Sotiria Grek is a Lecturer in Social Policy at the School of Social and Political Science, University of Edinburgh. From 1997 to 2002, Sotiria was curating the Costakis Collection of the Russian Avant-garde at the State Museum of Contemporary Art (SMCA) in Thessaloniki. She was an assistant curator of the exhibition ‘Avant-garde: Masterpieces of the Costakis Collection’ (2000), and, with Lutz Becker, co-curated the exhibition and catalogue ‘Tatlin and After’ (2001-2002), both at the SMCA.
Whenever modern art historians speak about women artists, they commonly do so by pairing esteemed male artists with their lesser known artist wives, daughters or female friends. This is not the case with the Russian Avant-garde (1890-1930), the modernist art movement which has challenged all such art historical and curatorial clichés.
The Russian Avant-garde, with its emphasis on collective creativity and on utilitarian art forms, significantly destabilized the ingenuity of the single, male artist. Contrary not only to historic tradition but also to the practices of their fellow contemporary artists in the West, Liubov Popova (1889 -1924, Moscow) and her female comrades (Varvara Stepanova, Varvara Bubnova, Nadezhda Udaltsova and Aleksandra Exter) fulfilled Lenin’s 1917 postulate that “in the land of the Soviets, every kitchenmaid must be able to rule the state”; indeed, Liubov Popova did ‘rule’ the Constructivist milieu (Tupitsyn 2009).
During her brief life, Popova moved rapidly from realism and impressionism to embracing the inventions of the main artistic movements of the Avant-garde. Having grown up in a merchant, relatively well-off family, she studied both the Italian Renaissance and the Russian Byzantine art with equal passion. As a young artist, she visited St Petersburg to study Italian Renaissance painting, but also travelled to the ancient cities of Kiev, Novgorod, Pskov, Yaroslav, Rostov and Suzdal to learn more about the art of icon painting. Having discovered the roots of these seemingly incompatible styles, she discovered a logic which found expression in her Painterly Architectonics (1918); flat, geometric forms are arranged to create a sense of overlapping layers, therefore negating the conventional linear perspective.
Interestingly, and uniquely, Popova was interested in both Italian and Byzantine art not only for their synthesis and colour but also their materiality; the wooden boards that were used for painting icons, became the basis for her painted reliefs and her series of the Painterly Architectonics – where one can clearly notice the traces of the texture of the wooden board. A Cubo-futurist phase followed, when Popova started experimenting with abstract rhythms and patterns, as well as a Suprematist phase; Popova joined Malevich’s abstract, purist geometric style, only to then move on and begin preparing for Constructivism.
By the late 1910s, Popova was discovering a whole new laboratory of forms: just as Cubism had once looked for construction in the human figure and the object, Popova subjected abstract forms to further reduction, by revealing their essence as material, geometric units. With Constructivism, the emphasis of the composition is not on the rectangular surface of the painting, but rather on its edge which becomes the foundation and the principal focal element. As a result, the planes become stripes which are now simply suspended in the immense space of the universe.
However, Popova’s artistic genius took off later, at the outset of the October Revolution, when she left her studio to play a part in the reorganisation of everyday life and public space. Armed with the conviction that abstract art should have a key role in social transformation, Popova, together with her colleagues, contributed to a variety of projects that aimed to imbue the Bolshevik ambition of modernising the country with the aesthetic of the avant-garde. Some examples of this work include what was later to be called ‘production art’: Popova sketched models for proletarian furniture; she decorated the Mossovet (Moscow City Council) building; she participated in painting a mural for the club of the Left Federation of the Professional Union of Artist-Painters; she contributed to the design of the Moscow Kafe Pittoresk; based on the structural principles of the INKhUK’s composition/construction debate, Popova designed non-objective stage props for Meyerhold’s The Magnanimous Cuckold (1922).
