Kazimir Malevich: Beyond Figuration, Beyond Abstraction

by Donald Goddard

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Portrait of the Artist' s Wife, 1933.
Oil on canvas,
26 5/8" x 22".
St. Petersburg, State Russian Museum

Self-portrait, 1933.
Oil on canvas,
28 _" x 26".
St. Petersburg, State Russian Museum.

Complicated Presentiment
(Half-figure in a Yellow Shirt),
Oil on canvas,
39" x 31 1/8".
St. Petersburg, State Russian Museum.

Black Square, ca. 1923.
Oil on canvas,
41 11/6" x 41 11/16".
St. Petersburg, State Russian Museum.

Suprematism, 1915.
Oil on canvas,
31 5/8" x 31 7/8".
St. Petersburg, State Russian Museum.

Cow and Violin, 1913.
Oil on wood,
19 _" x 10 3/16".
St. Petersburg, State Russian Museum.

Prayer, 1907.
Tempera on board,
27 5/6" x 29 7/16".
St. Petersburg,
State Russian Museum.

In 1930, Kazimir Malevich was arrested by the United State Political Agency and held for questioning at the Department of Preliminary Imprisonment Before Trial in Leningrad on a charge of espionage during his 1927 trip to Poland and Germany. He had been fired earlier that year from his job at the State Institute of the History of Art and accused by his colleagues of "formalism" and bourgeois tendencies. After two months he was released without trial. His work continued to appear, occasionally, in exhibitions and he maintained some professional privileges, but he was largely cut out of artistic life in the Soviet Union. Still, when he died in 1935, his funeral procession to the Moscow Station in Leningrad was attended by hundreds of friends and supporters, and he was buried in an abstract "Suprematist" coffin of his own design. The embodiment and disembodiment of his ideas was complete.

Ten of the 41 paintings in the exhibition date from these last five years, another eighteen from the two years before that. Among the former are seven portraits, including two of the red flag-bearer Zarnovsky (1932), one of the artist himself, and one of his wife Natalia Manchenko (both 1933). All the portraits partake of the quiet and clarity of Italian and Northern Renaissance paintings of this type, paying homage to the beginning of the scientific tradition in art. The flag-bearers might be said to adhere to some notion of socialist realism, insistently and expressively modeled torsos of a man, one in front of a village and farm, the other in front of a factory, the poles of collective achievement. But both reflect something more individual and perhaps more universal: the force of the person himself, filling the entire canvas and therefore all of that which is behind him, like a sitter of Van Gogh’s; the force of the brushwork (again like Van Gogh); and the complete immersion of the figure and scene in abstract structures of horizontals, vertical, diagonals, and curves, and in shapes and bands of color.

The figures of his wife and himself are even more present, but preternaturally so, in the garb and pose of the Renaissance, of history–she in profile with right hand slightly raised, in tunic and cap; he frontal, also with right hand significantly raised, costumed like Christopher Columbus–and in the garb of art–shapes of primary colors for her, and of green, red, white (the colors of the Italian flag), and black for him. She emerges from a black background, he from a luminescent off-white background, the black and white squares of nonobjectivity, of Suprematism, of nothingness, invisibility, the beginning of all things. In their costuming and the collation of abstract forms and colors, a collapsing or integration of time and space is contained in these two figures. They exist in all time, but particularly in the time encapsulating the late fifteenth to the early twentieth century.

In the three years up to 1930, between Malevich’s visit to Berlin and his interrogation in Leningrad, he did paintings of peasants and farmers, of women and farm houses, some of them variations of paintings from the earlier 1920s and his Cubist works of the early 1910s. It was the time of farm collectivization, resisted by farmers and paid for in millions of lives, many of them in the artist’s native Ukraine. A number of paintings are associated with more than one date, as, for instance, Complicated Presentiment (Half-figure in a Yellow Shirt), which has the date of about 1928-32 inscribed by the artist on the back as the fulfillment of an inspiration he had experienced in 1913. I’m not sure what this means, except that the anger and desperation Malevich expresses in his inscription might refer equally to the condition of the peasantry before the Revolution and during the collectivization, or to Malevich’s frustration about expressing what he means in abstract terms. On the surface, the painting seems to have none of these complications: the head an oval, the torso a bell shape, the earth a series of four bands, the house a rectangle, the sky an expanse of blue, the colors, red, yellow, blue, black, and white. But the attenuation, of space, of emotion, of being, is extreme, even anguished. The figure stretches, without its legs, from the bottom to the top of the painting’s rectangle, and the oval head, without features, is like an astral shape in a universe that is both far away and hinged to the earth. The relationship of the head to the house is both ideational (geometric), from oval to rectangle, and poignant, from one great distance to another. The figure belongs to sky and earth and house but to none of them. There are powerful forces at work here, before the faces were to be filled in with the features he knew, his own, his wife’s, and others.

