The word iconic is so overused in art that it’s become almost meaningless, but in the case of the centrepiece of this show it is, for once, justified.
Black Square, painted by Kazimir Malevich in Moscow in 1915 and consisting of a slightly wonky black square within a white border, is among the most revolutionary paintings in history. It declared, for the first time anywhere, that art could be entirely freed from depicting anything other than coloured shapes: no figure, no landscape, no still life, no symbolism — just a black form amid a white one.
Malevich himself saw it as an icon heralding “the beginning of a new culture”, which he called suprematism. When it was first shown as part of a group of 39 abstract paintings in a dramatic display in Moscow in December 1915, it was placed at the top of the wall — the artist’s supreme work presiding over the rest of the pictures. Most importantly, it bridged a corner of the room, just as religious icon paintings would hang in the “holy corner” of Russian Orthodox homes. It was iconoclasm writ large: an act that would be immediately understood by its audience as a shocking replacement of the old order with the new. Malevich was intent on building a myth around this work, and it became a totem for the avant garde; a beacon for thinking the unthinkable for generations of artists.
Black Square is inevitably the fulcrum around which Tate Modern’s huge new exhibition pivots. Its origins lay in his designs for a futurist opera in 1913 called Victory Over the Sun, the libretto of which had used fractured sounds with no meaning — a language the artist called “zaum”. His set and costumes responded in kind, with angular and jagged forms boldly thrust together.
It took him a while to transfer the spirit of these designs into paintings but by 1915 he’d done it. The original Black Square is too cracked and fragile to travel, so the Tate has borrowed a larger one he produced in about 1923, one of several versions he made. An appropriate fuss is made about its display: unlike all the other galleries in the show, the room is dark and the painting is alone on a wall and spotlit, almost shrine-like. Nearby are two variations on the theme, also in black and white, one a small chequerboard, the other all white with a black corner. So far, so good.
Maddeningly, however, the moment is ruined by a video of a recent production of Victory Over the Sun that booms and blasts away in the room, robbing you of the chance to see this work in silence. If any work needs quiet contemplation it’s this seminal painting. Yes, the opera was hugely influential in leading to Black Square but we’ve already seen the designs for the costumes in the previous room — couldn’t the video be more discreetly shown?
It’s a shame that the key moment in the show is botched, because otherwise it’s beautifully paced and compelling, essentially a drama in three acts: the early years before Black Square, the epiphany of abstraction, and then Malevich’s later years and his attempts to reconcile suprematism with figuration.
The middle bit, immediately following Black Square, is as exhilarating as anything I’ve seen this year. “Our world of art has become new, non-objective, pure,” Malevich wrote at the time, and these paintings reflect a giddy enjoyment of his discovery, a whoosh of pure abstract joy, with geometric forms in brilliant colour thrust together in compositions that are sometimes busily exuberant, sometimes confidently minimal. A partial reconstruction of that seminal 1915 Moscow show, with another version of Black Square in that provocative corner position, surrounded by nine of the other works that featured, is stunning.
Malevich, like other avant-garde artists, welcomed the revolution, and suprematism soon became the language that promoted its ideals, especially through Malevich’s followers, such as El Lissitzky. Malevich himself never made openly political works, though he took up several state positions in art schools.
A revolutionary spirit had long driven his work. He was born to Polish parents in Kiev in 1879 and settled in Moscow in 1906. Thus, he came of age as a painter just as the traditional feudal society and oppressive government of Tsarist Russia were under increasing strain from an impoverished workforce and a liberal, educated middle class.
Artistically, Moscow was just the place for an artist intent on breaking with the old order, as wealthy collectors such as Sergei Shchukin had opened their great collections of French modern art to the public. In the show’s early rooms we see Malevich channelling Monet, Gauguin (in a vividly coloured self-portrait), Cézanne and Matisse. Always, though, his art remained Russian in spirit — several 1912 works resemble the metallic humanoids of Fernand Léger, but Malevich wasn’t interested in man as machine like the Frenchman. In a modern take on a long Russian tradition, he took for his subjects rural workers, such as those in The Scyther and The Woodcutter.
He became increasingly original: his “alogical” paintings such as An Englishman in Moscow (1914) were an anti-rational forerunner of surrealism, colliding cubist fragments with apparently random objects like a fish, a sword and a candle. Cow and Violin (1913) is startling and hilarious: as if Magritte had painted a lifelike heifer over a Picasso still-life.
Suprematism initially put an end to any depictions of figures but in the late 1920s, after several years dedicated to teaching, Malevich revised his thoughts and used suprematism to try to reinvent figurative painting. This was a very different Soviet Union to that of the revolution: Stalin’s regime despised avant-garde art and promoted realism in its stead.
Many feel Malevich was chastened by the new state doctrine and conformed but his 1920s and 1930s work is far from the kitsch of socialist realism — in paintings such as Female Torso (1928-29) and Woman with Rake (1930-32) the graphic figures are essentially formed from suprematist shapes. A sign of how non-conformist he was is that Malevich was arrested in 1930, accused of espionage and held for two months.
His final works before his death from cancer in 1935 are deeply strange: there are abstract passages in the tunic and hat of Nikolai Punin (1933) and the dress of Girl with the Red Pole (1932-33), but he had turned to Renaissance portraiture, so the face and hands are more faithful to reality.
A telling detail can be found in these works — a tiny image of Black Square either alongside or instead of a signature. Malevich clearly felt that it was his greatest achievement, and it later adorned the hearse at his funeral and his gravestone. It’s a shame that in this otherwise exemplary show the Tate subdues its power with cacophony.