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Before her untimely death from scarlet fever in 1924, Lyubov Popova—like contemporaries Kasimir Malevich, Alexandr Rodchenko, El Lissitzky and others—had come to synthesize art, industry and sociopolitics, and dovetail creative disciplines, media and progressive art movements, from futurism to futuro-cubism, and suprematism to constructivism.
Popova, herself, made many shifts and ultimately rejected her bourgeois upbringing: Born in 1889 to a textile merchant and tutored by a governess, her talent for painting was nurtured through private lessons and travel in Russia, France and Italy. At first, her influences included impressionism, the Italian Renaissance and medieval Russian icons. During a year in Paris, she also absorbed orphism, futurism and cubism. On her return to Moscow in 1913, Popova turned her home into a salon for Moscow’s creative class. She became, along with Malevich, a leading proponent of cubo-futurism.
Cubo-futurists mixed the colliding planes and sharp fragments of cubism with the kinetic qualities of futurism and the rich color schemes of Russian folk and decorative art. Popova soon joined Malevich’s suprematist group and devoted herself to abstraction, using the term “painterly architectonics” to describe her experiments with color, texture, rhythm and density in such work as her Space Force Construction drawings. A robust expression of form, they generated a compelling illusion of volume and motion via layered planes of color.
Inspired by the Revolution, however, Popova and her peers started to turn their backs on painting. In 1916, she began to work in the applied arts, textile, fashion, costume, set and graphic design and printmaking, creating complex patterns from basic elements and limiting her range of color. Her architectonics sometimes resembled dynamic op art-like trompe l’oeils. Yet instead of merely pushing the bounds of abstraction, this vanguard wanted to help design the building blocks of a society that was being entirely reinvented.
Popova crisscrossed disciplines and integrating arts and industry. She was also influential as an intellectual and an educator. The VKhUTEMAS (or Higher State Artistic Technical Workshops) was similar to the German Bauhaus, and Popova helped develop its still-influential pedagogical system. She also taught “color construction,” introducing color as an organizational, not decorative, element.
Like the Bauhaus, VKhUTEMAS emphasized utilitarian forms to promote a synthesis of the arts (ceramics, textile and graphic design, metalworking and architecture). But, unlike the Bauhaus, where only 250 students were enrolled at once, its 100 professors opened their classrooms to 2500 students, who followed a core curriculum that included political and social instruction. This curriculum supported the school’s state-sanctioned efforts to build an unprecedented communal society by embodying socialist ideas in both art and industrial design.
The two-part exhibition 5 x 5 = 25 opened in Moscow in September 1921, was intended as a farewell to painting. Rodchenko and Popova and fellow artists Varvara Stepanova, Aleksandr Vesnin and Aleksandra Exter each exhibited five paintings. They also contributed statements and five covers each to 25 hand-made catalogues. The ideas behind the exhibition were confirmed in the ideological debates taking place at INKhUK. At a meeting in November 1921, the critic Osip Brik proposed that, having rejected easel painting once and for all, artists should devote themselves to industrial production. Popova and Rodchenko were both among those who signed their agreement, adopting the slogan ‘art into life’ and acknowledging ‘production art as an absolute value and Constructivism as its only form of expression.’ Popova elaborated these ideas further in a text dated December 21st, 1921:
The era that humanity has entered is an era of industrial development and therefore the organisation of artistic elements must be applied to the design of the material elements of everyday life, i.e. to industry or to so-called production. The new industrial production, in which artistic creativity must participate, will differ radically from the traditional aesthetic approach to the object, in that primarily attention will be focused not on the artistic decoration of the object (applied art), but on the artistic organisation of the object in accordance with the principles of creating the most utilitarian object …
If any of the different types of fine art (i.e., easel painting, drawing, engraving, sculpture, etc.) can still retain some purpose, they will do so only
While they remain as the laboratory phase in our search for essential new forms
Insofar as they serve as supportive projects and schemes for constructions and utilitarian and industrially manufactured objects that have yet to be realised.
In the first issue of the Russian avant-garde journal Lef, in 1923, Osip Brik goes into more detail in a brief article titled “Into Production!”. Taking Aleksandr Rodchenko as his example, he opens: “Rodchenko was an abstract artist. He has become a constructivist and a production artist. Not just in name, but in practice.” He continues: “Rodchenko knows that you won’t do anything by sitting in your own studio, that you must go into real work, carry your own organizational talent where it is needed – into production.”
