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Malevich – Revolutionary of Russian Art : Tate Modern 16 July to 26 October 2014

by on September 21, 2014
Malevich 'Black Square' (1915)

Malevich ‘Black Square’ (1915)

Twelve rooms at the Tate Modern have been dedicated to this comprehensive but challenging retrospective of the Russian artist, Kazimir Malevich (1879-1935). Twelve rooms, yet the exhibition’s focus is on one painting, his Black Square (1915), a defining work of modernism, marking zero hour in modern art. It is up there with Duchamp’s readymade Fountain (1917). Achim Borchardt-Hume, the exhibition’s curator, positioned Black Square in the fifth room, with the retrospective being built around this ground-breaking work, allowing the viewer to make ‘before’ and ‘after’ comparisons.

However tempting it might be to head straight for that fifth room, to do so would be to miss Malevich’s stylistic lead-up to this work, and more importantly, to lose out on understanding his art in the context of the turbulent times of war and revolution during which it was created. And creativity was a quality Malevich had in spades.

The first two rooms focus on the external influences of Impressionism and Cubism on the younger Malevich. The works of Monet, Cezanne, Picasso and Matisse can all be visibly referenced in the works on display here, yet Malevich used his creativity to respond to these ‘greats’ with a uniquely Russian take. A spiritual quality invades Malevich’s early works, many of which appear to reflect religious topics, such as Shroud of Christ (1908). But it is a spirit which recalls a sense of mysticism, where gold and decorative paintwork anticipate the appearance of Buddha or Krishna, evoking images of Eastern rather than Russian Orthodox religions. The curator puts this down to the geographic location of Moscow, though this may be stretching the lines of longitude somewhat.

Malevich 'The Woodcutter' (1912)

Malevich ‘The Woodcutter’ (1912)

A greater influence on Malevich was perhaps the Italian Futurist movement, and in the third room his works can be seen to combine the dynamism of the Futurists with the fractured perspectives of the Cubists. Malevich’s unique Russian approach to these movements, which he dubbed cubo-futurism, is evident in The Woodcutter (1912) where a man, rather than a machine, is depicted chopping wood. Moreover, the woodcutter and his surroundings are portrayed in bold futuristic colours rather than the muted tones of a peasant in the countryside. In his experimentation with cubo-futurism Malevich flouts the boundaries between abstraction and representation. We can feel his struggle between figuration and abstraction when, looking at the reverse of this canvas, a mirror is strategically placed to enable this, we encounter a further painting Peasant Women in Church (1912), but this time the work is considerably more representational.

These three rooms reveal not only Malevich’s steps towards abstraction, but also his fight against a conventional portrayal of the natural world. The literary arm of the Russian Futurist movement coined the term ‘zaum’, which is translated as ‘words beyond reason’. In this vogue Russian Futurists staged an opera in St Petersburg in 1913 featuring discordant music and unintelligible librettos, while Malevich designed the sets and costumes. In the exhibition’s fourth room the concept of ‘zaum’ is interpreted into pictorial art with Malevich’s creation of ‘alogical’ painting, the subjects of which seem to sever all ties with the logical world. Cow and Violin (1913) picks up the juxtaposition of these two unconnected subjects to throw preconceived and presumably logical theories found in a conventional depiction of the world back in the face of the viewer. Art, according to Malevich, should be free from all preconceptions and conventions.

We can begin to see where this is leading. And, sure enough, Black Square (1915) waits in the next room. It is the simplicity of subject combined with the complexity of gesture which astounds. The focus is on blackness, a blackness which draws you in and weighs a ton. Ending centuries of representative art, it is not hard to see why this uncompromising work is held in such high esteem and why it is regarded as a turning point in modern art.

This is not, however, Malevich’s original Black Square on display. He created four such squares between 1915 and 1929, and the 1915 original was deemed too fragile to travel. So it is the 1923 version which commands a central position on a wall in the fifth room, while on the opposite wall, a film of the Futurist opera, complete with soundtrack, is in full flood. The discordant sounds and images of the opera detract from the painting which, sadly, fights a losing battle for attention in the room. Surely, a work as ground-breaking as Black Square earns its own space in any retrospective.

