The Bolshevik Revolution aimed to transform an entire civilisation, and artists were among the first to show their support. There was already a distinct strain of utopianism in the Russian avant-garde – a determination to reinvent art, as if from zero. Kasimir Malevich’s abstract paintings freed art from what he called ‘the dead weight of the real world’. Equally radical were Vladimir Tatlin’s Counter-Reliefs, made by assembling real materials, such as wood, glass and metal into three-dimensional constructions.
Following these examples, the Constructivists rejected all ideas of illusory representation. Rodchenko focused on faktura, the physical qualities of the painting: the use of different paints and different textures, and how these related to other elements such as the painting surface, or the choice of colour. His experiments led to the ‘Black on Black’ series, in which the elimination of colour focused attention on the texture of the painting’s surface, and its interaction with light. In these works, Stepanova wrote, ‘nothing but painting exists’.
Popova’s Painterly Architectonics respond to some of Malevich’s ideas, but push them further. Geometric shapes jostle together, overlapping,intersecting, their edges pressing beyond the frame. A dynamic sense of instability and movement is matched by her use of strong colour. As the title suggests, Popova was already looking beyond painting, into architecture and three-dimensional structures, yet cramming that expansive energy onto the flat surface of a painting.