Kazimir Malevich (1879-1935) has always had an ambiguous and ambivalent relationship both with European modernism, and art history. He is both present and absent; present in his utopianism and ambition; absent in the widespread understanding of his ideas and work and, more critically, how they related to developments elsewhere on the continent. And, although Malevich impacted significantly on local modernisms right up until the late 1980s, there has been scant discussion of how Malevich’s big abstract idea- Suprematism- mutated in other contexts. The show which opened last week at Tate Modern, then, Malevich: Revolutionary of Russian Art had much more work to do than might have been necessary with the more familiar oeuvre of other canonical twentieth century modernists.
In such a context the curators wisely chose to stick to a biographical spine to the show, with some unexpected and challenging variations. One of the major strengths of the show is that at each of its twelve stages even those familiar with this artist’s work are surprised. Hence, in the first room, as we walk through Malevich’s early Symbolist experiments, we come across an image such as Shroud of Christ, a beautiful decorative jewel of a painting, already exhibiting the careful course Malevich was attempting to steer between the visual experimentation of the European avant-garde, and the tradiaitonal visdual cultures of Russia, notably the religious icon on the lubok or woodcut.
This tension undepinned Malevich’s development to sometime in 1913. In a picture such as The Wood-Cutter from 1912, we can see the flattened two dimensional forms of a cypher-like figure from a Russian lubok expanding and swelling into three dimensions, through a tight curvelinear interlocking geometry; this is an early fore-runner of his brief cubo-futurist phase, when the differing formal and theoretical imperatives of Cubsim and Futurism were synthesized most succinctly in The Knife-Grinder of 1913, which sadly didn’t make the cut for this show.
But to cast Malevich merely as a processor of the ideas of others, and of historical precedent, would be utterly mistaken. Rather than (as many were doing at the time) copying ideas, he took them as a springboard for his own development, as happened in the most fertile period of his evolution between mid 1913 and c.1916. Moving beyind the familiar strategies of Cubism and Futurism, Malevich developed a new visual idiom owing much to the developing theories of groups of friends in theatre and philosophy. Taking forward Aleksei Kurchenyk’s notion of zaum– an alternative reality, beyond established structures of reason, Malevich began to inch towards zaumnyi realizam (alogical reason) in his painting.
The work Woman At A Poster Column completed in 1914; the female figure, visible only by parted hair and the outline of a dress, is almost completely obliterated by the letters and forms of advertising, and by abstract shapes; one of the earliest metaphors in the history of art for the “alternative reality” created by consumer and political advertising, and as such, is strikingly contemporary nearly a century after it was finished. Layered, in ambiguous space, this image looks backward to the earlier Cubo-Futurist works, and anticipates the remarkable developments of Suprematism that were to come in the following year.
Malevich’s Black Square, the endpoint fo representation in modern art and one of the foundation stones of contemporary art, is one of the highlights of the show. The curators are at pains to explain the ambiguous dating of the work; although the original painting dates almost certainly to mid 1915, the painter was in the habit of dating it to 1913, when he first began to work on the complex ideas that lead to the production of the Black Square.
This was a process that came about whilst working on the set for an opera entitled Victory over the Sun (Mikhail Matyushin, Aleksei Kruchenykh, Velimir Khlebnikov); the implications of working with abstract colours and shapes for the costumes and backdrops finally crystallised in his miond and led to the prodcution of this image. Cleverly, a video of the opera Victory over the Sun is shown in between the Zaum and Suprematist rooms, giving an invaluable piece of context to a set of ideas that can often remain obscure and hard to grasp for the viewer.
