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An Englishman in Moscow (1914)

Kasimir Malevich

 
In the highly developed artistic climate of Moscow and St Petersburg before the revolution Malevich joined up with the avantgarde and assimilated the international influence of Expressionism and Cubism into his scenes of peasant life. At the age of 29 he participated in an exhibition with Kandinsky. Five years later, in 1912, the Donkey’s Tail group juxtaposed work by Malevich and Tatlin. In 1913 he rebelled, attacking old friends in art; with the composer Matyushin he created theatrical performances of literary works by Mayakovsky and Khlebnikov. He designed costumes for the opera Victory over the Sun and in 1914 he defended Marinetti in his visit to Moscow. But it is his creation of Suprematism - the supremacy of an experience evoked by pure visual art - which still resounds. At the end of 1915 he confronted the world with a sensational visual fact divorced from all links with recognisable manifestations - a black square on a white background.

 

An investigation into the field of pain­terly culture is the modest title given to a set of 22 large charts, which are the concise record of research into the content and development of modern painting produced under the aegis of Malevich at the State Institute of Artistic Culture in Leningrad, when he headed the Formal Theoretical Department. According to the general guidelines of the department, set up in 1923, its task was the formal analysis of paintings in accordance with a perpetually changing Weltempfant or reception of the world. Malevich regarded works which involved this process as living organisms, in contrast to paintings in which narrative or aesthetic grounds govern the artist. Tarkovsky, nearer to our own time, has discussed a similar division between film directors who allow the world to acquire form through the poet’s personal vision (Bergman, Kurosawa and Tarkovsky himself) and those who make the literal translation of a screenplay, for whom the narrative is dominant.

 

Remarkably, the charts are annotated in German, a language that Malevich did not speak. On nearly every one, in an inconspicuous position, is a small handwritten Russian text, an approximate translation from the German. When his reputation in Western Europe grew, Malevich accompanied a major exhibition of his work to Warsaw and Berlin. The charts were essential to the general purpose of the journey to inform the Western public about Suprematism. Today they pose several problems. The lecture they illustrated, which evidently elicited an enthusiastic response, has been lost. All that remains are the 22 numbered charts which even Malevich admitted were almost incomprehensible (with or without a lecture). The concurrent Berlin exhibition in 1927 presented a survey of Malevich’s development as a painter and designer, but isolated from the theoretical context which he valued so highly. The charts are a vital part of Malevich’s work for they convey an explicit idea of his views on art.

 

It could follow that every trend in contemporary art establishes its own prism and that each prism, although positioned at a different viewpoint, resembles the one next to it. This idea could be extended to mean therefore that there are no real opposing judgments of contemporary art. Malevich’s own judgments on his contemporaries remain misunderstood. He was unsympathetic to the narrative art of his period if it also suggested discovery, although he failed to recognise the focus of his complaint. He regarded Futurism as an imitative art for example, but did not mention the aesthetic or narrative considerations in Futurist paintings for which he had clear disdain.

 

The second group of charts analyses perception. From them Malevich’s classification of painting becomes clear at a glance: art at the service of literature and non-objective ‘art as such’. A reproduc­tion of a painting by Boccioni is ruthlessly termed classical and naturalistic art.

 

The third section of charts illustrates a new teaching method. According to Malevich, a student was not urged to work as a suprematist. Instead a variety of questions and assignments would deduce his sensations and stage of development in a chosen style. One student was ‘diag­nosed’ a painterly realist, which meant that he entertained realistic notions about painting itself. At the time of the investigation the student was using both cubist and suprematist stylistic features. His work was eclectic and called for didactic inter­vention. As a result of conversations and tasks, the student started working in an early cubist style until, according to a graph in the chart, he came in perfect contact with his work and consequently satisfied.

 

After Berlin, Malevich entrusted many works from his exhibition to a German friend who was unable to make them productive in an era of growing Nazism. On his return to Russia, Malevich faced a new cultural policy which was uninterested in his formalism. He looked back to his point of departure before 1913 as the ‘New Russian Style’. The work that ensued was remarkable for its figurative character but no less for the power which it expressed. Was he trying to teach his compatriots what real socialist, realistic art was or should be? Or, even better, what the art is of a socialist society focused on the common person?

 

There is no answer. A silence fell which, despite the unavailability of most of his work after his death in 1935, fortunately did not condemn him to oblivion. The paradox of denial is so eminently the theme of Russia, and Russia’s denied idealistic socialism seems emblematic of the artistic dilemma of our lives. The theme’s most poignant manifestation is in the featureless peasant figures. They symbolise a general irony, for they appear trusting in their candour. Feet are placed firmly on the ground; the vibrant colours cherish optimism. Now that modern Russia has decided to endorse the imagery created during the Revolutionary period, the importance of Malevich’s work has been underlined.

 

A Review of the Malevich exhibition at the Stedelich Museum, Amsterdam in 1989. First published in Art Monthly UK and Art Monthly Australia in 1989

Timothy Foster

Warsaw
Alexander Nevsky
Battleship Potemkin
cover
Moscow State Circus

Malevich and The American Legacy (amazon.com)