Friday 25 November 2016


The latest in a series on artists who dealt in abstraction and semi-abstraction. (Which is of course a thin cover for this being another art exhibition review which gets written up absurdly late.) Previous entry, on Kandinsky here.

“By Suprematism I mean the supremacy of pure feeling in creative art. To the Suprematist the visual phenomena of the objective world are, in themselves, meaningless; the significant thing is feeling.”
- Malevich

The Modernist Magpie

For the longest time, I associated the Russian artist Kazimir Malevich with Mondrian. An artist whose formulatory early years turned out to be their best work. An artist who, as soon as he'd figured out what he wanted to do, had boxed himself into a corner. In Mondrian's case a yellow box, in Malevich's a black one. But the same difference. His Black Square, beloved of art history books, was a full stop – the cul de sac of the path of abstraction. Once it was reached there was nothing left to do but turn back again.

With Mondrian, I still contend that's pretty much true. Yet Malevich's story turns out to be richer...

For an artist renowned for having so singular a style, it's weird to watch Malevich starting out by looking like everybody else. And it really is everybody else. He's able to cycle through so many Modernist styles so quickly, taking from each elements that suit him, like a Magpie in flight. Just get ahead of yourself for a second and scroll down to glance at at the next six or seven illos. They're not just from the same hand, they were created within a four year period.

Seeing an exhibition like this can be like reading a book where you already know the ending. It can distort your vision of what's happening right now. So, despite our natural tendency to look for Malevich expunging elements from his art, we should pause a moment to consider what stays. Abstraction is commonly assumed to lead from landscapes or still lives; the human figure so strong an image in our minds it needs to be suppressed before we can start to see a picture's formal elements. (Try looking at a still life of a vase of flowers merely as shapes and colours, then try the exercise again for a portrait.) But the human figure remains dominant, perhaps even a fixation, in Malevich's art right up to the switch-over. A rare landscape can even be called simply 'Landscape' (1906).

Matisse is a visible early influence, for example in 'Bather' (1911, below). With it's bold outlines, it's real or apparent blocks of vibrant colour, it's an evocation of movement. It's audaciously simplified figure shows little interest in anatomical accuracy, the torso is simply a sausage from which protrudes oversized flapping hands and striding feet.

Malevich soon joined the Donkey's Tail group. With a name presumably working as a self-styled irony, they determined not to be merely imitative of art abroad but (as the show puts it) “fusing the innovations of the Western avant-garde with the simplified forms and expressive colour of [their own Russian] popular prints and religious icons.” And as we saw with the 'From Russia' show, this would prove a potent cocktail. The magic beans of Western Modernism were brought back and plant in the rich soil of Russian folk art, leading to some very bold beanstalks indeed.

The common folk became the subject for painting, with an almost totemic emphasis on the figure of the Peasant. He's clearly seen as the emblem for Russia, much as John Bull was for Britain. But paintings are frequently named after their central figures, who are themselves named after their activity, such as 'The Floor Polishers' (1911/12). Their facial features are normally boldly outlined, evoking types rather than depicting individuals. See for example 'On the Boulevard' (1910, below), where the figure is emphasised by being thrust out at you. If we include the bench he sits on, he extends beyond the frame in all four directions, with a disconnected landscape placed behind him like a theatre flat.

But Malevich was already moving beyond Matisse. In for example ,'The Scyther' (1911/12, below) the background is reduced to shades of red, and works somewhere between a scene and a form of patterning. It offers a vivid colour contrast to the foreground figure. With his neatly gradated black and silver-grey (looking almost like a piece of modern vector art) and mask-like face, the figure looks as metallic as the scythe he carries. And yet, rather jarringly, his feet are unshod.

And this change was coming through fresh winds blowing from the West. The Knave of Diamonds exhibition of December 1910 first brought Cubism to Russia, and spawned an indigenous group named after it. However, as we saw in an earlier review, distance allowed the Russians to take the seemingly irreconcilable Cubism and Futurism and combine them into their own synthesis – which they promptly (if uninventively) titled Cubo-Futurism. Nevertheless, most examples were more Futurist, more concerned with dynamism and speed. (See for example Natalya Goncharova’s ‘The Cyclist’, 1913)Malevich, conversely, stayed closer to the more contemplative Cubism.

With 'Head of a Peasant Girl' (1912, above) Malevich employs sombre browns and greens, the cooler colour scheme of Cubism, rather than the bright blocks he'd first borrowed from Matisse and were still being employed by the Futurists. The show finds “the title challenging the viewer to find the trace of a recognisable image in a complex arrangement of planes”. You can't, and yet like a Zen exercise the image seems perpetually just out of reach.