Constructivism was far more open to femininity and difference than its repute for modernist rationality may suggest; Popova was seen by her fellow artists and the public not as a woman artist, but simply as an artist. ‘Her career unfolded in the context of the Bolsheviks’ proclamation of the emancipation of women under socialism, which was supposed to entail the destruction of the private domestic sphere of everyday life in which women had traditionally been trapped, and their seamless entry into productive and public life – including the practice of art. ‘ (Kiaer, 2009;143) Popova had a son, born in 1918; she lost her husband a year later. Little do we know about him or how Popova combined motherhood with practicing art. Apart from a few photos, no other evidence has survived about Popova’s personal life and the challenge of bringing up a child whilst producing art. Almost similar to imitating Constructivism’s rejection of gender specificity, little information has survived about Popova as mother or wife.
The emancipation of women in Constructivism is nowhere to be found more prominently than in the way that artists entered factories in order to produce new kinds of objects for use in novyi byt, ‘a new everyday life’; their objective was to transform both production and consumption. Vladimir Tatlin (the so-called ‘father of constructivism’) was designing stoves and pots and pans for proletarian kitchens; Popova and Stepanova were designing fabrics destined for women’s dresses at the First State Cotton-Printing Factory (most of them featuring geometric designs); and Rodchenko was making cookie, sweets and cigarette packaging and advertisements to promote the ‘socialist’ products of Mossel’prom, the state-owned agricultural trust.
Constructivism was allied with the Bolshevik novyi byt campaign. This campaign was primarily directed towards women, as those who bore the burden of everyday life; it was part of the Bolsheviks’ response to what they called ‘the woman question’, meaning the theoretical and practical approaches to achieving the emancipation of women under socialism (Kiaer 2009). Trotsky’s ‘Questions of everyday life’ hailed the need for the liberation of women from domestic slavery; the socialisation of childcare; and the liberation from marriage. He wrote about achieving emancipation through the construction of dining halls, laundries, day care services and living spaces organised rationally for collective living. Both Trotsky and the Constructivists were arguing for women to enter productive labour and political life while the state would take over most of the functions of everyday life – formerly the responsibility of women only.
Popova addressed Trotsky’s declarations when in 1923 she designed an anti-prostitution poster: ‘Brother Worker Protect Your Sister from Prostitution’. She created geometric textile designs which were for the first time mass-produced and distributed in the Soviet economy; textile design however was not as previously considered a feminine art form. Popova, together with her comrade Stepanova, emphatically re-defined themselves not as women artists, but as Productivist artist-engineers who demanded to be involved in production decisions and work in the industrial laboratories of the factory. Popova’s Constructivism, as Christina Kiaer describes, suggests a kind of domestication of the avant-garde; ‘domestication not in the negative sense of taming or lessening, but in the sense of bringing the formal experimentation home, of bringing it into everyday life, where it can be experienced by everyone’ (2009; 147).
Liubov Popova died of scarlet fever at the age of 35. In the catalogue of her posthumous exhibition, Popova’s brother, Pavel, wrote: ‘ Impetuous and passionate, never satisfied with what had been achieved and forever aspiring forward, from a young age Popova displayed an enthusiasm for revolutionary forms and governments both in art in particular and in the basic orientations of life. This revolutionary spirit was characteristic of her steadfast leftism in all spheres of activity’. Indeed, Popova regarded her work as a ‘duty and a social obligation’. Although she did not emphasise the theme of the political in her own theoretical texts, she did highlight the need to unite the two revolutions – the artistic and the social.
Many thanks go to the State Museum of Contemporary Art, and particularly to Chryssa Zarkali and Angeliki Haristou, for allowing the reproduction of the Popova portrait and works and for supplying the relevant images.
Becker, L. and Papanikolaou M. (eds) (2000) Avant-garde: Masterpieces of the Costakis Collection, Exhibition Catalogue, State Museum of Contemporary Art, Thessaloniki.
Bowlt, J. and Drutt, M. (eds) (1999) Amazons of the Avant-Garde, Exhibition Catalogue, Guggenheim Museum.
Kiaer, C. (2009) His and Her Constructivism, in Tupitsyn, M. (ed) (2009) Rodchenko and Popova: Defining Constructivism, Exhibition Catalogue, Tate Publishing
Tupitsyn, M. (ed) (2009) Rodchenko and Popova: Defining Constructivism, Exhibition Catalogue, Tate Publishing.