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The artists of the Russian avant-garde were distinguished from their Western counterparts in many ways, particularly in the extraordinary number of women in their ranks who were responsible for discovering new bases of artistic creation. Liubov Popova was among the most important of these early pioneers. Her development as an artist was encouraged through private lessons and frequent travel, which brought her into contact with a broad range of historical examples, from Italian Renaissance art and Russian medieval icons to Cubism and other Western vanguard styles. In 1912 she went to Paris with fellow painter Nadezhda Udaltsova to study painting at the Académie de la Palette under André Dunoyer de Segonzac, Henri Le Fauconnier, and Jean Metzinger. There she mastered the Cubist idiom and was probably exposed to Italian Futurism, the two styles that would dominate her paintings of the next three and a half years.
After returning to Moscow in 1913, she quickly emerged as one of the primary exponents of Russian Cubo-Futurism, an amalgam of the faceted planarity of Cubism and the formal energy of Futurist art. Birsk was completed near the end of her involvement with this style. Its crystalline structure is formally reminiscent of the views of houses in l’Estaque painted by Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso in 1908, but the vibrant palette attests to Popova’s sustained interest in Russian folk and decorative art. Birsk, one of the few landscapes from this stage of Popova’s career, was begun during a summer visit to the home of her former governess, who lived near the Ural Mountains in the small town of the painting’s title.
The painting on the reverse of the same canvas, entitled Portrait of a Woman, shows Popova undertaking a subject that consistently occupied her during 1915: a figure situated in a Cubist-inspired composition. Although this work retains some representational elements, Popova’s gradual move away from representation is evident in her forceful application of an abstract visual vocabulary. By the end of 1916 Popova was completely devoted to abstraction, joining Kazimir Malevich’s Supremus group and creating paintings composed solely of dynamic geometric forms. These experiments in texture, rhythm, density, and color—which she called “painterly architectonics”—became the basis of her textile and theater designs of the 1920s. Like many of her Russian colleagues, Popova would ultimately renounce painting as obsolete and concern herself with the applied arts, which became synonymous with building a new society after the October Revolution.