If you want to understand the First World War, go to Tate Modern. While dazzle ships on the Thames will show the surreal and curious response of art to the U-boat threat, the pieces on display at the Malevich exhibition show the serious and radical response of art to war, and to the Russian Revolution it forged. Nowhere is the endeavour of comprehending the machine age, and all its bloody results, better rendered this year than here.
This display of Malevich’s work is as accurate a map of modernism as one will find from one artist. Born to Polish parents in Kiev, Malevich was beyond the yokes of Paris and Vienna, thereby freer to travel without artistic baggage. However, as the curation points out, the factory manager’s son began by taking considerable kindling from the French modernists and impressionists: Cezanne, Matisse and Gauguin are all echoed in the ochre walls of the opening room of this exhibition.
Pictured above: Black Square, 1929
There’s an intriguing, orientalist bent, referencing his Parisian muses by painting bourgeois crowds around Buddhist imagery. Although not overtly political, the purity of the beautiful snow-lit ‘Church’ (1905) suggests a Russian heart celebratory of the noble peasant, the brush work is superb in creating an innocence that would have inspired Tolstoy, then still alive, in its homage to the humble. But this exhibition is not just about Malevich’s brush skills; it is also a journey to the horizon of metropolis.
And it’s a suitably fast one – ‘Floor Polishers’ (1911-12) shows po-faced, machine like bodies, the individual is rebadged ‘worker’; like ‘The Scyther’ (1911-12), the art is active in taking bold steps into an abstract world impossible to depoliticise with hindsight. Such a farm worker – in Malevich’s metallic, cubist reimagining – would not be amiss bestriding the new world of trenches and artillery, harvesting the dead like some great, modernist Grim Reaper, a neo leviathan.
Pictured above: Certain Character of Ill-Intent, 1913
This modernising treatment is bestowed on ‘Morning in the Village After the Snowstorm’ (1912) and ‘Woman at the Tram Stop’ (1913). It’s a complete departure and shattering of the artistic lens Malevich relishes, loosing his moorings to celebrate a universe of ‘things’ in which a fountain pen or a train ticket sit among faces and bodies, now all objects of the machine age.
There is an awful sense of foreboding – it is impossible to view his costume ideas for the modernist opera ‘Victory Over the Sun’ (1913), particularly the astoundingly prophetic ‘Certain Character of Ill-Intent’, without remembering the sinister facelessness of gas-masks under tin hats.
Pictured above: Supremus, 1915
‘Victory Over the Sun’, whose set Malevich designed, was decentralised and in denial of traditional meaning, part of the anti-reason ‘Zaum’ movement. For this counterintuitive abstract concept, Malevich attempts comprehension by painting a black square. Talentless in composition, ‘Black Square’ (painted in 1915, though Malevich said he conceived it in 1913) is nevertheless a potent expression, as meaningful as any in a world making carnage of the lives of millions.
It is the blind spot the starving peasantry would have seen, examining their prospects under an autocratic Tsar during a world war. It represents the growing cavity in the facade of suzerain that would explode two years later.
‘Black Square’ was seminal in creating the Suprematism movement for which Malevich is best known. They are iconic paintings, but uneasy and unsure in any ready association. There is no knowing trust and the shapes and colours ask frank questions: Why should one like these abstractions of someone else’s undiscernable thoughts? Why should we find art here?
Pictured above: Portrait of Nikolai Punin, 1933
They seem neither referenced nor respective. They really belong on the walls of a web designer’s office in Farringdon, not in the galleries of war time imperial Russia – and therein lies their significance: these objects are building a new world, dismissive of aesthetic qualities, reason or preconception – ‘Painting died, like the old regime, because it was an organic part of it’ reads the quote on the wall; it is bold and brilliant – the ephemeral revolution before the boot came down.
And come down it did. The rebirth and dimensional shift Malevich depicts is a noble revolution but it cannot deconstruct what came after the storming of the Winter Palace, Suprematism held hostage by red wedges.
Following the revolution Malevich worked as an art teacher in what is now Belarus. His art was shunted by the state into sidings where it stagnated to the Socialist Realism favoured by Stalin. It’s a blemish that says more about the state under which Malevich was working, but history has a heavy hand. The architectural models, such as ‘Zeta’ (1923), are precursory temples to the phallocentric Soviet wet dream that ended when the foundations for the unbuilt Palace of the Soviets became the world’s largest open air swimming pool.
Pictured above: The Scyther, 1912
Tate Modern has dedicated a room to the work Malevich and his pupils undertook in Vitebsk and Petrograd. There are glimpses of utopian ambitions but the overall feel is of a giant control room for some great unseen engineering project – the art machine. The ever present slogans suggest that perhaps the real legacy Malevich left was an art usurped by politics.
His later works such as ‘Woman with a Rake’ (1932) are composite art fettered by bad ideas; his peasants are now faceless mannequins. ‘Woman Worker’, is closest to the insipid state sanctioned Socialist Realism and is jaded because of it. Malevich shows the legacy of the war east of Berlin in his doll-like figures – people possessed by the state, then discarded by it to gulags and other evil attics. It is impossible to discount fear as a motive knowing what we do.
Thankfully the exhibition features Malevich’s, almost apologetic, return to painting individuals. It is a fitting homage to his skills, the stand out being a brooding, bearded self portrait from 1933, reminiscent of his impressionist roots. ‘Portrait of Nikolai Punin’ (1933) is a unique suprematist renaissance cardinal, whose doge takes the form of another intriguing Malevich self portrait – reference perhaps to a time when artists had more compassionate patrons.
‘Black Square’ was not re-exhibited until the 1980s, long after Malevich’s death in 1935. It remains a spectre haunting Europe, as do the politics and the history. It is a work that gathered meaning during its time in exile but we shouldn’t forget the boldness and originality with which it was first conceived, holding up a mirror to the reality of an order of nations, power and war – that reality being millions of corpses.
That context makes this exhibition timely. This is the crux of modernism, the art of ideas and as important as The Waste Land or the Armory Show. Malevich was brave enough to walk away from the totalising of the world but still found himself buried by its politics, the war that begat the revolution never really stopped in Russia, it just found new enemies. To comprehend the legacy of the First World War, and the change it spawned in the minds of its survivors, we could do worse than look into Malevich’s discentred shapes.