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In 20th-century Russia, rejection of the reactionary past by welcoming nascent modernity motivated both the artistic and political vanguards. Believing that the two were interdependent, Kasimir Malevich (1879-1935) embraced both with clear-minded passion.
Born in Kiev into a large Polish family, Malevich’s fragmentary art education lacked the lengthy academic discipline which formed most other pioneers of Modernism. Yet, like theirs, his early work looks like a crash-course in more recent “innovatory” styles.
The Tate Gallery’s Malevich exhibition duly begins with a succession of his Impressionist, post-Impressionist, folksy Symbolist and carelessly brushed Expressionist paintings, many being stronger in daring than accomplishment.
But he discovered his forte in 1912 once he arrived at the visual rigours of Cubism with its focus on form, line and space rather than colour and touch. Combining Cubism with Russian Futurism’s socially subversive subjects led to his first mature works. In them he faced the fundamental question: why should painting retain any contact with the visible world now that this was represented so accurately by the modern technologies of photography, film and photomontage?
In 1913 Malevich designed outlandishly “abstract” costumes and sets for the avant-garde opera Victory Over the Sun and a film of its recreation is screened in the exhibition.
Two years later he painted his first Black Square. So radical was this provocative statement about the absolute essence of painting that it has influenced generations of artists and remains contentious to this day.
“To reproduce beloved objects and little corners of nature is like a thief being enraptured by his leg irons,” Malevich declared. He called his new aesthetic Suprematism, wrote a manifesto and created arguably his best paintings in the following three years.
Flatly painted, simple geometric forms in black or bold colours are juxtaposed against an even white ground. Often composed diagonally, rectangles, triangles and circles speed across the surface with a dynamism echoing that of flying machines.
Uncompromisingly stark, these paintings defy and deny any connection with tradition.
Having arrived in Moscow in 1905, Malevich fought in the “battle of the brigades” in that year’s aborted revolution. He remained a lifelong socialist, joining the Federation of Leftist Artists in the February 1917 revolution.
It was no coincidence that by the period of war communism (1917-22) Malevich’s canvases became ever simpler, paling into white forms on white backgrounds. By 1919 they completely faded out. “Painting died like the old regime because it was a part of it,” Malevich said.
From the October 1917 revolution onwards Malevich’s career exemplifies the promotion of the avant garde to “high art” status by the young worker state, the first government in the world to do so.
Appointed Commissioner for the Preservation of Historic Buildings and Art in 1917 and head of the experimental Petrograd Free State Workshops (SVOMAS) by 1918, Malevich became an influential art establishment figure.
From 1919 he continued to develop new forms of art education based on Suprematism in his own department at Vitebsk Art School. He organised his students and himself into a collective under the acronym UNOVIS (Champions of the New Art) and together they set out to improve daily life by exploring the essence of form, colour and volume as prototypes for practical application by engineers, architects and designers.
Having inspired many contemporaries these principles, which Malevich published in 1927, still underpin much Modernist design today.
Malevich’s return to figurative painting in the late 1920s may come as a shock as these works were long marginalised. This exhibition devotes two rooms to them, presenting them as surprising, ambiguous and complex reinventions of figuration. Yet it interprets his themes of peasant life as conveying the “dislocation, alienation and despair” of collectivisation policies.
By privileging the individual, avant-garde artist, the curatorial stance undervalues the urgency of the international left’s 1930s debates about the social responsibility of artists.
Malevich’s late experiments of blending Modernism with various forms of realism was part of a wider quest by Soviet artists to create an accessible yet modern art.
At his premature death from cancer in 1935, the city of Leningrad honoured Malevich by paying for the grand Suprematist funeral which he’d designed himself.
Malevich was a true radical and original thinker. His major contribution to art theory and education more than compensates for a certain lack of intuitive flair and sensuous engagement with the act of painting.
The exhibition is overly large so that it is difficult to absorb the numerous drawings and UNOVIS projects displayed towards its end. Yet, apart from its predictable anti-Soviet bias, it provides a meticulously researched and comprehensive survey of Malevich’s work. It has an unpretentious chronological organisation and its reconstruction of Malevich’s 1915 Suprematist exhibition is impressive.
A must for those interested in Soviet and Modernist art.
Runs until October 26 at Tate Modern, Bankside, London SE1 9TG. Box office: (020) 7887-8888.
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