If you know one thing about Kazimir Malevich (1879-1935), it’s that he is the creator of the suprematist ‘Black Square’, the first and last word in abstraction, painting’s absolute zero. Knowing this lends a fair amount of anticipation to the initial rooms of this compelling retrospective. When is it going to come, this avant-garde fetish object? Not in the first room, where young Kazi, as he was probably never known, travels in 1905 from his birthplace Kiev to the well-stocked museums of Moscow. Here, he laps up the latest trends in French painting, sampling Monet in the clotted-cream impressionism of ‘Church’ (1905). Nor in the second and third galleries, in which he tries on cubism and futurism for size: searching for a truly Russian modern art, he comes up with fractured studies of woodcutters and sturdy mamushkas. He inserts a representational, bowler-hatted head into a cubist evocation of a tram stop: you can almost sense Picasso’s disdain.
Still, you can see the Malevich we revere today coming. He coins the term ‘alogical painting’ to describe his increasingly arbitrary juxtapositions (such as ‘Cow and Violin’, 1913). In his paintings the coloured rectangles get ever larger, obliterating almost a third of the canvas in ‘Lady at the Advertising Column’ (1914). He designs the geometric set and blocky costumes for the futurist opera ‘Victory Over the Sun’ – a video of a 1981 restaging sends waves of discordant sound through the galleries. This influences him to ditch the subject matter altogether: figure, still life and landscape are all given the boot. The square is born. The year is 1915.
The Tate does a fine job of reminding you about world events as you go along, so that history and art history come together without ever feeling like you’re back in school. The old orders of Tsarist Russia and representational art are shown to crumble just as you get to the centrepiece of the show: a recreation of the legendary exhibition ‘The Last Exhibition of Futurist Painting 0.10’, which was staged in the newly christened Petrograd in December 1915. Nine out of the 12 paintings in the original show still known to exist have been brought together. You don’t need to be an art history nerd to feel the force of their fierce clarity. Displayed high up across a corner of the room like an unholy religious icon is a ‘Black Square’ (not the ‘Black Square’, alas: the original is too fragile to move). It has a strange, magnetic presence and seems to exert a gravitational pull on the paintings around it, their lines and blocks of colour appearing to migrate across the canvas.
Malevich dismissed his predecessors as ‘counterfeiters’ of nature, but he describes flows and energies that are rooted in the natural world: it’s why we relate to them so strongly. Later, the rectangles dissolve into their backgrounds or disappear in symphonies of off-white. Malevich’s invention is thrilling.
By the time of the 1917 Russian Revolution, Malevich is moving away from oil on canvas altogether. ‘Painting died, like the old regime, because it was an organic part of it,’ he writes in 1919. He creates architectural models, takes up a prestigious teaching post, briefly becomes director of the State Institute for Artistic Culture.
A room of drawings allows you take in the sweep of his career in one go, so you’re primed for what comes next. Still, the reappearance of Malevich’s peasants – schematised, faceless – is a shock. What happened? Stalin, the condemnation of the elitist avant-garde and the rise of official socialist realism, that’s what. While it’s not the complete capitulation it initially seems, Malevich’s later work is proof that creative lives don’t always end in unchecked freedom. Yet the show is also a reminder that diminished circumstances and ailing health can make for a gripping story.
In the 1930s, accused of spying for the Germans, interrogated and imprisoned, he completes a series of painfully retrogressive portraits inspired by Renaissance masters. Hidden in their dark backgrounds, though, are four strokes of paint made into a kind of signature. It’s a black square – a final mark of defiance.
‘Once in a lifetime’ is an overused description but it really applies here. There are 421 works from 44 lenders in 11 countries. Most of these paintings won’t travel again: some are falling apart, their surfaces cracked like crazy paving. Top marks for Tate who, with Matisse’s cut-outs on show downstairs, are having their second blockbuster of the summer. Both shows are unmissable. If you’re seeing both, go to Malevich first if you like a happy ending.