#36. “New realities”: Kazimir Malevich
Gerry Souter is the author of Malevich, Journey to Infinity. Kazimir Malevich (1879–1935) lived, as the Chinese curse has it, in ‘interesting times’ – Polish by birth, he followed agricultural college by moving to Moscow and founding the pioneering abstract art movement Suprematism, of which Black Square (1915) is regarded as the pinnacle. Later, propelled by utopian ideals, he dreamed of sending work into space. Later still, he was denounced by Stalin’s regime and returned to figurative painting. A brilliant retrospective of his work is currently on at London’s Tate Modern – Gerry ponders how he might have responded to the modern world.
Words: Gerry Souter
Every day as I walked to my art classes at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, I passed a pair of Malevich works. The large square canvasses sparsely displayed geometric objects on plain backgrounds. They were both puzzling and annoying in their apparent simplicity. Decades later, when Malevich stepped from behind those spare paintings, the fullness of his genius was revealed to older, wiser eyes. He was at once a creative chameleon and a visual pioneer; a man of divided ethnic loyalties and a force against artistic repression. His words best express the aim of his philosophy and vision:
“An artist who creates rather than imitates expresses himself; his works are not reflections of nature, but, instead, are new realities, which are no less significant than the realities of nature itself.”
This son of Polish parents, raised on the Steppes of the Ukraine, and later adopted by Russia as his fame grew, he would weep over the crush of violence that today bleeds out his youthful homeland that launched his talent. Trudging in the road ruts behind his family’s horse and wagon from one Ukrainian village to the next, he revelled in the peasant colors and symbols painted on walls, teapots, window sills and religious icons. He learned to grind his own paints and made his brushes, tutored by each village artist whose job it was to make the drab more beautiful. Those early images never left him but attained a higher plain of sophistication and showed the whole world a new way to see.
Below are five aspects of the today’s fine art and tech culture that Malevich would approve of. It was fun to revisit Kazimir and watch him grow up from peasant stock, burn through three wives, a revolution, a half dozen painting styles and end up back in the dirt marked by a small white cube with a black square on it (his most famous painting) and have an apartment block built over his grave site. Life is a cabaret.
1. Art without politics
Kazimir was a political and cultural football for most of his career due at first to his class wherein his father was an itinerant sugar beet chemist always on the move to rural processing factories. This affected his schooling and forced a lack of long-term friendships. After studying in Moscow, the October Revolution exploded and he found himself producing anti-German propaganda posters during World War I. He was then swept into various government art committees in the new regime (when he wasn’t dodging down the streets with a revolver in his hand as rival factions set up machine guns at busy intersections.)
His non-political pursuit of Suprematism was seen by politicians as a rejection of Russian and then Soviet values. It was interpreted as a bleak and intellectually negative denial of the rich collective culture that Malevich himself had embraced in his earlier folk art works. The concept of objects existing for their own reality, their own personal space was groundbreaking and the ground belonged to the Communist Party. Malevich, in turn had to be broken.
Today, except for the occasional monument, portrait or architectural rendering, governments and most liberal western regimes keep their hands off the people’s artwork, music or theatre and very few artists are shot for bad performances.
2. Freedom of movement
Today, artists’ creations freely circulate in curated shows that expand everyone’s vision of worlds, real and imagined. Malevich was basically confined to Russia during his most creative years as he developed Suprematism from before World War I to his return to the lubok (Russian Folk Art) style and portraits before his death in 1935. Outside the Soviet Union he was largely unknown except for his paintings that hung with the Salon des Indépendants in Paris and a swing through Warsaw, Berlin – with visits to the Bauhaus in Dessau – and Munich in 1927. He managed to leave behind enough of his paintings in these countries to announce his presence to the art world beyond the Communist bloc. He anticipated the Communist art bureaus would suppress his works when he died, which is exactly what happened.
3. Acceptance of non-objective art forms
The spare assemblies of geometric objects in seeming random placement on solid colour backgrounds called Suprematism caused a fuss in Russian and other Eastern European art circles. At their first showing – 39 paintings – in the “Zero-ten” exhibition in St. Petersburg in 1915, traditional Russian pictorial artists smelled blood in the water for Malevich’s reputation established with his icon, and peasant-style folk art. The 1913 Armory International Show of Modern Art in New York had already shocked the pictorial art world with the critically ridiculed “European trash” hung by Cubists, Futurists, Dada, and the Surrealists. Malevich’s legacy added to this “trash”, but in actuality opened fresh new worlds for today’s art appreciation. Abstract art is now part of our décor, architecture, music and the infrastructure of our daily lives.
4. Working in mixed media
Art and design has become ubiquitous in all aspects of our lives. Today, artists experiment, expanding their spin on visual interpretation to a variety of media and cross-media works are common. Malevich migrated easily from his paintings to graphic art posters, and the 1913 opera, Victory Over the Sun, designing the sets and costumes. His Suprematist concepts expanded beyond two-dimensional expression to his series of plaster “architekton” sculptures designed as models for architectural execution. His book, Suprematism: The Non-Objective World was published in 1922. Malevich’s high regard among a growing number of Russian artists held the oppressive cultural watchdogs at bay long enough for his philosophy to gain traction and followers.
5. Education in the Fine Arts
Just as today’s schools of art flourish, often taught by grand masters, Kasimir Malevich was a tireless teacher who gave back to a generation of young artists an expanded vision of what art could both accomplish and represent. He joined the “Union of Youth” in 1913, helping to write a mind-opening manifesto. He founded a number of schools such as The Free Art Studios in 1918 Petrograd and later in Moscow. In 1920, Malevich created the UNOVIS Group and in 1923 was named Director of Petrograd’s Museum of Artistic Culture. A year later, he opened the Institute of Artistic Culture – called INKHUK. When that school was closed down, the collection of his work was sent to the Russian Museum. All the time, he gathered more followers and his peers became pioneers in their own right creating Constructivism sculpture, Rayism painting (a fusion of Cubo-Futurism and Orphism) and other non-objective experimentation. His constant drive was rewarded with government repression and ridicule. After his death from cancer at age 56 in 1935, it would be 27 years before any of Malevich’s work would be seen again in the USSR. Undoubtedly, his influence and enthusiasm would have added even greater lustre to the world’s fine art if he could have survived into a more enlightened era.
Malevich, Journey to Infinity (2008) is published by Parkstone Press
Above artwork: Suprematist Painting (Eight Red Rectangles), 1915
© 2013, The Fertile Fact / Gerry Souter