Following two highly successful exhibitions on Lichtenstein and Matisse, the Tate Modern is currently home to a retrospective on the work of Kazimir Malevich. The Russian artist may not be as much of a household name as some of the other artists whose work has graced the factory-chic environs of the gallery, but he is equally, if not more, important than them in the history of 20th century art. The exhibition, spanning 12 rooms, is extensive enough to show the different phases in the artist’s development, which had plenty of different ‘isms’: Modernism, Cubism, Futurism and Suprematism.
Malevich was first exposed to European art in his mid-twenties when he attended a series of exhibitions in Moscow, displaying the works of French artists, such as Matisse, Manet and Cézanne. The influence of these artists on his early work, shown in the first room of the exhibition, is keenly felt. For example, Self Portrait (1908-10) possesses the bold tones and supple shapes characteristic of Gaugin. At this time, his paintings were also steeped in religious imagery, such as in his iconographic Assumption of a Saint (1907-8) and Shroud of Christ (1908).
In reaction to Russian artists’ reliance on the Western avant-garde, Malevich and his contemporaries started to forge a specifically Russian form of modernism. He particularly focused on the image of the peasant, often seen as the embodiment of the Russian soul. Starting to form his own painterly style, Malevich made his figures simple and cumbersome, a type of painting with almost child-like naivety. Rather than breaking away from Western influences, Malevich manipulated them, merging the dynamism of Italian Futurism with the fractured perspectives of French Cubism and relating them to Russian themes – pastoral scenes and peasants. The outcome is peculiar.
The fourth room shows Malevich’s gradual path toward abstraction. In the early 1910s he collaborated on a Futurist opera, “Victory over the Sun”, which explored the breakdown of language and reason. The extract from the opera’s revival production in 1981 in New York is highly amusing – figures clad in Malevich’s geometric costumes prance around the stage singing a libretto of nonsensical sounds, like “ka…kakakaka”. This dissolution of reason led him to his phase of alogical paintings, the most famous example of which, An Englishman in Moscow (1914), features a big white fish, a tiny monastery, a red wooden spoon and some mysterious fragments of text. If there is meaning in it, it is hard to find.
The canvas of another alogical painting entitled War, conceived in response to the outbreak of WWI, was reused to create Malevich’s most radical and most famous work, the Black Quadrilateral. It is exactly what its title suggests: a square painted in black. Interestingly, Malevich dated the painting at 1913, even though it was actually painted in 1915, showing his belief in the birth of art at conception, rather than execution. This philosophy of art was formally defined as the ‘idealist theory’ by R.G. Collingwood in his book, The Principles of Art, in 1938 – one of the many ways in which Malevich was ahead of his time. Though simple in form, the painting is complex in meaning. With its simultaneous absence and presence, expressiveness and concealment, it questions the meaning of art itself.
This painting is not only iconic, but iconographic: it was placed in the upper corner of the room, the place traditionally occupied by Orthodox icons when it was first exhibited in The Last Exhibition of Futurist Painting 0.10, the curation of which is recreated in the Tate exhibition. The other twelve paintings in this 1915 display, nine of which are on show at the Tate, are eclectically strewn across the wall, mirroring the disjointed nature of the ‘Suprematist’ works themselves, which contain basic geometric shapes – squares, crosses, lines – in prime colours. Here, curation becomes as important as the art itself. Some people interpreted the placement of Black Quadrilateral as a blasphemous provocation, however this is unlikely, as it was around this time that icons began to be regarded as works of art, rather than simply sacred objects.
Towards the end of the 1910s Malevich’s Suprematism reached its natural extreme. White Suprematist Cross (1920-1) saw an end to depictions of visible forms, an end to painting, coinciding with the dissolution of the autocratic rule which Russia had known for centuries. Malevich famously declared: “painting died, like the old regime, because it was an organic part of it.” The changing political environment compelled Malevich to become a teacher in Vitebsk, in modern-day Belarus. Along with his group of faithful disciples, he took Suprematism to an architectural level, adorning buildings and streets with its characteristic geometric shapes, like a proto-Banksy.
Where could Malevich’s art go next after it had been reduced to its barest form? The final two rooms of the exhibition show the last stage of Malevich’s career – a surprising return to figuration. His depiction of rural scenes took on a particular poignance under Stalin’s punitive regime with the brutal ‘collectivisation’ process and massacre of rich farmers, the ‘kulaks’. His images of the peasant, formerly so evocative, became faceless and dislocated. It seemed like a complete return to his early style: the portrait of his mother is highly reminiscent of that of his father, painted 30 years before. However, he had not forgotten everything that Surpematism had taught him. Malevich’s portraits may have evoked Renaissance Florence, but he tellingly signed them off with a little black square, quite literally his signature move.
Though the black square was banned by the Stalinist regime and not re-exhibited until the 1980s, it lived on in the popular imagination, understated yet immensely symbolic. Though I went to the exhibition on the day it opened, it was fairly empty. On a selfish level I was happy – there are few things more frustrating than an over-crowded exhibition. But I was also surprised. This retrospective is beautifully curated, down to the mustard-yellow colour of the walls, which complements the hues of the paintings. More importantly, it commemorates one of the most talented, diverse and important artists of the 20th century. If there is anything on your cultural to-do list this summer, it should be this.