Malevich: Beyond the Black Square by Robert Chandler

There has never been a better year to look at the work of Kazimir Malevich, a pioneer of abstract art often seen as the greatest Russian painter of the twentieth century. “Malevich: Revolutionary of Russian Art,” first shown in the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, and now at London’s Tate Modern, is the most comprehensive exhibition of his work ever.

Malevich is known above all for his Black Square (1915)—a black square surrounded by a margin of white—the most prominent of the abstract, geometric paintings he called Suprematist, first shown at the now famous “0.10” exhibition in Petrograd in 1915. With Suprematism, Malevich hoped to create “a world in which man experiences totality with nature,” though using forms “which have nothing in common with nature.” He declared the Black Square to be the “zero of form,” claiming that it eclipsed all previous art. This iconoclastic icon was first shown hanging diagonally across the corner of a room, the traditional place for the most sacred icon of all.

The Black Square, however, loses little in reproduction—and what we see at the Tate, in any case, is a later version, executed in 1923. What matters more is that this exhibition offers us the chance to see both Malevich’s early work—in styles that include Fauvism, what he called Cubo-Futurism, and the Dada-like style he called Alogism—and the figurative paintings of his later years.

Malevich’s Fauve paintings of 1910–1911 remain startling. Bather, perhaps a direct response to Matisse’s La Danse, can be taken as an image of Malevich himself. A naked figure, with large red hands and two right feet, also large and red, is about to fling himself into unknown waters; the only visible facial feature is an eye. A picture of a chiropodist is no less exciting—and somehow no less Fauve—despite being painted in grey and the very palest of greens and yellows. Even a black and white lithograph, The Floor Polishers, carries a similar charge. The energy of Malevich’s work evidently stems not only from color but also from his remarkable ability to evoke a sense of movement. This dynamism can be sensed in work from all his different periods, whether figurative or abstract.

In his next period, Malevich fused the geometry of Cubism with the energy of Italian Futurism. There are paintings of woodcutters, and of peasant women carrying buckets or gathering sheaves of corn. Once again, as in icons, the eyes are the dominant facial feature. One of the finest is Knife-Grinder (Principle of Glittering). The Futurist technique of multiplying an image to convey movement has seldom been used to better effect. The left foot, operating the pedal that turns the wheel, is in at least five different positions. The fingers are too many to count. This, unfortunately, is one of the works shown at the Stedelijk Museum but not at the Tate Modern; the Tate does, however, offer a related drawing. Even in pencil, it radiates glittering, juddering life.

Malevich’s drawings have never been shown to better effect. A single large room in the Tate contains over a hundred, in chronological order, constituting a summary of all his different styles. The wittiest and most lively are from his Alogist period. Just as the Suprematist paintings anticipate most developments in abstract painting throughout the rest of the twentieth century, so these startling medleys of words and images anticipate much of subsequent conceptual art.

In his Alogist work Malevich intended to reveal the illusoriness of outward appearance; in the Suprematist work immediately following it, he aspired to embody what he saw as some ultimate truth. The Suprematist paintings (1915–1922) fit neatly into a generally accepted story that sees decades of artistic experimentation as a rehearsal for a final supreme breakthrough: into total abstraction. The reverence now bestowed on them, however, is excessive. They are remarkable in many ways—in their purity, their boldness, in their extraordinary variety—but there is more depth of feeling in the later work, and no less inventiveness.

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