Iconic is a much overused word but there are certain artworks that have changed the course of art history. Without them what we take for granted as contemporary art might have been totally different. Picasso’s 1907 Desmoiselles D’Avignon reconfigured the human form. His chthonic women act as a metaphor for psychological insecurity and the breakdown of old certainties rather than as a description or likeness. Duchamp’s Fountain, 1917, introduced the readymade and challenged the concept of elitist craft-led art, while Andy Warhol’s early 1960s soup cans appropriated banal everyday commodities, placing them within the sanctity of the museum and gallery. But without Kazimir Malevich’s Black Square, 1915, what he called ‘a bare icon… for my time’, contemporary abstract painting, as well as contemporary architecture, sculpture and design might have taken another direction altogether. It’s rare that an artist does something completely new. But Malevich, it might be argued, did. After him, painting no longer represented the world but became an end in itself, a new reality.
Born of Polish stock in Kiev in 1879, Malevich moved to Kursk in 1896. By the age of 27 this talented young man was living in the dynamic city of Moscow where successful merchants were collecting works by Cézanne, Gauguin, Matisse and Picasso. Malevich was to find himself – like Russia – balancing on the cultural fault line between Eastern and Western Europe. Should artists look back to traditional icon painting to create an authentic national art form or to the new movements coming from France?
From the start Malevich was keen to assert his modernity and toyed with ‘isms’ from Post-Impressionism to Fauvism, from Futurism to Cubism. Slowly he created his own vocabulary, painting traditional Russian peasants inspired by his upbringing outside Kiev, with colourful cubist verve. Symbolist painters and writers played an important part in his early development but he was slow to align himself to any one style. Gauguin, whose work he saw in Moscow, was a powerful influence as can be seen in his dynamic Fauvist-style Bather of 1911, with its primitive movement and heightened colour. You can almost hear Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring thumping away in the background. Alternative spiritual and religious attitudes such as Theosophy, a mystical movement founded by the eccentric Elena Petrovna and much favoured by European bohemians, also had an input.
Malevich’s career evolved against this cultural backdrop during one of the most turbulent periods of history. He was 26 when a horde of angry workers stormed the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg to deliver a petition to the tsar demanding better working conditions. The ensuing massacre became known as Bloody Sunday. After the defeat of the Russian army during the First World War life for most Russians was bleak – food, money and fuel were all in short supply – and by October 1917 the Bolshevik revolution had forced the tsar to resign. The old order was crumbling.
The current Tate exhibition tells the story of the development of art during these revolutionary upheavals and its dreams of creating a new social order. In a unique collaboration with the Khardzhiev Collection, Amderstam and Costakis Collection SMCA-Thessaloniki, along with drawings from public and private collections around the world, the show starts with Malevich’s early landscapes and mystical religious scenes. His 1908 Adam and Eve gouache on cardboard might almost have been painted by William Blake. There are Gauguin-inspired peasants and a self-portrait in which he looks like Valentino painted by Matisse. Moving through this range of styles it’s possible to trace his journey towards abstract painting and his iconic Suprematist compositions. The show includes most of the surviving paintings from the legendary The Last Futurist Exhibition 0.10 in St. Petersburg in 1915 hung as closely as possible to the original. Famously his Black Square was placed high in the corner of the room, at once nullifying ideas of Renaissance perspective and making reference to the icons hung in the holy corner of Russian Orthodox homes. It is in this iconoclastic void that Malevich presents a search for a new spirituality based on humanistic and artistic values.
There is also an emphasis on the interplay with architecture and theatre, including Malevich’s designs for the avant-garde opera, Victory over the Sun, intended to indicate the future triumph of technology over Nature. Written in Zaum, a Dadaist nonsense language created from neologisms by a number of Russian poets, it challenged the birth of a unified Russian language in a system of signs and sounds. This helped inspire Malevich to free painting from the shackles of representation and to create a new visual language based on shape and colour – ‘suprematism’.
The re-enactment of his opera in video form seems to modern eyes slightly silly and dated, with all the characters dressed in machine-like and cubist inspired costumes. In contrast the stunning suprematist paintings such as Suprematist Painting (with black Trapezium and Red Square) from 1915 seem fresh and vibrant. Here solid blocks of primary colour float against an angled black plane to create compositional tension and a sense of weightlessness that appears to defy gravity. In his text ‘Non-Objective Art and Suprematism’ written for the Tenth State Exhibition in Moscow, Malevich said: ‘Suprematism is a definite system… new frameworks of pure colour must be created, based on what colour demanded and also that colour, in its turn, must pass out of the pictorial mix into an independent unity, a structure in which it would be at one individual in a collective environment and individually independent’. From this point on colour becomes both subject and object. The Tate show also includes fascinating work by his students and colleagues from his time as a teacher in Vitebsk such as El Lissitzky and Illya Chashnik.
After 1927 the trajectory of Malevich’s work fundamentally changed. This was, no doubt, a concession to the political pressure of the times and the rise of Social Realism as the accepted and dominant form. Perhaps he also felt the short comings of pure geometrical abstraction as he returned, between 1928-39, to what are now known as his ‘Second Peasant Cycle’. Here his subjects are not individuals but ‘everymen’ or budetlyane – ‘men of the future’ – the same characters that can be found in the costume designs for Victory over the Sun.
Malevich never abandoned ‘the quest for God’, which he equated with truth. To this end his return to painting the down trodden Russian peasantry is understandable. Despite the social and political upheavals he faced he never stopped trying to make sense of man’s existence in the new political order. The Tate exhibition ends with a strange self-portrait from 1933. Part social realism, part, perhaps, tongue in cheek, the artist presents himself in medieval garb as if creativity was a constant in a shifting world. But it’s through Malevich’s pioneering treatment of colour and its embodiment in form that his work has had a major impact. Rediscovered in 1973 by a new generation of minimalist artists such as Donald Judd with the 1973 exhibition in New York, Malevich left an unequivocal language that sought to construct a ‘philosophical colour system’ set against white as the ‘representation off infinity’ that has gone on reverberating through the work of today’s contemporary artists.
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Sue Hubbard is a freelance art critic, novelist and award-winning poet. Her latest books are Girl in White (Cinnamon Press) and The Forgetting and Remembering of Air (Salt)
Kazimir Malevich (1878 – 1935)
Self Portrait 1908-1910
State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, Russia
Suprematist Painting (with Black Trapezium and Red Square) 1915
Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam
Black Square 1929
© State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow
Head of a Peasant 1928-29
The State Russian Museum, St Petersburg