Kazimir Malevich: prisoner, revolutionary, suspected spy … artist

At the heart of Kazimir Malevich's art is a statement so final that everything else orbits it. Emphatic, plain and declarative, his Black Square has a modest, expressionless presence. It seems like a last word. But what was it? An abstract icon? A tombstone for pictorial art? The portrait of an idea? Or a thing in itself? Perhaps not even Malevich knew.
What do you say when you have said the last word? One solution is to keep on saying it. Existing in several versions – the first was painted in 1914 or 15, the last in 1929 – Malevich's Black Square is both beginning and end. There's depth in the black. It seems to be as much volume as surface. It is simple, it is complicated, and Malevich said that it had been painted in a sort of "ecstatic fury", though each version seems calm and emphatic. The painting looks back at you, blankly, saying nothing, giving nothing away.
Or almost nothing. The Black Square was hung across the spot where walls and ceiling meet, like a Russian religious icon. It took the place of a signature in Malevich's last, figurative paintings. A black square was wedged between the headlamps of the truck that carried his coffin on a grey May morning in Leningrad in 1935. It appears again in a little drawing, seen in perspective, being borne flat on a stretcher like someone wounded. As well as black squares, there were black quadrilaterals and crosses, white-on-white squares, and an off-square red shape titled Red Square (Painterly Realism of a Peasant Woman in Two Dimensions). Red squares met black rhomboids, circles and wedges.
Malevich's art advances and retreats throughout his turbulent career, and now fills a suite of galleries at Tate Modern, complementing the exhibition of Matisse cut-outs that continues until September. Born in Kiev to Polish parents in 1879, Malevich lived through artistic and political revolution. He was embroiled in both. The opening rooms of this extensive retrospective show a bewildering set of influences: Russian folk art and dutiful 19th-century portraiture, Gauguin and Van Gogh, Monet and Cézanne, Matisse and Picasso. All of whose work Malevich had seen as early as 1905, when he encountered two of the greatest collections of western avant-garde art in Russia, or indeed anywhere, belonging to Sergei Shchukin and Ivan Morozov.
Symbolism and impressionism, cubism and futurism – all found their way into Malevich's painting. But he was never playing catch-up, and he managed early on to effect a synthesis of these influences.
Here is a church, seen through bare trees, the whole painting in bleached snow-light and thin yellow sun, the paint heavily flecked and crusted (I imagine the crunchy sound of boots on frozen snow); then a Gauguinesque self-portrait, the artist full-faced with an almost glowering concentration. And here, men in smocked shirts doing a lumbering dance as they polish a floor with lumps of pumice under their bare feet.
Malevich's echoes of Matisse, Picasso and the rest were combined with imagery depicting the lives of the Russian peasantry. His variants on cubism contained touches of realism: a collaged image of the Mona Lisa, and the head of a highly representational bearded middle-class man. They became filled with nonsense words; there was a meeting between a cow, a violin, a fish and a wooden spoon (like the spoon that poked out of his jacket pocket as though to announce his outre modernity).


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