The Black Square, an iconic work by Russian painter Malevich (1879-1935), who declared the square to be the « face of the new art … the first step of pure creation ». Achim Borchardt-Hume, Head of Exhibitions at Tate Modern and curator of Malevich, wanted to tell three stories in curating the exhibition: (i) Malevich as a founding figure of abstract art, but who returns to figurative art; (ii) the artist against the backdrop of Russia’s historical and political events; and (iii) unravelling the myth of Malevich and his Black Square.
Black Square 1913 © State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow
Every retrospective has its beginning, showing the early career of an artist, often very different from his/her mature style. I felt this was particularly true for Malevich. He started out as a figurative painter, attracted by Pointillism, and I think inspired by Matisse, Cezanne and Leger. Borchardt-Hume describes Malevich’s inspiration from French modern artists as an “elective affinity”: he was influenced by those he had seen at Russian collectors’ homes; however, he introduced colour, Russian object, and motion to his take on Picasso & Braque’s cubism.
The Russian revolution freed artists and alike, according to Borchardt-Hume. Avant-garde poets aimed to free language from its mandate then, providing the ideal backdrop for Malevich to free painting from representation. His illogical paintings bear a link with surrealism and Dadaism and provide an intermediate step before abstraction, in my view. Malevich never used the ‘abstract’ term, Borchardt-Hume emphasized, differentiating his approach from Mondrian, evolving step by step to abstraction.
My friend A. said Malevich reminded her of Kandinsky. Kandinsky and Malevich were both abstract pioneers, who used geometric forms – floating or fixed shapes. Very confidently, Malevich self-proclaimed ‘Suprematism’, the abstract art he developed from 1913, characterised by basic geometric forms, painted in a limited range of colours. I wonder what Malevich’s art is most supreme over: perspective, traditional painting or shapes over others, or colours?
Malevich also worked on colours to create relief. He didn’t try to hide paint brushes. He dissolved shapes into the background by working on colours for the fading parts, in what may well be my favourite works of the show (‘Yellow Plane in Dissolution’, ‘Dissolution of a Plane’). I noticed most of the paintings in the Tate exhibition, mainly loaned from the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, have a cracked texture. The Tate curator pointed out the possible use of not very expensive materials with the canvas often not primed, or not to a high standard, and that many of these works were stored in far from ideal conditions for prolonged periods of time.
Malevich painted four versions of the Black Square between 1915 and 1930. One was hung in a salon, recreated by Tate Modern, with the Black Square high in a corner similar to how Russian icons would be placed. Malevich moved later to the Vitebsk school, where authorship disappears and paintings become collective. The power of Black Square remains however, a symbol of radical art, and Malevich even signed the figurative paintings of his later career with a Black Square.
Malevich returned to figurative art, even if the curator doesn’t like the word “return”, defining the painter’s path as an evolvement towards figurative art. He depicted faceless characters, which might have been influenced by the era of communism. He paints peasants but stays away from propaganda. His last paintings were Renaissance-inspired; it was as if different painters represented the face and the body. Every retrospective has its end, which similarly to an artist’s early career, shows the change in his/her mature style. Malevich, Revolutionary of Russian Art, runs until 26 October at Tate Modern.