The title actually has a second challenge, for there's a pleasing irony in Malevich insisting so modern a painting should still be dedicated to a Peasant Girl. Yet at another point he seems less assured that he can continue to combine his influences. 'The Woodcutter', effectively a sequel to 'The Scyther', has on it's back 'Peasant Women in Church' (both 1912), not only a more traditional piece of folk art but, as its title would suggest, religious in theme. It suggests an artist divided, not sure which way to go.

And yet he did. Modernism is often caricatured as a series of dry, formal innovations, hermetically disconnected to anything outside the artist world and its fixations. And if there's a moment of truth to that, Cubism is it. It's innovations weren't important so much as revelatory. But it was art for artists. And those artists needed to swallow it down, learn it's lessons and move on. That's pretty much what Picasso did, and he was the school's co-founder. And that's precisely what Malevich does. His Matisses, however good they look, are merely more Matisses. Whereas his Cubist works, however typical they look, show him already working his way out of them.

As if the brew wasn't already heady, Dadaism is then thrown into the mix. Though it was never named as such in Russia it seems to have had the same impetus as in Germany, the looming shadow of the First World War. In 1913 Malevich collaborated on the 'Zaum' manifesto which boldly called for “the dissolution of language and the rejection of rational thought”, and started wearing the signifying wooden spoon in his buttonhole. The signature paradox of Dada, nihilist destructiveness combined with wanton playfulness, is at work - though in Malevich's case... well, let's check out which face is uppermost.

‘American in Moscow’ (1914, above) is a reason-defying collage of objects, including that identifying wooden spoon and the (at least in the popular mind) arch-Surrealist totem the fish. Among the chopped-up words and images are three chopping devices – a sabre, a saw and scissors. Even the scales on the fish's back, emphasised by being placed before the man's face, look sharp enough to cut.

Writing in the Telegraph, Richard Durrant comments “accomplished as all these early pictures are, every single one is a pastiche”. He’s right. But they’re so accomplished. And both those points are nowhere more true than with this work. It's almost the consummate early Malevich. Beneath the chaotic jumble it's well-composed... in fact too well-composed, too realized. Dada relishes in its nihilism, audaciously defying you to find it aesthetic. It's disruptive, volatile and even violent. Whereas this is art merely masquerading as anti-art. It's a great work of art. That's its success and its failure.

Nevertheless, it was Dada rather than Cubism that was to prod Malevich into abstraction. And that's less surprising than it might appear. Though people commonly couldn't find the images in it, Cubism was never intended as abstract or even proto-abstract. It treated objects much like flat-pack furniture in reverse, it took the seeming solid and disassembled it. It asked why we'd want to see objects from just one perspective in art, when that's not the way the world works. But multiple perspectives would prove not liberating enough for Malevich.

Not that Dada was any more proto-abstract. It sought to undermine language's functionality at the point of use, to make its descriptive powers seem arbitrary and thereby meaningless. But the lesson Malevich took from it was ultimately different - that you could cut language from its earthly moorings, and rather than use it to point at objects attempt to express the ineffable. “Zaum” was most likely a nonsense term akin to Dada itself, a jeer at language's inadequacy. The nearest English equivalent might be “blah”. But Malevich seems to have taken it to mean something more like “aum”. Coined to express nothing, he took it to mean everything.

And so he went and painted a big black square.

Be Square

'Black Square' (1915, above), as he decided to call it, is called by the show “one of the iconic paintings of the Twentieth Century” or by the Times' Rachel Campbell-Johnston the “Mona Lisa of Modernism”. (She uses the line early, so it pokes above the parapet of the great Murdoch paywall.)

The date I've given above follows convention, it's when the work was finished. But Malevich himself always used 1913, when he first had the idea. Which suggests it might even be the the first conceptual work of art, its idea more important than its realisation. (The same year, in 'Village' he simply wrote the word “village” on a canvas, arguing that “encompass[ed] the entire village” rather than get tied down in specifics the way an image inevitably would.)

And look when it comes. It wasn't the full stop I'd previously imagined. As it comes early in his abstract works if it's any form of grammar it's an opening quote. When the show calls it “the starting point for a wholly new approach to art”... well bugger me for a know-nothing but they prove themselves right! Malevich was soon calling this approach Suprematism, and crying “arise comrades, and free yourself from the tyranny of objects!”

Realising it in fact proved problematic, for such a large block of black paint would inevitably crack over time. (Look up close at the illo above.) To try and overcome this he repainted it four times, though it makes you wonder why he didn't just stitch a square of black material onto the canvas.

