Interestingly enough, this near perfectly curated retrospective of Kazimir Malevich is not featured on the Tate’s prominent list of highlight exhibitions on its homepage, amongst other high profile shows Folk Art (Britain) and Mondrian (St. Ives).
For even those not familiar with his wide reaching influence on avant-garde painting during the 20th century, or his trajectory of work closely corresponding with and reacting to a period of serious political upheaval in Russia, will at least be familiar with his iconic and instantly recognisable geometric style of scattered shapes of primary colour: the mode he called Suprematism. The pinnacle is the most recognised and game-changing ‘Black Square’ of 1915, which dares to do what it says on the tin, blowing away eons of pretentious artistic tradition. The curators have achieved exactly what you want in an exhibition: the whole sequence communicates well the ebb and flow of artistic direction throughout Malevich’s erratic output, leading us clearly and logically towards this famous pinnacle. It is facilitated by a staggering array of loans from the Stedelijk Museum and the Khardzhiev Foundation in Amsterdam; as a visitor you could not ask for a more well explained summary of an artist’s career.
What the show most successfully achieves is to show the relevance and stylistic progression in the works leading up to ‘Black Square’, pinpointing these against the backdrop of political unrest, so that when the eponymous piece comes looming, it is perceived not as a welcome island of recognition against prior struggling works, but as the natural culmination of its precedents. Such marrying of pieces is a joy both for academics and new uninitiated audiences alike. What characterises this lead up is an astonishing fizzing energy, evident in fitful application of himself to various other recognisable artistic styles. So early on we see very plainly the results of the young Malevich soaking up the styles in the reproductions available to him, then upon first travelling to Moscow in his 20s: amongst strongly linear, bold and brash pieces is a very brave – yet somehow unsuccessful – stab at impressionism. ‘Village’ of 1916 is heavily impasto, sludgy and thick; it appears Malevich has dutifully yet reluctantly waivered the primary colour which so prevails uniformly in the rest of his work.
Indeed, what is clear is a restless, searching energetic mind receptive to other methods in the struggle to find his own vision. So crammed into these early efforts is a plethora of religious motifs, a direct response to his experience of a 1907 exhibition by the Blue Rose symbolist group. Directly alongside ‘Village’ are wildly differing pieces thus titled ‘Assumption of a Saint’ and ‘Shroud of Christ’. Along with the consistent use of block primary colour, the symbolism indebted to religious mysticism links throughout his work, to reappear later in the height of his Suprematist works in the form of ominous, large scale crosses dominating the picture planes.
Two years after the Blue Rose exhibition is the release in 1909 of Marinetti’s ‘Futurist Manifesto’, a violent paean to war and the need to modernise via machinery, and, famously, the banning of pasta. Fascinating is Malevich’s response, a hybrid of cubo-futurism which he applies not to machinery and technology, but to peasant scenes and rural ideals, positing Russia itself as the source of the future. His 1912 ‘Morning in the Village After Snowstorm’ is curious in this respect, employing still the bold primary colour distinguishing it from regular cubist practice. It is staggering that such an output in so varying styles – all with key motifs and methods running through like a stick of rock – were made in so short a space of time and in such rapid response to political developments as they unfolded.
When ‘Black Square’ and the key pieces of Suprematism – those floating, geometric shapes overlapping in space – appear in room six, a recreation of the group exhibition hang of 1915 entitled ‘The Last Exhibition of Futurist Painting’, it feels a natural progression, that we like Malevich have finally arrived at the peak, with equally as much fizzing dangerous energy and potential: there is no relaxing into a comfortable mode of working, but a welcome release into a new – crucially higher or Suprematist – mode of expression. Set against the backdrop of the war, with all its disastrous impact on a society now plagued by despair and loss of life, the style appears strangely paradoxical: full of energy yet listless, full or order yet chaotic, full of life and yet nihilistic. In its abstraction it is the perfect reflection of war and all its contradictory, conflicting properties.
It is a hugely affecting culmination of powerful works in a strong and methodical display, which makes it especially odd, then, with the arrival of Malevich’s very last works which retreat in a way to representational figurative painting of a far safer nature than that of his output during the previous thirty years. ‘Female Worker in Red’ of 1933 illustrates by its weakness the sheer power of abstraction as a painting method, with its clumsily rendered naturalism evoking something of a rural, simplistic ideal. The primary colours are still in evidence, but in this era following Stalin’s consolidation of power and the introduction of the first Five Year Plan, the potent energy and forward thinking mentality appears to have lost its teeth. It is telling then, that Malevich’s work was shunned from public view according to Stalin’s agenda promoting Social Realism, with ‘Black Square’ not to be displayed again until the 1980s.
With its new flawless exploration of the brief flashes of inspired work which characterise Malevich’s career, carefully pinpointing against the key moments in this turbulent time in history, this is essential viewing, and a model example of the ideal survey exhibition.
Words: Olivia McEwan Image Courtesy Tate Modern