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The Revolutionary Returns to Favor : Art: The works of Liubov Popova, until recently a shadowy figure in Soviet art, go on display Sunday at LACMA.

June 19, 1991|WILLIAM WILSON | TIMES ART CRITIC

V I. Lenin died of multiple brain hemorrhages on Jan. 21, 1924, in the town of Gorky. He was 53. Less than four months later, artist Liubov Sergeevna Popova died in Moscow of scarlet fever contracted from her young son who succumbed a few days earlier. She was just 35.

Lenin and Popova probably never met but the connection is as intimate as that between an author and a character that inhabits his work.

After his return to the Finland station in 1917, Lenin forged a revolution that reverberated for most of the century. Something peculiarly Russian marked its blend of epic sweep and intimate detail. It was real history's sequel to "War and Peace."

Until recently, Popova was part of a lost chapter in that epic. Like Lenin she was a revolutionary whose time was too short. Unlike him she was one whose memory was for a time erased. Sunday, an exhibition surveying her work will come to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

It will present 55 paintings and 66 works on paper--including signature works from her "Painterly Architectonic" and "Space-Force Construction" series--plus a selection of utilitarian designs done in the direct glare of the revolution. Group exhibitions of this art date back at least a decade. Now, surveys devoted to its individual masters begin to appear. A new book on Popova throws welcome light, but frustrating obscurity remains. The art itself was suppressed as if its maker never existed.

But how does one become, simply, erased? In revolutionary Russia it was quite simple. Joseph Stalin won Lenin's emptied place. Victorious, he could decide many things such as who lived, who died and--incidentally--what would and would not be art.

The sort of abstraction practiced by Popova and her comrades from Malevich to Rodchenko and Tatlin was rendered invisible.

By the time Popova's art was sent to the Siberia of storerooms, she had already been dead for a decade. Maybe in terms of a mordant relativity she was lucky to die with Lenin.

In the beginning, it seemed that the story of Liubov Popova was going to be written by Anton Chekhov. She was born April 24, 1889, and grew up on an estate outside Moscow. Her family was rich and cultivated. (Liubov's scholar brother, Pavel, married Tolstoy's granddaughter.)

Liubov had an uncommonly broad liberal-arts education. Eventually, she would see at least one of the great private collections of modern art being formed by adventurous Russian merchants who traveled to Paris, men like Ivan Morozov and Sergei Shchukin. They collected everything from Cezanne to Matisse and Picasso. Young Russian artists formed a Cezanne-influenced group called Jack of Diamonds. It became the cradle of artistic radicalism in Russia. Popova showed with the group.

And she traveled. In Italy, she loved Giotto and the rationality of Renaissance architecture. In 1912 and 1914, she sojourned to Paris with girlfriends and it was there that the dozen years of her mature work began. She studied with Jean Metzinger and Henri Le Fauconnier and was influenced by their second-wave Cubist styles. She visited the studios of Ossip Zadkine and Alexander Archipenko.

In Moscow in the fall of 1913 she could have seen leading revolutionary poet Vladimir Mayakovsky acting his own play "A Tragedy." But in Paris she could read Proust and listen to Stravinsky. It must have suited her better. Friends described her as courageous, straightforward and outspoken. One praised her for having a "good figure, marvelous eyes and luxuriant hair." Said to possess a magnetic personality, she had a capacity for dropping past attachments.

On Aug. 1, 1914, Germany declared war on Russia. Russians out of the country scrambled to get home. Sergei Prokofiev hurried back from London. Wassily Kandinsky waited until November to leave Germany. Popova was not so tardy.

One of humankind's most common reactions to cataclysmic events is to carry on normally. Popova painted in earnest in a new style influenced by Malevich. She'd started a salon for left-leaning intellectuals. Among them was Boris von Eding, an art historian and expert on ancient Russian architecture. Russians love dialectical disputation. Put any four of them together and you will get eight manifestoes. Or so they say.

By January, 1917, endurance and self-deception must have been wearing thin. Temperatures were at 40 degrees below zero. Railroads were paralyzed, cities were cut off from food and supplies. The Romanov dynasty fell. Bolsheviks stormed the Winter Palace but the angry mob that invaded the former czar's residence was so awed by its opulence they left it unmolested.

A typhus epidemic erupted. The disease would kill 3 million. Through the persistence of paradox, this was the epidemic that caused the young Armand Hammer to go to Russia with an offer of medical assistance. That led to a friendship with Lenin, an eventual fortune for Hammer, a private museum for his art collections and a Malevich exhibition in Los Angeles. The same epidemic would have consequences for Popova.

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