Russian avant-garde painter and designer Lyubov Popova was born on this date in 1889. This is "The Model. I am not sure that I was aware of Popova until I saw a piece of her’s at the Norton Simon some years ago. I was awestruck and have continued to love her work and feel that it was one of the many tragedies of the Russian Revolution that she was diverted from painting and worked as a designer, creating Communist propaganda and textiles, before her early death of 35 from scarlet fever.
Her 1915 painting The Traveler teeters on the edge of abstraction, though like other Cubists, never crosses the line into the non-objective. While the composition is broken into fragments, we can still discern remnants of reality.
In a 1991 review of 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: 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.
When she returned to Moscow, she worked with a group called “The Artists Studio,” creating works that pre-figured cubism but were far more dynamic. After the Bolsheviks gained power in 1917, she worked for their version of revolution, creating murals, propaganda posters, embroidery and fabrics for workers’ co-ops. In 1918, she married and had a child; her husband died in the typhoid epidemic of 1919 and Popova did not paint for a year..
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, idealistic about the Russian Revolution. 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. Due to her early death, 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.”