Some of the most prominent Constructivist artists, such as Vladimir Tatlin, Karl Ioganson, Varvara Stepanova, Rodchenko, and of course Popova, attempted in various and significantly different ways to enter into Soviet mass production after the Russian Revolution. Yet if the debates leading to the formulation of Constructivism and Productivism in 1921 had emphasized “laboratory work,” industrial technology and engineering, a great deal of Productivist work ended up being less about technology and the factory, and more about the invention and theorization of new kinds of useful material objects that would transform everyday life under socialism.
The Productivists defied a conventional gendering of experience inherited from the bourgeois social order by working to transform everyday life from within, through the creation of new objects at the everyday level of stoves, clothing and caramel boxes. The young Productivist theorist Boris Arvatov challenged both Trotsky’s call for the eradication of existing byt, and Tarabukin’s insistence on the superiority of industrial process over the production of objects, by offering a new theory of the object under socialism. Arvatov’s pivotal essay “Everyday Life and the Culture of the Thing” (Byt i kul’tura veshchi) from 1925 attempted to imagine how socialism would transform passive capitalist commodities into active socialist things. He called for “the thing as the fulfillment of the physiological-laboring capacities of the organism, as a social-laboring force, as an instrument and as a co-worker.”
These new socialist objects, connected like “co-workers” with human practice, would produce new experiences of everyday life, new relations of consumption, and new human subjects of modernity. For Arvatov, proletarian culture would emerge not by transcending material life or byt, but by “organically” and “flexibly” working within it in order to transform it in a process of “everyday-life-creation” (bytotvorchestvo). Organic and flexible are the right terms to describe Tatlin’s willingness to direct his artistic practice toward the kinds of things that were really needed in the contemporary conditions of Soviet byt, despite the fact that it involved a radically different, and less valued, kind of “creation” from his previous avant-garde endeavors. In this way, the collective entry of Productivism into everyday life challenged the gendered hierarchies of modern art.
Yet Tatlin’s dogged insistence on a primitive material culture of necessity prevented his objects from fully addressing Arvatov’s concern with how the commodity form and its desires would be transformed within the everyday life of socialist modernity. The socialist objects of Productivists such as Rodchenko and Popova, in contrast, engaged directly with the contradictory consumer culture of the early Soviet Union. In the second issue of the journal Lef, which was dedicated to Popova after her premature death at age 35, the Lef editors wrote, “Popova was a Constructivist-Productivist not only in words, but in deed. When she and Stepanova were invited to work at the First State Cotton-Printing factory, no one was happier than she was. Day and night she sat making her drawings for fabrics, attempting in one creative act to unite the demands of economics, the laws of exterior design and the mysterious taste of the peasant woman from Tula.”
Popova and Stepanova attempted to define their role at the First State Cotton-Printing factory as that of the Productivist artist-engineer, demanding of the administration that they be involved in production decisions and work in the industrial laboratories of the factory. The two women submitted a memo to the factory management, which expressed their desire to be involved in all the organisational and technical aspects of the entire manufacturing and marketing processes. They said they wanted:
To participate in the work of the production organs, to work closely with or to direct the artistic side of things, with the right to vote on production plans and models, design acquisitions, and recruiting colleagues for artistic work.
To participate in the chemistry laboratory as observers of the colouration process.
To produce designs for block-printed fabrics, at our request or suggestion.
To establish contact with the sewing workshops, fashion houses, and journals.
To undertake agitational work for the factory through the press and magazine advertisements. At the same time we may also contribute designs for store windows.
There is no evidence whatsoever that these requests were treated at all seriously by the factory management and despite this, all was not well. In January 1924, Stepanova reported to Inkhuk about work at the factory, criticizing various aspects of the current structure of the textile industry. The tasks confronting them therefore were “The eradication of the firmly embedded ideal regarding the high artistic value of the hand drawn design as the imitation of painting; the fight against naturalistic design in favor of the geometricisation of form, and propagandizing the industrial tasks of the constructivists.” This was, of course, a tall order and required, on an organizational level, a substantial commitment and an enormous amount of co-operation from the factory, which was not forthcoming. The two constructivists were far more successful in ‘geometricising form’ and in this way propagandizing the new aesthetic.
Today, Popova offers a model of a visionary woman artist whose innovations spanned a dizzying array of mediums and who, armed with a powerful intellect, managed to forge her own path, navigating exceedingly difficult terrain at a time when art and politics were inextricably linked. The goal was no less than the transformation of life.