And, there being multiple versions, we even get to see it twice. Just in case you didn't get the point the first time. And in fact I'm not being sarky there. In December 1915 he staged 'The Last Exhibition of Futurist Painting 0.10', which doubled as the first Suprematist show. (The only known photo of it is above.) This is duplicated by the Tate, though more sparsely as only twelve of the original twenty paintings have survived. And seeing it in this context, rather than standalone, gives it more meaning. Hung across the top corner, its simultaneously part of and outside and above the other works. Notably its been placed next to some of the more detailed pieces, providing a contrast. In fact, though I've no idea whether this is actually the case, it looks like the other works were made to go around it.

The show makes much of this being the place where, in Russian Orthodoxy, the icon would be hung in the home. (Ironically its also the place a modern power object goes, the playback screen in shops showing punters the security cameras are working.) There's debate about whether this is meant as some Dadaist provocation or a genuinely spiritualist gesture. My money's on the second one. In fact it made me think of the way Hebrew scrolls would only use a placeholder for the name of God, but still place that placeholder into a sentence. The exhibition looks like it's built up as a sentence in that way, the works as words, meaning stemming from context.

Yet in a sense this all exhibits the limits of Malevich's approach. Language always depends on context for meaning. It can point at the ineffable, but only by contrasting with the here and now. Malevich has expelled the representational from his art, but we still need the represented - to see it framed by the real world for it to have meaning. 'Black Square' needs the context of what it isn't to be what it is. (I had a similar feeling at the 'From Russia' exhibition, which included a photo of the Black Square above the artist on his deathbed.)

Suprematism Supreme

By this point Malevich has successfully reduced his art down to one colour, and one that strictly speaking isn't even a colour. Even the off-whites which border his black shapes are so off as to be no more than non-black, something to stop the eye settling there. But, in the one moment of truth to the theory he needed to pull back from the absolutism of 'Black Square', colour then comes back in all it's boldness.

Take 'Suprematism 55' (1916, above) with it's bright blocks of colour, even the background replacing the cold off-white of 'Black Square' with a warm sandy yellow. This leads the show to claim “at the heart of Suprematism was colour”. However, while colour is an important component, it's not the key feature of these works.

The Futurist dynamism he initially passed over for Cubism returns in all its glory, and the colour is there to serve that dynamism. We can think of abstraction and perspective as opposites, one seeing the picture frame as a window on a world and the other insisting its just a flat surface. But this work has a powerful sense of spatial depth, that black tadpole floating as if several feet above the brown rectangle. The diagonal black line emphasises the perspective, like a dropping rope. Yet where Futurist dynamism was convulsive his is elegant, those shapes seeming to serenely glide. (I know it's not the point, but I can't help but see biplane shapes in there.) For all it's abstraction it feels not sterile but alive, full of movement. It provides everything 'Black Square' withheld.

And it's these works which carry the show. Notably it's this, and not the better-known 'Black Square' which becomes the show's poster image (up top). In fact, as Malevich started using a black square in place of his signature, it becomes little more than an authenticating rubber stamp, added to each corner.

With Malevich it's easier to come at him from what he isn't doing, before arriving at what he is. Miro called a series of painting 'Constellations', as if they were as vast and awe-inducing as the night sky. While alternately, the first atom-splitting experiments have been considered an influence on Cubism. As we saw with Alexander Calder, he quite possibly combined both. And indeed one of the appealing features of abstract art can be having your sense of scale with-held, so you've no idea whether you're gazing up at the immense or peering into the microscopic.

But for Malevich either option – the cosmic or the subatomic – seems still too earthly, too tied to regular human perception. It was more like he was tapping into some heightened realm of pure geometry, something which could only exist through being painted – but was no less 'real' for all that. His term Suprematism does not relate to 'superb' but 'above' or 'beyond'. Works echo this in their immaterial titles, such as 'Mystic Suprematism' (1920/22) or 'Supremacy of the Spirit' (c. 1920).

Robert Burghardt and Gal Kim point out: ”The most obvious strategy for representing universalism is abstraction. The abstract, like the universal, evades the concrete. In the abstract formal languages lies a certain openness that allows space for one's own thinking and associations. It facilitates multiple interpretative approaches and engenders fantasies.” ('Signal' 3, PM Press) (They're writing about Yugoslav Partisan Memorials but the point transfers.)

”Everything Has Disappeared”

And this leads to a peculiar paradox with Malevich. The most active part of his career coincided with the most politically eventful era in modern Russian history. He went to Moscow shortly before the 1905 Revolution, fought in the First World War and witnessed the new post-revolutionary Russia. It's events which led to the political commitment of Rodchenko's photo-montage, Eisenstein's cinema or Tatilin's vow to redesign everyday life. And yet among them here's this mystic, his art self-avowedly removed from all earthly things. To him surely those political events were like the off-white behind the black square, not something worth focusing on.

Materialsm, the idea that humans are products fo their social context, that we cannot arbitrarily transcend that context just by thinking hard, is axiomatic to communism. Suprematism seems the very opposite to all of that. Surely it was merely an aesthetic movement with delusions.

