Friday Art: The Pianist, by Lyubov Popova (1914)

Popova had a too-brief but strong career as an avant-garde painter and textile designer in early 20th century Russia. She mixed elements of Cubism with Futurism, like in “The Pianist” above, a work that evokes the cubism of Braque (especially the way she paints the musical instrument) with the futuristic style evoking maybe Joseph Stella, especially in the way that her cubist lines seem to converge at various focal points.

So, what kind of music do you hear in your head when you look at this painting? It’s 1914, but somehow I hear an elegant cool Vince Guaraldi-style jazz piano coming from that player’s fingers. I can assume Popova’s contemporaries heard something more along the lines of Scriabin or Stravinsky, whatever served as their we’re-the-cutting-edge soundtrack as her and her cohorts developed the Constructionist school in the last days of Czarist Russia and during the Lenin era of the Soviet regime.

Popova died in 1924, only 35, contracting scarlet fever from her son who had died two days earlier. Clearly the lesson here is not to have kids. Then again, considering how Stalin clamped down on all abstract art as a form of decadence, had Popova lived, she would have either been forced to produce figure art by the late 1920s onwards or would have wound up dead in Siberia or exiled if she were lucky.

It’s not easy being Russian. I’m certainly glad my family got the hell out of there two dozen years earlier. I’ll enjoy my American weekend with some nice piano music, perhaps. Maybe Scriabin, Stravinsky, Guaraldi and maybe some Henry Gray and Jerry Lee Lewis. Go piano team USA! L’chaim!

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