Malevich

  • Art
  • Painting
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1/9
'Suprematist Painting (with Black Trapezium and Red Square)', 1915

© Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam

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'Supremus No. 55', 1916

© Krasnodar Territorial Art Museum

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'Self Portrait', 1908-1910

© State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, Russia

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'Woman with Rake', 1930-32

© State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, Russia

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'The Scyther', 1912

© Nizhnii Novgorod State Art Museum (Russia)

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'Kazimir Malevich, An Englishman in Moscow', 1914

© Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam

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'Supremus No 50', 1915

© Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam

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'Head of a Peasant', 1928-29

© The State Russian Museum, St Petersburg

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'Black Square' 1929

© State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

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.

Martin Coomer

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truEuropean

Didn't have high expectations on this one and I was ready for a lot of monocrome squared figures. Turns out I was wrong. What most impressed me is his ability to understand, learn and copy to perfection other artistic movements techniques: you can see his genious.

If you miss it, you will regret it!

Matthew B

Went knowing nothing about him and came out gobsmacked - brilliantly curated, an inspiring and interesting artistic journey, and wonderful work.

Curated London

This exhibition traces some of the most turbulent periods in Russia's history, from the fall of the Tsars to the Revolution via the First World War. The artist started out producing figurative images, learning from European household names like Cézanne, Picasso and Matisse, whose work was displayed in Moscow. He quickly built a reputation as a talented artist.


It didn't take long for Malevich to develop his own style, distinct from the Europeans who influenced him. Blending elements of Cubism and Futurism, his paintings draw on a consistent, bold colour palette and angular geometry of form. 


Malevich's work became more and more abstract, reaching an esoteric crescendo with his infamous Black Square. For many, it sits alongside Duchamp's Readymade urinal as a turning point in modern art. For others, it falls firmly into the 'my five-year-old could have done that' category. Two versions are featured, so you can make your own mind up.  


As the years went by, Malevich came full circle and returned to his figurative beginnings. With the social upheaval of 1917, and civil war two years later, he struggled to maintain focus, and abandoned painting altogether for a time. He returned to it in the late 1920s, creating stark and controversial works depicting the plight of peasants. Stalin's stranglehold on the arts meant he fell out of favour during the last years of his life.

This is an interesting exhibition, but one with a potentially limited appeal. At £14.50, it's pretty steep, but likely to find favour with die-hard modern art fans looking to expand their knowledge. 


For more art in plain English, check out http://curatedlondon.co.uk