Malevich: Revolutionary of Russian art @ Tate Modern

This is the first major retrospective of Malevich’s art in thirty years, and the first one ever in the UK. It brings together over 100 works from collections in his native Russia and all across Europe and the US and gives a really comprehensive sense of his artistic achievement and development, allowing a good assessment of his place in 20th century art. The story is relatively straightforward in outline:

  1. Kazimir Malevich (pronounced with a hard ‘a’ as in hay) was born in 1879 in Kiev. By the turn of the century he was painting realistic portraits of his family, of Russian landscapes, agricultural workers and religious scenes, when…
  2. He gains access to rich Russians’ collections of contemporary French artists and immediately experiments with everything he sees, Gauguin’s primitivism, Seurat’s pointillism, Matisse’s colouring, Moreau’s symbolism, Picasso’s cubism.
  3. Just before the First World War he has taken all these ingredients and, along with other avant-garde Russian artists creates cubo-futurism – the style of French cubism and Italian Futurism applied to Russian life, especially peasant life.
  4. In 1913 he collaborates on an avant-garde opera called The Victory Over The Sun in which strange beings destroy the sun in order to create a new realm beyond space and time: his designs for the opera still survive and the exhibition features a film of a staged performance in American in the 1980s. His works become more and more abstract, until…
  5. His Great Breakthrough: in 1915 he paints his famous Black Square, the final end of 500 years of naturalist, of figurative painting; Year Zero; the advent of complete abstraction. The painting is no longer a window into anything, a view of anything: it is an abstract arrangement of shapes and colours which does its own work. It is a talisman which art historians like to imagine hanging over the 20th century like a challenging enigma, like a huge question mark…
  6. One room of the show recreates as far as possible the precise hanging of a famous avant-garde exhibition held in 1915 and titled The Last Exhibition of Futurist Painting 0.10
  7. Beyond the Black Square he spends a few years developing the style he called Suprematism (named because he modestly thinks it is the perfection of the new art). Coloured abstract shapes float on a cream background, with no sense of perspective, no shading, no relation to anything. Not unlike Kandinsky’s experiments with shape and colour at the same time…
  8. After the Bolshevik revolution and in the optimistic years which follow Malevich paints paintings where painting itself disappears, dissolves, his abstract shapes become whiter and fade out until he abandons painting altogether and creates futuristic plaster models of ideal buildings which he calls architectons, with names like Gota, Alpha, Zeta…
  9. In the 1920s he takes up a teaching post at Vitebsk and a large room is dedicated to the teaching charts, pamphlets and paraphernalia of himself and colleagues and students as they tried to apply the principles of abstract art to the new Soviet society.
  10. By the end of the 1920s Stalin is securely in control of all aspects of Soviet society, has launched the first Five Year Plan which will involved forced collectivisation of farms, famine and starvation across great swathes of Russia and the Ukraine, plus the creation of the Gulags to hold the hundreds of thousands and then millions of criminals, saboteurs etc who the Security Forces are encouraged to arrest. It is during this period that Malevich makes his Return to Painting and his controversial Return to Painting. the man who heralded the End of Figurative Painting begins to paint lots of figurative paintings, predominantly of peasants, but peasants transformed by Suprematism into eerie faceless mannekins.
  11. The works from the final five years, from his arrest in 1930 (and release a few months later) to his death in 1935 remain controversial. Some elements – like the realistic faces of portraits of himself, his wife, his father and others – seem a capitulation to the strictures of Socalist Realism ie the communist Party’s demand for art the masses could understand. But many other paintings, especially the unnervingly half-abstract ones of peasant workers, have an eerie surrealist quality. They aren’t as distinctive as the suprematist works which ensure his reputation, but there are still powerful and haunting things here in his final works.

In this early self-portrait he has depicted the artist as stern hero, the non-naturalistic colouring of the jacket and especially the green shadow on the face taken from Matisse; the semi-abstract female nudes in the background from Gauguin.

From this period I also liked:

Kazimir Malevich, Self Portrait 1908-1910 State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, Russia

Kazimir Malevich, Self Portrait 1908-1910, State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, Russia

Faster and faster he assmiliates all the French avant-garde styles, for example:

  • An Englishman in Moscow, with its slightly surreal cubism
  • The Mower with its conversion of the human form into shiny geometric shapes as if becoming a robot, in line with the movement of Cubo-Futurism, with its co-option of Marinetti’s futurist fantasy of people turning into machines!
  • Peasant Woman with Buckets, a type of primitivism which was to become much more common later in the century
  • Taking the harvest (1912)

All hurtling towards – the famous Black Square. (After selling the original breakthrough Black Square, Malevich had to make several more in order to be able to exhibit them.)

Kazimir Malevich, Black Square 1929 © State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

Kazimir Malevich, Black Square 1929 © State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

And after the square comes a flood of Suprematist works:

Kazimir Malevich, Suprematist Painting (with Black Trapezium and Red Square) 1915, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam

Kazimir Malevich, Suprematist Painting (with Black Trapezium and Red Square) 1915, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam

The colours have no tone or shading, so there is no sense of a light source or their existence in three dimensions. There is no perspective so no sense of how the objects relate to each other, if at all. They are flat, as flat as the painting’s surface, and empty of meaning.

Kazimir Malevich, Supremus No. 55 1916, Krasnodar Territorial Art Museum

Kazimir Malevich, Supremus No. 55 1916, Krasnodar Territorial Art Museum

After several years and scores of colourful Suprematist abstracts, following the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 Malevich begins to pain paintings in which painting itself dissolves.

 

And during the same period he produces a number of architectons, hints at a new socialist architecture.

And then there is the final period, the return to figurative painting, some with realistic faces, but many of haunting faceless mannikins. In one way a return to the sketches he made for his avant-garde opera in 1913, in others they tie in with the weird mannikin figures being produced by other artists in the 30s like Salvador Dali or de Chririco.

Kazimir Malevich, Woman with Rake 1930-32, State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, Russia

Kazimir Malevich, Woman with Rake 1930-32, State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, Russia

But there is a matching set of paintings with similarly flat abstract clothing but hyper-realist Socialist Realism faces: are they a capitulation or a strange hybrid of abstraction and kitschy totalitarian art?

Right to the end his art is distinctive and hard. It is not a sympathetic art. In all its forms it demands a certain intellectual approach. It is not art to relax to.

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