscow. Her family was rich and cultivated. (Liubov's scholar brother, Pavel, married Tolstoy's granddaughter.) She started studying art at an early age (one source says 11), and received a cosmopolitan education. 

Spastic Power Design. 1921
 Before WW I, she traveled to Italy and Paris. In Italy, she fell in love with Giotto and the rationality of Renaissance architecture. In 1912 and 1914, she lived in Paris and began her mature work. She studied with Jean Metzinger and Henri Le Fauconnier and was influenced by their second-wave Cubist styles. She visited the studios of Ossip Zadkine and Alexander Archipenko.

She was able to see at least one of the great private collections of modern art being formed by the adventurous Russian merchants who traveled to Paris, men like Ivan Morozov and Sergei Shchukin. They collected everything from Cezanne to Matisse and Picasso. Young Russian artists formed a Cezanne-influenced group called Jack of Diamonds which became the cradle of artistic radicalism in Russia. Popova showed with the group.
Still Life with tray. 1921
But that world ended on Aug. 1, 1914. Germany declared war on Russia. England and France declared war on Germany and a whole generation of young men marched out to die in the mud for foolish treaties. Popova returned to Russia, started a salon for leftist intellectuals, painted works influenced by Malevich. She met and fell in love; Boris von Eding, an art historian and expert on ancient Russian architecture. 

By 1917, the country was suffering from famine. The Romanov Dynasty fell and was replaced by a series of governments, eventually ending up with a Bolshevik dictatorship. A typhus epidemic erupted, eventually killing 3 million people.

In March, 1918, the Bolsheviks withdrew from the "capitalist-imperialist" war and Popova married Von Eding. In November, they had a son. In the summer of 1919, they sojourned to Rostov-on-the-Don. While out of town, Von Eding contracted typhus and died. Popova too was infected. By the time she returned to Novinsky Boulevard she had a serious heart condition. She did not work steadily again until 1921.

When she resumed she was transformed into a relentless worker, comrade and organizer fighting for the new order through her art. She only had three years left to live. A disastrous drought in 1920 became a famine that killed another 3 million. Despite all this, the bureaucracy established state art schools. The new government promoted artists to apparatchiks. From Malevich to Chagall they were appointed to posts with ponderous titles. Popova, among other things, established the design course for Vkhutemas (Higher State Artistic and Technical Studios). It was to train artists for industrial production.

She pitched in with a vengeance, making art despite severe shortages of materials, writing stiffly impassioned theoretical formulations justifying the practical application of art to the revolution. 
Her most successful works of the Constructivist period were her 1922 designs for the play "The Magnanimous Cuckold." Working with Russia's leading theatrical director, Vsevolod Emilievich Meierkhold, she produced a set that looks like Suprematist Dada. Full of senseless gears and meandering platforms, it predicted Chaplin's classic, "Modern Times." Yet she also worked with Meierkhold on "Earth on End," an unabashed piece of revolutionary propaganda.
 Air. Man. Space, 1923
 In 1923, Popova and Stepanova were invited by the first State Cotton-Printing factory in Moscow to contribute original designs for new textiles. Before the war, all such designs had been imported from the west. Popova embraced the task with gusto, creating more than a hundred highly inventive patterns for mass production. Rodchenko also made fabric and costume designs, but Popova’s work represented one of the rare occasions when Constructivist design was able to reach a genuinely popular audience without compromising its ideas. After her death, Popova was quoted by osip Brik as saying 'no single artistic success gave me such profound satisfaction as the sight of a peasant woman buying a piece of my fabric for a dress'.

The Traveler. 1915. Norton Simon Museum.

The trouble, of course, was that the party was out to form a totalitarian empire while the artists believed in the equality, brotherhood of man, the unification of the arts in the service of the people. Their idealistic art could not serve the propaganda needs of Stalin's police state. It was too honest, too intellectual, too much a product of the early days of genuine revolutionary fervor to survive. 

Popova died of scarlet fever in 1924, probably contacted from her son who had died just a few days before. She was just 34 and was just one of the millions dying that decade in post-revolutionary Russia, beset by epidemic diseases, hunger, civil war, political chaos and the ultimate destruction of the hope for a better world. Lenin had died just a few months earlier and Stalin was the ultimate winner in the lethal infighting that followed. He now had the power of life and death over Russia. That included art and the sort of abstraction practiced by Popova and her comrades from Malevich to Rodchenko and Tatlin was rendered invisible.

The lucky ones escaped. The not-so-lucky perished in Siberia or endured decades of persecution and isolation. It could be argued that Popva was lucky to have died when she did. Born into a wealthy and cultivated family, she would never have survived Stalin's purges. 

By the 1930s, all of the revolutionary movements in art were losing ground, as the Association of Artists of Revolutionary Russia (AKhRR) promoted 'heroic realism' to glorify workers and peasants through easel painting and monumental sculpture. in the years to come, Rodchenko and his colleagues were increasingly marginalized and Socialist Realism was endorsed as the sole approved artistic style of the Soviet Union. It would remain the official style of the regime until the 1960's.   

Rodchenko joined the October circle of artists in 1928 but was expelled three years later being charged with "formalism". He returned to painting in the late 1930s, stopped photographing in 1942, and produced abstract expressionist works in the 1940s. He continued to organize photography exhibitions for the government during these years. He died in Moscow in 1956.
Olga Rozanova: Died of diphtheria in 1918
Aleksandra Ekster: Fled to France in 1924
Nadezhda Udaltsova: In 1938 her husband, Alexander Drevin was arrested and executed by the NKVD, and Udaltsova became a persona non grata in the world of Soviet art. She died in 1961 in Moscow. 
Malevich: his works were banned in 1927. He died of cancer in 1935.

No comments: