"I conquered the lining of the colour of the sky and tore it off, put the colour into the resulting bag, and tied a knot. Fly! A white hue of endless infinity is before you," Kazimir Malevich
Quite often fashion designers mention this or that artist as a reference or as a starting point for a specific season. In the last few years Malevich's name has popped up quite often in different collections.
In a way this connection is almost too easy to understand: Malevich's Suprematist compositions look incredibly modern, adapting almost too well to our times. We live indeed in a digitally overloaded world that feeds constant stimuli to our eyes, and taking refuge in Malevich's simple forms, such as his modern anti-religious icon "Black Square", is almost a radical act of defiance and rejection of a visual clamour distracting us from thinking and seeing clearly.
Since it is too fragile to travel, the original "Black Square" is unfortunately not part of the current exhibition about Malevich at the Tate Modern in London, but there is a larger version of this panting from 1929, and many others works that allow visitors to rediscover this artist.
"Malevich: Revolutionary of Russian Art" is indeed the first retrospective in thirty years and the first ever in the UK since Malevich's death in 1935 and offers the chance to see works borrowed from collections in Russia, the US and Europe.
Born in 1879 to a Polish family, Malevich studied drawing in Kiev from 1895 to 1896. After the death of his father, in 1904, he moved to Moscow where he studied at the School of Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture until 1910 and in the studio of Fedor Rerberg. He took part in the second exhibition of the group Soyuz Molodyozhi (Union of Youth) in St. Petersburg in 1911, together with Vladimir Tatlin, and, in 1912, he joined the third exhibition that also included works by Aleksandra Ekster among the others.
The exhibition at the Tate Modern starts with early paintings of Russian landscapes, agricultural workers and religious scenes. Many of them show a Russian spirit ("Peasant Woman with Buckets and Child", 1912; "The Scyther", 1912), but borrow from movements including Impressionism, Futurism and Symbolism and display the influence of Monet, Gauguin, Matisse, Cézanne, Picasso and Van Gogh (see "Self-portrait", 1909).
First inspired by Russian avant-garde painters Natalia Goncharova and Mikhail Larionov, from 1913 Malevich was deeply influenced by the exhibition of Aristarkh Lentulov's cubist paintings that opened in Moscow and started calling his style "Cubo-Futuristic".
This same style also characterised his set and costume designs for the 1913 opera "Victory over the Sun" with writers Aleksei Kruchenykh and Velimir Khlebnikov, and composer Mikhail Matyushin (see the funeral of the sun and the costumes of the pall bearers; the designs are on display in one gallery together with a video recreation of the play) .
Gradually, the exhibition turns into a journey into abstract painting that reflects Malevich's life and experiences. Surrealism and Cubism blend in "Cow and Violin" (1913) and "An Englishman in Moscow" (1914), while in "Woman at a Tram Stop" (1913) the main character is erased, almost swallowed by tram lines, assorted bits and pieces of means of transport and timetables.
In 1915 Malevich published his manifesto, "From Cubism to Suprematism", exhibiting his first "Black Square" at The Last Exhibition of Futurist Painting 0.10, in Petrograd, and worked with other Suprematist artists in Skoptsi and Verbovka.
Nine works orginally exhibited in Petrograd are part of the Tate Modern event: they are displayed in a dark room with the "Black Square" in a prominent position. There are plenty of paintings to discover here, from the blocks of colours and lines in "Suprematist Painting (with Black Trapezium and Red Square)" and "Supremus No 55" to the vanishing lines of "White Planes in Dissolution" (1917-18) and the sound-wave-like diagrams in "Construction is Dissolution" (1918), or the black and yellow rectangles flying on the red horizon line in "Suprematist Composition: Airplane Flying" (1915), a sort of aerial view of Suprematism.
After the October Revolution (1917), Malevich taught at the Vitebsk Practical Art School in the USSR, the Leningrad Academy of Arts, the Kiev State Art Institute, and the House of the Arts in Leningrad. In 1923, Malevich was appointed director of the Petrograd State Institute of Artistic Culture. His teaching materials and drawings, but also his architectons (plaster maquettes that seem built with solid and impenetrable blocks) from these years are also showcased in two large galleries, they are the tangible proof of a very prolific period in his career.
Malevich returned to paintings in the late '20s with figures and rural scenes that combined realism and Renaissance portraits with Suprematism: the human shapes or some of the elements in the costumes in "Girl with the Red Pole" (1932-33), "Female Torso" (1928-29) and "Woman with Rake" (1930-32) borrow indeed from suprematist shapes, while a tiny black square can be seen alongside or instead of a signature reminding visitors the true essence of Malevich's art.
Confiscated and banned since the Stalinist regime promoted realism and conceived forms of abstraction as "bourgeois" art, Malevich died of cancer in Leningrad in 1935. An image of the black square was hung above his deathbed and the mourners at his funeral rally were permitted to wave a banner bearing a black square.
Almost 100 years after he released his manifesto that introduced Suprematism into the art world, Malevich's paintings with those black/red and white-on-white squares, rhomboids, circles and black crosses that look at times like rockets floating in a vast space, can be interpreted not just as the representation of a quest to find an innovative code or language made with shapes and colours, but as a urge to escape modern conventional systems of perceptions and find a greater freedom.
"Malevich: Revolutionary of Russian Art" is at The Eyal Ofer Galleries, Level 3, Tate Modern, London, UK, until 26th October 2014. The exhibition is accompanied by a series of events including a talk about "Zaha Hadid and Suprematism" on 8th October 2014.
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