29 July 2014 § Leave a comment
Despite Kasimir Malevich being widely feted during his lifetime as a leader in non-figurative art exhibitions of work since his death in 1935 have been few and far between. With the location of many works not only behind the iron curtain but considered subversive – the seminal ‘Black Square’ was actually hidden from view until the 1980’s – the opportunity for bringing together a significant body of Malevich’s work has been limited.
This show is quite simply breathtaking. A 2003 Guggenheim-sponsored tour was impressive but this Tate show dwarfs anything previously attempted. An unprecedented international collaboration has brought over 150 major works plus another 150 works on paper, publications and film. It was with great anticipation therefore that we previewed the Tate show, entitled simply Malevich and were not disappointed.
Malevich is of course most famous for one of the defining works of the 20th century – Black Square. This slightly uneven shape painted with a white frame, was created in 1915 roughly contemporaneously with Marcel Duchamp’s groundbreaking readymades. Equally revolutionary it boldly and clearly signalled the end of painting as it was then known.
Bringing an end to centuries of representation this was a giant artistic full stop. He had momentously declared that art was now free of history and was ready for “the beginning of a new culture”. Malevich’s new beginning was Suprematism – a bold visual language of abstract geometric shapes and stark colours and its first exhibition was The Last Exhibition of Futurist Painting 0.10 (Zero-ten).
The Tate has recreated this momentous event with by reuniting nine of the remaining twelve known works and rehanging them according to the only black and white photograph of the original exhibition. This small photograph shows, in black and white, two walls densely hung with Black Square positioned in the top corner – taking the traditional place of a typical homes religious icon.
Despite the many missing works the impact upon arriving in this room is huge. Suddenly one is aware of what a massive impact must have been felt one hundred years ago upon arriving at the same viewpoint; an earth-shattering assault on the senses that can never have been previously experienced. The effect is almost as strong today – the black and white works are bold and striking, the others surprisingly colourful.
The remainder of the show necessarily takes a back seat but is still impressive. Starting from his early paintings of Russian landscapes, agricultural workers and religious scenes, the exhibition follows the influence of the French Impressionists, particularly Matisse, and his journey towards abstract painting and his suprematist masterpieces.
In 1913, together with musician Mikhail Matyushin and poet Aleksei Kruchenykh, Malevich produced a manifesto calling for the dissolution of language and the end to rational thought before producing with them the futurist opera Victory Over the Sun. The collaboration helped bring forward ideas to wrest painting away from its duty to render a world of myths, stories and representations.
The exhibition moves in to the Suprematist era with a stunning series of rooms that chronicle the Malevich’s most inventive period. Despite shortages and poor living conditions we see exciting geometric abstracts on the white backgrounds of ‘infinite space’ and a variety of monochromes or bold shapes. Call up to the war however soon slowed down output before the gradually increasing disapproval of the new Soviet leaders of avant-garde art forced him in to abandon painting for teaching and drawing.
Possibly chastened by the Stalinist state in to conforming he later returns to painting combining his early style with the strange introduction of aspects of realism and Renaissance portraiture. It is notable however that many of his last works are not signed but instead feature a tiny black square – the same Black Square that hung over his death bed and led his funeral cortege. Malevich certainly realised that this was his key achievement – an iconic work that symbolised both the end and a new beginning.
Malevich is at Tate Modern, SE1 (020 7887 8888, tate.org.uk) until 26 October 2014