For the first time since his death in 1935, Malevich’s work is featured at the Tate Modern. Fresh, moving, as well as full of movement, confident, it is a work that touches the viewer, questions and carries her away with confidence. It did me! I liked the tagline: The man who liberated painting.
I know the abstract expressionists in particular are said to have done this, but here is a whole new storyline. This exhibition shows the history of a free spirit, in art anyway, seeking the path to a new art: art freed from the obligation to equal reality, allowing colour and form to interact freely. Unlike Kandinsky, who made them sing in elaborate combinations, Malevich painted geometrical shapes in floating, superimposed, juxtaposed relationships; above all, squares and circles of pure colour.
Out of habit, I note that Malevich was the first of fourteen children, only nine of whom survived; that his family were refugees from Poland, fleeing events at home; that poverty and having to move often, were part of his personal history. All this may well have had an impact on his search for an alternative world and a different way of seeing things. In a post about inequality, these personal details become signposts, showing some of the routes unequal paths may take.
Experiencing the world from this perspective may be, partly at least, behind works, such as those shown here:
“paintings that do not picture the world, yet speak of (and extend) its infinite variety with a visual language all of their own. It is an art of utter originality.”
Malevich’s initial enthusiastic support of the Leninist revolutionaries could also have been fired by this wish to create a new world. He freely gifted his new art of Suprematism to the revolutionary regime, that, seeking to overcome the chasm between rococo Tsarist Russia and the revolution of the people, sought new ways of seeing, of expression, of being.
Jonathan Keats, writing in Forbes, says that when the Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein visited Vitebsk in 1920, he was surprised to find
“buildings were painted white and brashly embellished with bright orange squares, blue rectangles, and green circles. The artist behind this carnival of color was none other than Kazimir Malevich – founder of Suprematism – who was teaching at the local art school … bringing art to the people.”
Here was reality being defined and changed by art. Here was an artist’s l(eye)ns, lens, producing its way of seeing the world. The Forbes contributor points out the similarity with Banksy, and his creations on the walls of San Francisco’s Mission District; and of course, there is the graffiti at London’s South Bank.
Not only exteriors, but interiors too were being defined by the new world. Malevich’s symbols were painted on china and crockery; when materials and resources were scarce, the old china of Tsarist times were recycled: the new motifs of triangles and squares being painted on top. The experience of inequality in Tsarist Russia led millions of people to seek a new world of symbols, untainted by the past.
But there was disillusionment too. The Stalinist regime following Lenin’s, forbade the creation of abstract art, and even imprisoned Malevich. There was a time of not painting. Then a new Malevich emerged, a new way of doing things. In his new work, without the abstraction that was forbidden, representational painting appeared. In it, Laura Cumming notes,
“There are poignant souvenirs of Malevich’s radical past if you look – the future, as it might have been, in the blacksmith’s vibrant uniform, in the wild clothes he gives the Russian workers, in the triangles jigsawed together in his 1933 self-portrait. But this self-portrait is otherwise so like the one that opens this show, painted more than 20 years earlier, as to measure the loss. All that remains of this brief, brave adventure is the secret motif in place of a signature – a tiny black square.”
Actually, I liked Malevich’s new ways. The first time round, in his developing Suprematism, freedom fizzed out of his painting. This time, restrained, yes, by the prohibitive regime, by time, by other factors too. But it seems to me, on this visit, that these restraints added a new dimension to his work. The portraits I saw at the Tate exhibition’s last room, were not limited by, but smouldered with restraint and pathos; there was much condensed emotion, history, reference, symbolism to fully engage. Would Malevich have created these works without the benefit of his later years? Without his experiences, good and bad, at the center of changing times?
Without wanting to simply attribute the spurt of creativity and genius to inequality and misfortune — far from it — I would not wish to ignore their existence and possible role in Malevich’s later work either. In any case, I think he made it new, for a second time.
This post is part of a series of articles on the theme of Inequality, written for Blog Action Day 2014:
Phylida Barlow at Tate Britain
Kader Attia, Whitechapel Gallery