Kazimir Malevich
‘a true modernist icon’

The studio trip down to see the Malevich retrospective at the Tate Modern proved to be very inspiring one. The clichéd phrase ‘modernist icon’ is not only appropriate but literally true. Kazimir Malevich exhibited Black Square (Black Quadrilateral) in a group show held in Petrograd (St Petersburg) in 1915. It is often cited as the ‘Zero hour for Modern art’ and it challenged not only how we view / understand ‘art’ but also design, with Suprematism being hugely influential to El Lissitzky and Alexander Rodchenko.

Although there were many other pictures by him in the exhibition, the one everyone remembers is the black square on the white canvas hung high up in the corner of the room – a place traditionally reserved for a holy icon in an Orthodox Christian household. Black Square is also one of the most important pictures of the 20th century, the brutal simplicity of its geometric abstraction the quintessence of Suprematism, the art movement that Malevich introduced to the world.

The first and second galleries give no indication to the originality, radical shift in artistic direction and the birth of ‘Suprematism’ of gallery 3. You see a young art student copying the established artists of post impressionism, early cubism and futurism styles using stock Russian peasant characters, they are pastiches. The paintings become generally more sparse, abstract and cubism influenced. Colour and shape alone create the illusion of flat planes closer to or further away from the picture surface. Within months Malevich junked cubism completely to exhibit fully abstract paintings in which weightless squares, circles and rectangles of pure primary colours lightly hover over a white or light grey ground. In some, the slight tapering of a long rectangular band of colour creates the illusion of spatial recession, which is then checked by patches of flat colour that bring the eye back to the flat picture surface.

Considering that his most famous picture is black and white (and that the second most famous is white on white) it is ironic that the term Suprematism refers to the superiority of colour over every other pictorial quality. Fauve artists such as Matisse and Derain discovered that colour could be independent of form – that is, it could be used without any consideration of its descriptive function. In Suprematist painting colour and form are one and the same thing. To achieve this Malevich developed a new pictorial language of non-representational or abstract art in which colour and shape are of equal importance. One cannot exist without the other.

The Russian Revolution fuelled the work of the Suprematists during the years 1915–1918. The purity of Malevich’s geometric designs in black, white, and unmixed primary colours perfectly expressed the radical impulse symbolically to wipe the social slate clean by eliminating representation of any kind.

“I say to all,” Malevich wrote, ‘Abandon love, abandon aestheticism, and abandon the baggage of wisdom, for in the new culture, your wisdom is ridiculous and insignificant. We, supremacists, throw open the way for you.’ Suprematism eliminates individuality, expression, memory, the past, the self.

The movements best work is seen throughout galleries 3, 4 and 5. Gallery 6 is dedicated to Malevich’s years of teaching – suprematism becomes a design for living. Malevich produces posters, stage costumes, designs for teapots and cups (or rather half-cups, bisected so that one suddenly sees into a quartered sphere as never before). He becomes a teacher, travels to Berlin and Vitebsk. His teaching materials and charts are beautifully displayed alongside the work of his students including El Lissitzky.

The next gallery is a vast and stunning collection of Malevich’s drawings and preliminarily painting sketches produced on scraps of paper, graph paper etc you see the initial design development drawings of some of Malevich’s best known paintings.

In the early 1930s in Stalin’s Russia, Malevich was arrested, interrogated and then freed. You feel as if Malevich from this point was to paint (almost) in the approved socialist realist manner. The final gallery reflects this and it’s shocking to see Malevich reduced to painting realistic portraits of peasants and workers with Stalin like moustaches.

In 1935, the year Malevich died of cancer at the age of 56, two of his canvases reached America furled inside an umbrella. A few more were smuggled into the Netherlands. But most of his work was censored, destroyed or obscured by the silt of Stalinist dross, lost to the world – Russians included – for decades. But back they come as if raised from the dead – the red square, the black square and the white, these inexhaustible beacons of modern painting, and nothing now can put out their light.

Malevich is at Tate Modern, London SE1 until 26 October

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