If Black Square is zero hour in modern art, then what follows in the next three rooms starts the clock ticking. Malevich seems to have emerged from that black space producing simpler, more geometric forms, at the heart of which is vibrant colour, in sharp contrast to Black Square. Cubo-futurism, alogical art and ‘zaum’ all seem to have given way to a new ‘ism’, ‘suprematism’, which Malevich defines as ‘perfection’. References to the natural world have now totally disappeared, with Malevich arguing that artists in the past were counterfeiters of nature and that ‘the artist can only be a creator when the forms in his picture have nothing in common with nature’. A bold statement which challenges not only the artist, but also the viewer.

Malevich 'Suprematism Supremus No.55' (1916)

Malevich ‘Suprematism Supremus No.55’ (1916)

His Suprematism/ Supremus No. 55 (1916) reflects the world as ‘new, non–objective and pure’, and he expresses this in geometric shapes which appear to float in space, drifting both together and apart to create a tension between order and chaos. This is not easy art for a viewer to absorb, and is far removed in style from the ‘isms’ which Malevich practiced only a few years earlier.

Despite a disastrous war, food shortages and the country’s collapsing morale, Malevich launched suprematism at an exhibition Zero Ten in Petrograd in 1915. The curator at the Tate Modern has devoted a room to the recreation of a large part of that exhibition from a single photograph that survived. In doing so Borchardt-Hume has succinctly captured the spirit of Malevich’s art. Many of the works show simple geometric forms, such as a square or cross in base colours, while others pick up on complex arrangements of both form and colour. It is as though Malevich has started from scratch, using Black Square as the base point of his work, and created a new form of art without any reference to what has gone before.

In 1917 the Bolsheviks seized power, and Russian artists welcomed the transformation of society, looking in turn for a transformation in art. However, the new regime began to question the role and purpose of art in the new egalitarian society. Malevich seems to have picked up on the zeitgeist. His sharp, geometric and colourful shapes start to give way to white soft edged forms which progressively fade into a white background. Then, in 1919, Malevich abandoned painting completely, focusing his attention on suprematist architecture, in particular, the design of ‘architectons’, a term which he used for model buildings without a purpose or a setting. There is the distinct impression that here ‘zaum’ figured once more in Malevich’s life.

At this point I felt that the retrospective shuddered to a halt. The next room was assigned to Malevich’s work as an art teacher. The walls were filled with charts to illustrate his theories of suprematism, and for me it was too much like being back at school. A further room was devoted to his drawings. This was of greater interest, but, without the life and colour of the earlier rooms, it felt flat.

Malevich 'Harvesting' (1928)

Malevich ‘Harvesting’ (1928)

In 1924 Stalin emerged as Lenin’s successor, and Russia changed again, denouncing avant- garde art as elitist, in favour of Social Realism. Yet, for reasons not fully explained in the retrospective, Malevich started painting again in 1928, blending abstraction with figuration in works which recalled his earlier paintings. Malevich’s return to figuration is the focus of the last two rooms of the retrospective. His subject is again the peasant, the embodiment of the Russian soul, but now he seems to have picked up on the apparent persecution of agricultural workers during collectivisation. From the works in these last rooms it is evident that Malevich has gone further than merely returning to figuration. Using geometric shapes in a pared down space to create tension, the approach he adopted in suprematism, Malevich’s painting Harvesting (1928) depicts a semi-geometric peasant woman reduced to a faceless mannequin who seems both dislocated and disoriented. An interpretation of rural life which cannot have enamoured the State with him.

Malevich’s return to figuration continued during the 1930s, when, despite his earlier assertion of artists as ‘counterfeiters of nature’, he again adopted naturalistic portraiture. However, his loyalty to suprematism continued throughout this latter period, as is evidenced by the use of a black square as his signature on these later portraits.

Malevich was diagnosed with cancer and died in 1935. As a tribute to the esteem in which he was held, his funeral procession was adorned with black squares, a blatant disregard of the cultural doctrine of the State. Malevich’s painting of Black Square was, however, deemed to be too avant-garde for public view and was removed by Stalin’s regime until the ‘Soviet Thaw’ in the 1980s.

By this stage in the retrospective, I felt that a return to the fifth room seemed apt. I was once more ready to be drawn into the uncompromising blackness and to feel the presence of that moment, that zero- hour, in the history of modern art.

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