This and other works of the period are permutations of nonobjectivity, the primal expression of which Malevich invented as Suprematism in the period from 1913 to 1915, the year he painted the first Black Square, Black Circle, and Black Cross. These three subjects were to be repeated three more times, in 1923 (the versions in this exhibition), 1929, and the early 1930s, and the first served always as the artist’s monogram and reference point. The black square actually appeared initially in 1913 on the backdrop for the opera "Victory Over the Sun," on which Malevich collaborated as stage and costume designer with the composer Mikhail Matiushin and the poets Alexei Kruchenykh and Velimir Khlebnikov. Performed only once in St. Petersburg, though with great impact, the opera is prominently represented in this exhibition by a filmed version, in English translation, staged at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in the early 1980s by students and scholars from the California Institute of the Arts, under the direction of Robert Benedetti.

It was not until later in his career that Malevich recognized the motif’s origin in the opera, where it signifies the pure, nonobjective future, replacing the rational world of the sun under which humankind, and art, had been fated to live before that. The Black Square is an eclipse of the sun, with a penumbra or aureole (halo?) around it, the rectangle of the picture being the space of the universe into which the black square pushes toward the edges. Whereas Cubism might have understood the breakdown of matter and being into planes, Futurism penetrated the underlying forces of motion and speed, Kandinsky abstracted landscape and myth, and Mondrian later posited abstract equivalents for structures that are perceived in other ways, Suprematism entered purposefully into an unknown, totally abstract world, a world that starts from nothing and admits, indeed, that there is probably another world beyond that. Beyond are colored geometric shapes related in all kinds of mathematical patterns, with emphasis on diagonal movement–expressions of pure thought. So he must be kidding when he refers to one as Airplane Flying and another as Painterly Realism of a Football Player (Color Masses in the Fourth Dimension)–but maybe not.

These fourth- and fifth-dimensional exercises are also foreshadowed in "Victory Over the Sun," by characters in geometrically designed costumes (traveler, strongman, pallbearer, bully, sportsman, worker, fat man, etc.) that move and jump about in ways that break down and abstractly command the traditional space of the stage. Of course, the path to Suprematism, as to other developments in Russian art, was through Cubism and Futurism. In 1912 and 1913, these European movements, centered in Paris and Italy, provided the means for moving beyond figuration and perspective, but Malevich was not so much interested in a dissection of visual reality as in the apprehension of a greater reality. It isn’t that the reality is hidden within the person or set of objects (in clues provided by fragments of newspapers, for instance), but precisely that it is forced upon us by geometric shapes and unambiguous shading, and by forthright imagery, such as the saw teeth in the Perfected Portrait of I.V. Kliun. We are acutely aware of peasant women carrying heavy burdens, of the powerful circular motions of a knife-grinder, of the abnegation of Leonardo’s masterpiece in Composition with Mona Lisa. Out of the cubistically structured background of Cow and Violin emerge the realistic images of a cow and a violin, the first overlapping the second at the center of the painting. Is one to think about the coexistence of farm life and music, of two different kinds of sound, of totally different sizes? The absurdist juxtaposition is something that might have interested Duchamp at the time, or more likely the Dadaists and Surrealists a few years later, but it also reflects something essential in Malevich’s arbitration of image and idea.

As the exhibition is weighted to the works of the artist’s last seven years, and to a series of photographs of his dying days and burial, there are only two paintings from before 1913: Prayer and Triumph of the Heavens, both tempera on board done in 1907, it is said, as studies for frescoes. They are Malevich attempting, at a formative stage and influenced by the French Symbolists and Nabis, a kind of Suprematism involving imagery that is obviously Christian but also seems more generalized and ecumenical. There is something flaccid about the overall golden aura and sinuous Art Nouveau shapes, but they bear relationship to the long tradition of religious icons in Russia by which the artist was inspired. However, it was not until he became immersed in scenes of peasant life and the fractured workings of Cubism and Futurism that he was able to realize the spiritualism of his earlier ambitions in the revolutionary form of nonobjective Suprematism.

Donald Goddard © 2005

The exhibition was on view at the Museo del Corso in Rome, Italy, mounted by the Fondazione Cassa di Risparmio di Roma.

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