The comprehensive retrospective of the work by Kazimir Malevich at Tate Modern is an important and significant exhibition. Important because it brings together a large selection of work from an artist who was at the forefront of the move to abstraction in the early C20. Significant because ….. well, there’s the challenge. What is the significance of Malevich and his work? It seems to me to be open to a wide range of interpretations, often contradictory.
Kazimir Malevich was born in Kiev in 1879. Already a competent artist, he moved to Moscow in 1904 and committed himself to an intensive period of absorbing and learning from European contemporary art, most notably Monet, Cezanne, Picasso and Matisse whose works were now appearing in the salons of Russian patrons. His paintings from this period are not though derivative pastiches of the originals; they are infused with a Russian sensibility both in terms of subject and colour palette. He was forging an original identity.
When Marinetti published the Futurist Manifesto in 1909, Malevich quickly absorbed and built upon its message. Futurism and Cubism, coming to Russia as they did at a time of increasingly bold and frustrated demands for political change, seemed to act as accelerators to Malevich’s artistic development. He became a leader of a broad-based Russian futurist movement that embraced both literature and painting and rejected the historical conventions of language and painting. They moved, to use their term ‘beyond reason’: literary futurism was searching for a new language without meaning; Malevich was searching for a new pictorial language without meaning or representation. His search came to fruition in the painting Black Square and in the artistic movement he launched in 1915 and which he called Suprematism. The launch took place an exhibition Malevich organised and entitled “The Last Futurist Exhibition of Paintings 0.10”, generally recognised as one of the most influential exhibition in the history of C20 art. In the manifesto that he published to accompany the exhibition, Malevich argued that historical traditions positioned the artist as ‘counterfeiters’ of nature and that “the artist can be a creator only when the forms in his picture have nothing in common with nature”.
The paintings Malevich produced at this time were made up of blocks of colour organised into a variety of geometric forms. One of the highlights of the Tate’s exhibition is a recreation of the original display of works by Malevich which was fortunately captured in a contemporary photograph.
Suprematism was of course launched when Russia was engaged in a disastrous war leading to revolution in 1917. As a member of the avant-garde Malevich welcomed the revolution and abandoned painting under its’ influence. As he wrote in 1919, “Painting died, like the old regime, because it was an organic part of it”. He now saw his artistic movement as a revolutionary movement and ganged himself in conceptual architecture and increasingly in teaching. How influential his conceptual architecture, ‘architectrons’ were at the time I do not really know, but it impossible to look at them without seeing in them the formative models for the brutalist buildings which subsequently ringed Moscow by the end of the Stalinist period.
Ten years after the Russian Revolution, the mood was changing. The avant-garde was no longer seen as revolutionary and progressive; it was bourgeois and elitist. Stalin was consolidating power and Socialist Realism was being defined as the only authentic artistic style. Malevich started to paint again, embracing on the surface the obligations of realism but continuing to infuse or subvert them with abstraction. His late pictures are a confusing mix of styles borrowing from his own past and from Renaissance Italy, but never totally abandoning Suprematism.
He used the Black Square as a signature to the end, and it led his funeral cortege after his death in 1935. After his death, his work was suppressed, and much destroyed. It was the 1980s before Malevich could be exhibited again within Russia.
So much for the chronology, what about the significance of this work? Well first of all, we are shown in this exhibition one artists extraordinary journey of learning and development, talking place at a time of revolutionary thinking and change. It is interesting for that alone. I was reminded in the early part of the exhibition of a recent exhibition of works by Picasso at the Courtauld Gallery, showing his development as an artist in a single year, 1901. Like Malevich a few years later, Picasso in 1901 was engaged in a frenzy of experimentation and learning, borrowing ideas from a wide range of other artists as he started to forge his own style. That is what Malevich too was doing and the work from that period represent some of the most diverse, engaging and energetic work in the whole exhibition. It would justify a small show of its own.
Secondly of course, Malevich’s work tracks the key years before and after the Russian Revolution and can be seen as a visual history of the revolution: the excitement of developing energetic, revolutionary ideas; the rejection of established order and the belief that anything is possible in a new order unshackled from the past; the developing suspicion that art and painting are perhaps essentially frivolous, and that originality is elitist; and finally the establishment, by force if required, of a new conformity. One possible reading of the exhibition is that such is the trajectory of Malevich’s artistic career.
I was intrigued by the curator’s comment that the creation of Black Square in 1915 represented a “zero hour in modern art”. I thought it was an interesting term to choose. Is the connection with Pol Pot’s “Year Zero” deliberate? Certainly it might be argued that the programme to put abstraction at the centre of the art establishment, which was initiated by Black Square and reach its zenith in the middle years of the last century, was like Year Zero deliberately contemptuous of what had gone before and casual about its destruction.
Understanding Malevich’s return to figurative painting in the 1920s is key to understanding his artistic journey. Did he return under the pressure of Socialist Realism, or did he return because he came to believe that the abstraction of his suprematist paintings was ultimately a dead end. Whilst he was arrested on his return from a visit to Germany and must have felt acutely the changing political atmosphere as Stalin came to power, the evidence is that there was more to his rerun than that. Writing in 1927, he said that “non-objective art stands without windows or doors, like a pure sensation in which life, like a homeless tramp, desires to spend the night, demanding that openings are made into it”. Purely abstract art, he seems to be saying, is a closed box into which life can neither enter or exit.
And if he reached that conclusion, what does that say for the global dominance of modernist abstraction in C20 art. Certainly, I cannot but smile at the possibility that everything worthwhile to be said about abstract art had been said within the first twenty five years of the century; the rest was simply repetition in a closed and lifeless box.
Overall, this is a hugely interesting and enjoyable exhibition. There is a lot to see, including a large number of drawings and graphic works which I have not even mentioned above; there is in fact too much to absorb. There is lots to think about; its an exhibition for the mind as much as for the eye.
If there is a challenge for the exhibition it comes from the reality that it is impossible for us to view any work of art in the context of when it is produced and without the baggage of knowledge of what subsequently happened. That which looked revolutionary at time it was produced, can look remarkably mundane when looked at from today. It is a challenge for any curator to immerse today’s viewer in the context of the first viewer. To my mind the context in which Malevich was working must be so critical to understanding what he was doing, and why, that more could have been done to bring that context to life. But take that as small criticism of an extremely interesting exhibition.