And yet he seems to have seen it differently. He claimed in 1915 “our world of art as become new, non-objective, pure. Everything has disappeared; a mass of material is left from which a new form will be built.” And if a cynic might claim that as mere boiler-plate Modernism, at other times he more explicitly tied artistic changes to the political. In 1919 he stated “painting died, like the old regime, because it was an organic part of it”.

Rachel Spence writes of “the Russian avant-garde's fantasy of a social re-ordering so radical it was often conceived in cosmic rather than earthly terms”. ('Art Quarterly', Spring '15) She is of course using the analogy to dismiss such hubris. But its actually sound. If Malevich was other-worldly, there's also the sense that events in this world had led us to more easily access that other world. Revolution raised us, much like Mass is held to connect Catholics to God.

He taught art, and far from being remote or ascetic proved a galvanising figure. His charges formed their own group, the Champions of New Art, taking up the black square as their emblem. (Members included Popova and Lissitzky, creator of the famous piece of abstract agit-prop 'Beating the Whites With the Red Wedge', 1919.)

The Revolution, when it arrived, affected Malevich's art in two ways. First there's the Architectons. Much like the Constructivists, he was searching for a more practical application for art, so created works which lay somewhere between sculpture and scale models for buildings. But the truth is, they don't really work as either. As stated above, Malevich's art needs a frame. It's subject was the ineffable, with abstraction as a means to describe the indescribable. It works as a kind of portal, an other-world only bordering ours. Objects which physically exist in our space do not play to his strengths.

Also, true to his words that “painting died” and “everything has disappeared”, he again starts to strip elements away. The dynamism disappears, and those pure blocks of solid colour dissolve. They're as formal as the earlier 'Last Exhibition' works, but instead of black-on-white they're... yes, really... white-on-white. Check out for example 'White Suprematist Cross' (1920/21, below). If we're going to continue with our grammar comparisons, these are like the ellipses that trail off a sentence like...

And if that seems rather like a film that ends by fading to white, like the story should really have stopped there, perhaps it should. But instead...

Back to Peasantry (Tragedy and Farce)

Stalin soon rose to power, and it's scarcely a spoiler to say that part of his plan to suppress all dissent was to impose a socialist realist orthodoxy on art. Added to which, in a point played up in Orwell's 'Nineteen Eighty-Four', those who had earlier shown an excess of zeal for the revolution were now considered problem cases. What was wanted was those who'd just obey. Malevich, in short, was primed to get it from both barrels. He had only ever left Russia once, on a speaking tour of Germany, but that was used as evidence of fraternisation with the enemy and proof of “bourgeois” qualities. Many of his works survived only because orders to destroy them were disobeyed.

Perhaps unsurprisingly given the circumstances, he soon decided painting wasn't quite dead after all and returned to the point most acceptable to the new regime – the Donkey's Tail era. However, when his peasants reappear, its history repeating as both tragedy and farce.

'Head of a Peasant' (1928/9, above) is something of a sequel to 'The Scyther', but the eyes look heavy, the mask-like face less universalised than stamped with the dehumanisation of enforced collectivism. (In other works the main figure has an alarming egg-shaped void for a head.) The figures behind could be foraging as much as farming, while above them war planes fly in formation before a darkening sky. As the show puts it “his inert figures against a pared-down landscape convey a sense of dislocation, alienation and despair. The peasant, long established as the embodiment of the Russian soul, is reduced to a faceless mannequin.”

You could debate how deliberate all this is. Is Malevich like Shostakovich, encoding the dissidence he couldn't state openly? Or is he like Vertov, trying desperately to adjust to the new realities but unable to sing the new slogans with any cheer? It probably doesn't matter much. The result is the same. If some of his early works were pastiches, these are almost pastiches of his own early work.

He followed a career almost as neat as one of his geometric forms. But unlike his patented square it was a triangle. There's a steady ascent to the late Tens and early Twenties, at which point he seemed able to lift himself from the ground, but which is followed only by decline. Yet the view from that apex... it's no exaggeration to call it other-worldly – so let's focus on that for the finish.

As a general rule, I like to think of abstraction as something which expanded the territory for art, freed it from being tied to representation. Which is distinct from the notion of 'pure abstraction'. If it instead switched art over, trading in hillsides and rivers for squares and circles, then it surely swapped one set of confines for another. It seems to make more sense to see those normally regarded as the pioneers of abstraction, such as Kandinsky, in terms of expansion rather than exchange. 

So perhaps the most fascinating thing about Malevich is that his abstraction was pure, that he did disdain anything short of that as “a mere imitation of reality”. And yet he found a way to make that work. He's the man who made geometry glide and sing.

Coming soon! More of this sort of thing...

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