What is often lost in contemporary interpretations of the Black Square is that Malevich imagined it as a living, vibrating entity, as the sum of all living oppositions, a cypher for the multiple movements and vibrant colours visible to us all. The painting was the result of an extraordinary frenzy of work, with Malevich triumphantly declaiming
“The black square on the white field was the first form in which nonobjective feeling came to be expressed. The square = feeling, the white field = the void beyond this feeling.” (Malevich, Suprematist Manifesto, 1915)
Suprematism was very much associated with liberation in Malevich’s mind, the shedding of the skin of an old world and the adoption of a new and utterly transformed appearance. In the broader context, notions of “liberation” were reaching a critical mass in the years of the first world war, as a bloated and corrupt eighteenth century Tsarist regime found itself unable to withstand the pressures of the twentieth century. The February revolution of 1917 brought to an end a brief spell in the Tsarist army for Malevich, and he was amongst those who welcomed the Bolshevik October revolution later in the year. For Malevich, his own transformations in the discourse of painting were being mirrored by the fundamental transformations in the economy, politics and society.
From the canonical The Last Exhibition of Futurist Painting 0:10, first held in Petrograd in December 1915 and re-created faithfully here, through to the long, fascinating room stuffed with Malevich’s works on paper- very rarely seen outwith the realms of the archive room and private collection- the story of Suprematism’s brief development is told compellingly. From the experiments with colour and movement in 1917-19, through Malevich’s brief spell teaching in Vitebsk at the People’s Art School, and in Petrograd with UNOVIS, to his vital shows in Warsaw and Berlin in 1927- shows upon which his legacy outside of Russia were based, the sad and familair tale of early utopianism and ambition being replaced by fear and bitterness as Stalin took control following Lenin’s death in 1924, give the viewer a deep insight into a movement, and a linked set of ideas, which until now have been difficult to get a rounded understanding.
As Stalin’s control of the USSR tightened in the second half of the 1920s, and the exhilarating debates surrounding future visions of the art world, shrivelled on the poisoned vine of “Socialist Realism”, so too Malevich’s practice had to change. The shows of experimental work in Warsaw and Berlin, rather than being the beginning of a pan-European movement, proved to be the hidden jottings of a Utopian moment. In the last years of his life, under suspicion and probably surveillance by the NKVD, Malevich distilled the lesons of the Suprematist moment in his late figurative paintings. An image such as Three Female Figures of around 1930 shows strong Suprematist elements shoehorned into the imperative to represent the new reality as the Soviet state would liked to have seen it. In the context of Stalin’s frst Five Year Plan, initiated in 1927, and of the Ukrainian famine, the reduction of these three women into abstract, dehuamnised cyphers tells its own story. By 1933, already stricken with cancer, Malevich’s visual idiom, as the Self Portrait at the head of this article shows, had turned full circle.
Malevich died in 1935, and there is no grave or shrine to him today; his grave, at Nemchinovka, was obliterated during the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941. I left this exhibition having enjoyed it hugely, although wondering whther there might have been a little more on Malevich’s legacy in other parts of Europe. His work was reproduced widely in the 1920s, and the avant garde periodical Zenit, based between Belgrade and Zagreb, saw in Malevich a kindred spirirt, and promoted work by him and other members of the Russian avant-garde, such as Vladimir Tatlin. Long after Zenit and the Royal Yugoslav culture that had proscribed it had disappeared, a 1980s artist such as Goran Đorđević (The “Kazimir Malevich of Belgrade”) turned the Utopianism of Malevich’s Suprematist output against itself, reproducing in its entirety the 0:10 exhibition and, in so doing, questioning the nature of the art object itself, in late socialist Yugoslavia, and in critiquing and undermining the “monetising” of art as commodity by Western museum directors.
But, on reflection, to focus on malevich’s legacy would have confused and cluttered what is an elegant and easy to follow show on many levels. I am sure that an enterprising curator is already working somewhere on a “Legacy of Malevich” show, somewhere; as for this one, it has achieved its purpose. It is an exhibition which provokes those who know Malevich’s work well, and inform those who have not had the opportunity to look at and think about him before now; it will generate debate and repeated looking well beyond the life of the exhibition. As such, the show will be remembered as an important one, as it will finally- and unequivocally- secure for Malevich the prominence in global art histories that have largely eluded him until now. And, even if one doesn’t really care about any of that, it is a beautiful show to visit, visually and in terms of the restless, impatient quiverful of ideas that these images represent.