The syntax of the exhibition of Popova's work on view at the Museum of Modern Art in New York until April 23 (which travels to the Los Angeles County Museum from June 19 to August 18) must be very like that of the Moscow show of 1924. It is essential to recognize, in viewing it, that the later work, from about 1921 until the artist's abrupt death, is not simply what follows, chronologically, the earlier work but what represents the impact upon this artist's life of one of the major historical events of this century. The later pieces-decorative and utilitarian-represent her response to that cataclysmic intervention. What is striking is the way in which Popova applied what she had appreciated and absorbed as a modernist painter who had worked through the sequence of avantgarde movements available to Russian artists in the prerevolutionary years of the century--Cubism, Futurism, CuboFuturism, Suprematism-to projects she might in those earlier years have dismissed merely as applied art. What is ironic is that Popova came truly into her own as a designer, and that the Revolution enabled her to become what she essentially was as an artist. Popova was the daughter of a high bourgeois family--privileged, educated, well traveled and, on the testimony of Rodchenko, who knew her in those earlier years, snooty. She was a strong painter but not an especially original one. She would certainly have disdained as being of lesser artistic moment what, when she internalized the aesthetic imperatives, of the Revolution as she and so many of her artistic comrades understood them, she executed so brilliantly and finally with such originality.
The Institute of Artistic Culture (Inkhuk) was established in 1920 as the official body charged with formulating what the task of artists was to be in a Communist society. At a plenary session of Inkhuk in November 1921, it was determined by majority vote that easel painting was finished as a historical possibility; that it belonged to an earlier historical moment; and that the true artistic expression appropriate to the moment was to be found in industrial and applied art. As Popova voted with the majority in this matter, she must have regarded her earlier work--those heavy exercises in analytical Cubism that seem today more the application of formula than inspired contributions to a new style-as emblematic of a phase of historical expression the world had lived through but must reject. Art is finished!" wrote Alexei Gan. "It has no place in the working apparatus. Labor, technology, organization-that is today's ideology." Ilya Ehrenburg, who was close to the artists, expressed the overall feeling of the moment: Art has died, once and for all.... It is no longer necessary to anyone." So the task of those who used to be artists is "to turn fife into an organized process and thus to annihilate art." Popova is identified with the Constructivist movement, at least one wing of which said, "We declare uncompromising war on art! " A convenient formulation, which in its own way echoes Marx's Eleventh Thesis on Feuerbach, states: "We, the Constructivists, reject art since it is not expedient. Art by nature is passive, it only reflects reality. Constructivism is active, it not only reflects reality but acts itself."
It might appear in some degree inconsistent with the theses of historical materialism to decide by majority vote what ought by rights to have been left to the mechanisms of historical inevitability. Art, after all, was part of the passive superstructures of society, supposedly reflective of the economic forces that were the true determinants of social change, and causally inoperative in its own right: Art but distantly mirrors, as "the abstract ideal expressions of ... social relations"' the real engines of history. Such was classical Marxist theory, according to which, in the end, art was one of the ways in which human beings become conscious of the material conditions that shape their lives. But of course the claim would have been, after 1917, that history was essentially over, with all the objective contradictions having worked themselves explosively out. So for the first time, perhaps, art might be active rather than epiphenomenal. And one might then suppose it would be a moment for an artistic pluralism, parallel to the condition benignly promised in the pages of The German Ideology: "In communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity ... society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another thing tomorrow ... just as I have a mind to." So one can be a Cubist in the morning, a Futurist in the afternoon, a CuboFuturist in the evening and after dinner design textiles, unless one feels like executing Suprematist squares. Alas, as we have learned (not only) from the post-revolutionary period of Soviet history, human beings do not operate with that degree of institutionalized generosity. They are (and artists are no better than bureaucrats: Think of how Chagall was hounded out of Vitebsk by the fervent Malevich) concerned to stipulate the artistically correct line, and to intimidate into conformity whoever resists aesthetic dictatorship.
Still, the early 1920s in Moscow, when Popova found her vocation, must have been intoxicating times for artists who had the license of the Revolution to find out what art was to be good for in the new society, and then the opportunity of a society in upheaval to put their cracked theories into practice, sometimes, as with Popova, with stunning results. In that era, "art" and "artist" were what philosophers have termed "essentially contested concepts." On the one side, the view was that the artist is more by far than a craftsperson, that art in its very essence is a spiritual activity, concerned with the enhancement by spiritual values of the higher dimensions of human life, and that art must inevitably be useless and superfluous in a society construed in practical, utilitarian terms. Art and practicality, from this perspective, are sufficiently opposed that in becoming practical, art stops being art. This was certainly the view of Malevich, as it was of Kandinsky. On the other side was the predictably contrary attitude that the artist in the new society must of necessity be a technician, whose slogan (as voiced by Tatlin) must be, Art into life! " This in effect meant the abandonment of paintings, including the Suprematist paintings of Malevich, conceived of by him as points of entry into a realm of spirit and a "fourth dimension" [see Danto, Art:' April 8]. Instead, artists must concentrate on enhancing the lives of workers in the three-dimensional world of reorganized industrial reality. The studio, whose output had been the repudiated object of aesthetic delectation, was to be transformed into the laboratory, whose products were literally to be designated "production art."
