January 9, 2011

Liubov Popova, a Painter of the Revolution

The Jug on the Table (Plastic Painting), 1915; oil on cardboard mounted on wood; 23 1/4 x 17 7/8 inches.

Liubov Popova was one of the greats of the revolutionary period of Russian art. Along with Kazimir Malevich, she is the artist I look to from that fertile time. I find excitement in their use of flat and overlapping planes energizing a space, and far from cool, the paint surfaces are rich with touch and feeling. I only became aware of Popova's work at the survey exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1991 and it was quite a thrilling experience. (I photographed the paintings for this post from the excellent catalog from the exhibition; it's available online) Although she had a short life, dying at the age of 35 in 1924, her output was prodigious, and always innovative. She traveled widely, admired Giotto and Russian icon painters, but I have to believe that her trip to Paris in 1912 was most important because it was after that trip that she began to paint strongly cubist works. The painting/construction above came at the end of that period. I love its drama, its use of actual three dimensions along with painted form which curls and flows across the surface.

Painterly Architectonic with Yellow Board, 1916; oil on canvas 34 1/2 x 30 5/8 inches.

My favorite period of Popova's work is 1916-17, when she did her great series of painterly architectonics. With them she moved to non-objective painting, influenced by Malevich's Suprematism, from the Latin supremus, meaning ultimate or absolute. I see the painting above as being an amalgam of cubism and Suprematism, as the yellow board calls to Picasso.

Painterly Architectonic: Black, Red, Gray, 1916; oil on canvas; 35 1/8 x 27 7/8 inches.

Painterly Architectonic, 1916; oil on board; 23 1/2 x 15 1/2 inches.

Painterly Architectonic, 1916-17; oil on canvas; 62 1/2 x 49 1/8 inches.

Painterly Architectonic, 1917; oil on canvas; 31 1/2 x 38 5/8 inches.

The four works above show different approaches that Popova took in this period of her work, from the severely minimalist Black, Red, Gray, to adding some volumetric form, to more complex, jazzy layering of gorgeously colored planes and finally to lively diagonal layers of unconventional color. She did two architectonic paintings using pink and red, choices so dynamic and surprising that they inspired me to do a textile as homage:

Pink Triangle (for Popova), 2006; hand dyed wool on linen; 12 x 10 inches.

And below, a wonderful collage with a perfect balance of color and jaunty form. Popova went on to a series called Space-Force Construction and then, as with many Constructivist artists, to design: of stage productions, journal covers and fabric; "Art into Life". It's hard for me to imagine the turmoil and sheer excitement of this period; the paintings of Popova bring some of it to me.

Composition, 1920; gouache and paper collage on paper; 17 1/2 x 11 3/4 inches.


  1. nice to see these, esp the flatter, less-cubist ones - makes me think of cubism as a 'between', a stepping stone between two different systems of vision.
    your homage fits in so well!

  2. rappel, although I love that first image I posted, I too especially like Popova's flat planar paintings. And I'm glad you like my little homage.

  3. hooray for this, Altoon - & espec ially the your 'homage' piece. made me very happy.

  4. thank you, tony! isn't art wonderful?

  5. I love your "pink triangle" piece here!