July 16 – October 26
In May 1935, Kazimir Severinovich Malevich died at just 56, leaving a legacy of radical, avant-garde art that had mad a definitive contribution to Modernism. During his lifetime, Malevich was witness to the First World War and October Revolution, the fall of the Tsars and rise of Communism. His art practice embodied strong reactions to such world-shaping changes, and was portentous to what lay ahead, both immediately and in the decades after his death. The Tate Modern’s retrospective is the first in 30 years, and inaugural to the UK. Ranging from oil paintings to sculpture, film, and sketches, Malevich offers a comprehensive reflection on the career of one of Russia’s most famous Modern artists.
Presented chronologically, the exhibition begins with early paintings from 1904 onwards, showing the influence of movements such as the Blue Rose group, and artists like Van Gogh, Gauguin, and Matisse, had on the young Malevich’s rapidly changing style. The 12 rooms follow Malevich’s progression from Russian Modernism to Cubo-Futurism, the founding of Suprematism, and the movement’s evolution during Russia’s political and societal upheavals. The final four rooms focus on the 1920’s to 30’s, including artist sketches, work of the Champions of New Art group, Malevich’s return to painting and several portraits in the more realist style; a highlight being the bright and playful Sportsmen (1930-31), standing like old-fashioned circus clowns, ready to tumble and perform.
Malevich’s relationship with the Italian Futurists was significant. The publication of Franco Marinetti’s ‘Futurist Manifesto’ in 1909 led to Malevich’s involvement with performing art, manifested in the collaborative Futurist opera Victory over the Sun in 1913, screened in Room Five. Directly opposite this is Malevich’s most well known work, Black Square (1915), the work that exemplifies his sudden embrace of abstraction. Conceived in 1913 and later painted in velvety oils on canvas, the Tate describes Black Square as ‘(bringing) to an end centuries of representation’; considered in light of the outbreak of war in 1914, Black Square is a gaping void into an unknown future, a negative space of death and destruction. It stands in stark contrast to the bright colors, vitality and Futurist dynamism of the opera.
I was reminded of Adorno’s (notorious) proclamation that ‘(t)o write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.’ Adorno gave an exception to this: Samuel Beckett’s Endgame, and the playwright’s representation of trauma through non-representation and negation. In the same way, Black Square can be seen as a response to trauma that makes no attempt to portray the horrors of war–viscerally, like Otto Dix’s Collapsed Trenches (1924), or abstractly, like Picasso’s Geurnica (1937). Staring into the blackness is gazing into the abyss, and having it gaze back.
In From Cubism to Futurism to Suprematism (1915), Malevich initially defined the heart of suprematism as color. However, in 1917–in the wake of the Tsar’s abdication, collapse of Russia’s regime, and consequent Revolution–Russian art came under question; was the avant-garde’s radical nature finally in fitting with the current political changes, or would it have to transform itself in the face of a new, egalitarian society? In Room 8 of the exhibition, The End of Painting, two pieces in particular stood out in response to this question, and in connection with Black Square and thoughts on war, death and the dawn of German Fascism–White Suprematist Cross (1920-21) and Red Cross on a Black Circle (1915).
While Malevich was never associated with Nazi politics, and I am wary of assigning such heavy connotations to works of art, I cannot help but see these two crosses as unintentional premonitions of Fascism. Perhaps this comes from the uncomfortable closeness between the words ‘suprematist’ and ‘supremacist.’ Perhaps it is the crosses themselves; the red cross standing vividly against a black sun, as if alight, even burning, suggestive of hooded men and their declaration of war against difference. The white cross is laid against white–pure and clean, unsullied by color. It is innocent, not colorless to emphasise racial connotations, but difficult for contemporary audiences to separate from images used now by neo-Nazi organisations.
There was no way for Malevich to know what was to come in the years after his death, but Black Square, the paint now distorted with age, and its radical, almost primal negation of representation, expresses the horrors of the two World Wars more effectively through emptiness than depiction. This can be seen in post-War artists such as Rothko, Reinhardt, and Motherwell, where darkness and absence contend with art’s fundamentally creative essence.
The singular forms in these three pieces moved Malevich closer to liberation from the visible, through death: in 1919 he wrote ‘Painting died, like the old regime, because it was an organic part of it.’ What followed in the 1920’s was suprematism in everyday life, not reserved for art but to be welcomed into the homes of ordinary people–art as classless and free. Here, any relationship between suprematism and Nazism vanishes, as the art favored by Hitler and Stalin–Classic Greek and Roman for the former, and Socialist Realism for the latter–held nothing in common with the European or Russian avant-garde, and was certainly not so utopian in vision.
The Tate delivers what one would expect from one of London’s biggest institutions; an extremely well curated and sourced exhibition that flows effectively through movements. Particularly effective is the recreation of 1915’s The Last Exhibition of Futurist Painting 0.10, which shows exactly how the collection would have been displayed. Visitors would benefit from approaching the pieces with their social, historical and political contexts in mind, particularly from 1913 onwards, as the works are vastly more appreciable with some knowledge of Malevich’s personal convictions and the turbulence of the time. Black Square in particular needs to be seen as the reactionary piece it was, and remains to be.