This basic division appeared within as well as between artistic movements. Constructivists, for example, divided over the demand that art serve socially useful purposes. Pevsner and Gabo rejected this even though it was their view that art should reflect modern industrial processes and machinery, and even that it should use industrial products like glass and plastic. Tatlin and Rodchenko held to the inverse demand, according to which unapplied art is unacceptable. So when Alexei Gan, in a text titled "Constructivism," proclaimed the death of art, it was specifically art as a form of religion, as Malevich among others believed it to be, that Gan had in mind. "Let us cease our speculative activity," Gan went on, "and take over the healthy bases of art--color, line, materials, and forms--into the field of reality, of practical construction." Popova was among those most successful in making the transition, and we hardly need the moving declaration recorded in the 1924 catalogue to sense her exultation: All the works she did of applied art, and most especially her designs for the theater, express her sense of having found herself, of being at one with her work, of having found triumph, meaning, value, beauty and fulfillment.
With Popova, it is as if she were never so free a spirit as when she sacrificed her freedom of creativity to some end more social than the making of a painting. Consider, for example, the abstract works she did in her Suprematist period, roughly from 1916 to 1918. Her forms are largely the ones Malevich used--rhomboids, slightly eccentric rectangles, triangles and bars. Malevich, however, deploys his forms against a white space that conveys a sense of boundlessness, in which the forms float as if liberated from earthly constraints. They are painterly metaphors for spiritual freedom, intended as devices for the real liberation of the viewer's spirit: Everything soars, or floats, or flies, or hovers. Popova crowds her forms into the shallow spaces of Cubist painting: The distance from surface to background is almost infinitesimal; it is as if the forms are pressed between them, like leaves between the pages of a book. So her forms feel as if pasted against one another, without room enough to breathe. Malevich's colors have a singing clarity and are almost translucent: They imply light. Popova's colors are the colors of paint in its most material sense: scraped and scumbled on, opaque and chalky and heavy. In a way, her Suprematisms seem like Abstract Cubist works, and in some of them, like her Painterly Architectonic of 1916, the background has those parallel horizontal strokes one finds in the backgrounds of the Parisian Cubists. They are painterly paintings, but sullen: There is none of the dance of the brush but rather the sense of paint being pushed on with a trowel. With Malevich one feels paint is a means rather than the matter of his work, and that all his effort went into the dematerialization of his work, so that he would have used light had he known how to, or floated color onto space without the mediation of paint. For Popova, paint is of the earth. These are not exultant works.
Compare these claustrophobic exercises, which feel as if they were executed by someone who believed in abstraction as a kind of duty but who held none of the high-flying beliefs in its benefits (which fired Malevich or Kandinsky), with what I think of as Popova's masterworks, her brilliant costume designs for Meyerhold's production of Fernand Crommelynck's The Magnanimous Cuckold of 1922. There are three wonderful drawings of "working clothes" for the actors, who were indeed to wear "production clothing." The designs are like proclamatory posters, with red and black lettering declaring that the image is prozodezhda (production clothing) for Aktera No. 5 (or Actor No. 6 or No. 7). The image itself is luminous and alive: Actor No. 5 is a woman wearing a blue overall with a black apron. The apron is a clever composition of Suprematist forms--squares, rectangles, horizontal and vertical bars, separated by thin white spaces. The sleeves are trapezoids, the collar triangles, the skirt a hexagon. In the prozodezhda for Actor No. 7, a red square looks like the lining of a cape held open, while the outer side is shown hanging, an irregular triangle, off the actor's shoulder. Everyone is given a visored cap, one is given goggles. The designs simply sing. They are imaginative, luminous, playful, gay and radiant with intelligence and taste.
In 1921, Popova began to paint what she termed "Space-Force Constructions:' in which it appeared that she was endeavoring to comply with Constructivist injunctions by using industrial motifs painted on undisguisedly industrial material, in this case plywood. Oil paint on plywood, one feels, is an effort to yoke art and industry together by external conjunction; and the paintings, which are crisscrossed bars, like struts in a trestle or a suspension bridge, are not especially successful. Mixing marble dust with the paint does not greatly help. One senses the urgency and intelligence that the works seem only to frustrate, emblems of a thwarted artistic will. It is one thing for elements to be irregular in Suprematist imagery but quite another when they are intended to designate industrial forms. Throughout this series, one has the impression of an artist preparing herself for some achievement that has not disclosed its nature to her. And then, like an external destiny, a commission came from someone who saw her promise. This was the great dramaturge Vsevolod Meyerhold, who invited Popova to teach stage design, and more importantly to execute the set for The Magnanimous Cuckold.
Popova's set was conceived of as an apparatus for actors. From contemporary photographs, but most particularly from the unsurpassed drawings she made, we see the somewhat flaccid crisscrosses of the Space-Force Constructions stiffen and come to life as a scaffolding, with stairs and ramps that enable the actors to move from level to level, to slide down and shout across and, since it is an erotic comedy--a farce--to look up skirts and dart in and out of bedrooms. The setting in Crommelynck's play was to have been the interior of a mill, and indeed there is a system of wheels in Popova's set, black, yellow and red wheels that evidently functioned like a mechanized chorus to mark the degree of excitement in the action by rotating at various rates. At the upper left are the blades of the mill wheel itself. In Constructivist theater, the structures were meant to be nonrepresentational, or at least nonrealistic, and were intended merely to organize the space for action, to create what was understood literally as the actors' working space. Apart from Popova's scaffolding, the stage was to be empty, and audiences were shocked to see the bare brick of the house's back wall. And the actors of course were to wear "work clothes," roomy and comfortable and uniform, to enable them to execute Meyerhold's severe "biomechanical" stage directions. The basic idea of biomechanics is that the body is a machine, that we stand to our bodies as workers stand to machines, which we must learn to run efficiently and productively: There is no room for psychology, character, feelings. But the characters in The Magnanimous Cuckold in fact are driven by very strong feelings. The husband, Bruno, is jealous to the point of insanity; the faithful wife who endeavors to humor him is pressed by guilt and desperation. All this was to be translated into the mechanics of motion, which demanded extraordinary athletic prowess. Popova's set at the time was compared to an acrobat's trapeze, which has little by way of intrinsic beauty and is totally nonrepresentational. Its beauty is in its function, what it enables the acrobat to do.
The drawing for the stage set is, for me, the high point of the show. It brings the artist to the threshold of greatness. The drawing has again the look of a poster, with red and black sans-serif lettering and a witty metrical scale up its left edge. In the center is the stunning scaffold, with the system of wheels and ladders, and biomechanical stairways running in and out of either side. At the base of the left stairway, an actor is posed in a prozodezhda coverall, all in angles, like a Cubist lamp-stand. This does not constitute the imposition of a specific modernesque format on the human individual. It embodies, rather, the biomechanical ideal. The body looks like a mechanism of joined limbs, almost a robot, about to commence its jerky ascent, up the stairs and across the space like a jumping jack, prepared to execute the almost impossible directions of the inspired--or possessed-Meyerhold.
The Russian modernist painters were profoundly influenced by the French, whose work was made available to them through the hospitable collections of Shchukin and Morizov. Popova herself had gone to Paris to study with the lesser Cubists, Le Fauconnier and Metzinger, whose teachings she rather mechanically followed. It must have been the artistic authority of Paris that determined the presentation of Crommclynck's play, first staged in Paris in 1920. It is a strange and dreamful erotic comedy, whose heroine, Stella, has the ineluctable innocence of Krazy Kat. There is something almost bizarre in the thought that this should have been the great Constructivist theater, the vehicle for all that revolutionary aesthetic and for the symbolic representation of the ideal in a society of machines, in which feelings are extirpated and only efficiency counts. Popova's figures are faceless. But the drawing, like the set that translated it into three dimensions, is celebratory and engaging, and snaps with wit, cleverness and plastic verve. There were ominous rumblings from the nomenklatura. The commissar of education, Anatoly Lunacharsky, called The Magnanimous Cuckold "a decline for theatrical art, since a seizure of its territory by the clowns of the music hall:' But the production, and especially Popova's sets and costumes, was a great hit. The scaffold itself became a cliche of advanced theater.
The catalogue I began by quoting goes on to say that in the very spring in which she died, "all Moscow was wearing fabric with designs by Popova without knowing it-vivid, strong drawings, full of movement, like the artist's own nature." I find it profoundly affecting that this artist should have found herself at last where she would, in her beginnings, least have expected it. Her paintings all look like pictures of movement that merely aspire to vividness and strength. These qualities, which eluded her in fine art, are triumphantly present in her designs, and in looking at them we cannot but feel that we are in the presence of this powerful and finally fortunate woman.
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|Title Annotation:||Museum of Modern Art, New York|
|Author:||Danto, Arthur Coleman|
|Date:||May 6, 1991|
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