The Art of Malevich: between reality and representation
Mimesis, the imitation of nature, has guided artistic production for centuries. In the early 20th century, visual arts distance themselves from this approach to enter a rich period that tried to transform art into a language.
Russian painter Kazimir Malevich played a central role in this revolution. He transformed art into a new visual language raised far above the concrete representation of reality, dealing instead with absolutes and spirituality. With over 300 pieces – major pieces as well as rarely seen work – the Tate Modern new exhibition retraces the chronology of Malevich’s artistic path, drawing an almost circular line from his first steps as a ‘Russian’ figurative artist, to the cultural experiences that led him to the foundation of Suprematism, and back again to figurative art.
‘There are, indeed, things that cannot be put into words. They make themselves manifest. They are what is mystical.’ (Ludwig Wittgenstein).
There is indeed something mystical in the art of Kazimir Malevich who often addresses the theme of the icon, sometimes to exalt it, sometimes to negate it.
From the very beginning, the search for an individual voice guided the development of Malevich’s painterly language. His different styles testify of many changes in direction, which led him to achieve a unique synthesis. Not only did Malevich turn his subjects into icons, he also aimed to capture their essence in a pure form. Stripped of all iconographic reference, the most spiritual stage of Malevich’s art is also his most abstract. The exaltation of the icon is, for Malevich, in its negation, or rather, in the negation of its corporeality.
Kasimir Malevich was born in 1879 in Kiev and grew up in Ukraine, far from the cultural centres of Russia. His father run a sugar factory and Malevich’s childhood was spent amongst peasants and land-workers. Their life and actions fascinated him.
In 1904 he became a student of Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture, where he started reflecting on his origins. The earliest paintings in the Tate’s exhibition are figurative representations of peasants and workers, characters from his childhood who with the Communist revolution, were to become symbols of the Russian culture. The style of these paintings coincides with the artistic evolution that was taking place in Europe; they intertwine traits of cubism and futurism with themes that are precisely Russian.
Around 1912 Malevich embraces cubo-futurism, a hybrid form of expression combining the futuristic precepts of speed and movement with the fractured reality of cubism. Concrete themes and figures are transfigured into complex overlapping planes, resulting in confused and dynamic set of geometric forms.
The artistic experiences Malevich had during 1913 and 1914 led him to abstract art. Together with musician Mikhail Matyushin and poet Aleksei Kruchenykh, he composed the manifesto for Russian Futurism: Zaum, which translate as ‘beyond reason’. Zaum represent the first attempt to forge a new language, one that rejects rationality and meaning, in favour of the pure artistic experience. In 1913 the authors of Zaum produce with poet Velimir Khlebnikov, a futuristic play entitled: Victory over the Sun, for which Malevich design set and costumes. These costumes anticipate the work of Italian futurist Fortunato Depero for the 1917 Balli Plastici: a futuristic ballet in which human dancers are substituted by geometrical puppets.
It is worth noting how the design of costumes affected the theorisation of Suprematism. For artists, the body has always represented the issue: it is the first and most real thing we have access to; the ‘tool’ with which we experiment feelings; the page – far from blank – on which we create. For Malevich, covering up the body in geometrical forms is the first step toward negation of nature as we see it. It expresses the necessity to find new forms, to forge a new language. The body served as the material starting point of one of the most immaterial idioms of art. Malevich will then isolate from one another and reduce to their purest form the geometric colour fields that he used to compose image and clothes for the 1913 play.
This was the starting point of Malevich’s Suprematism theory.
‘By Suprematism I mean the supremacy of pure feeling in creative art. To the Suprematist the visual phenomena of the objective world are, in themselves, meaningless; the significant thing is feeling’. Malevich asserts that feelings are the energy behind creativity, its starting point and its result. Suprematism aims to portray immaterial subjects in a clear and direct way that suits their tangible non-existence. Concepts gain concreteness, icons become pure form. The Black Square, the most infamous of Malevich paintings, epitomises Suprematism: the total simplification of figurative elements into geometric figures, seen as the supreme essence of vision. The word ‘Suprematism’ signifies the need to reach the acme – the summit, to produce something sublime and, of course, supreme, superior to all the other forms of art.
Malevich theorised Suprematism at a difficult moment of western history. WW1 was tearing apart nations and taking away the good from human life. Suprematism is a way to leave the ground, to lift up to a higher plains; it is a response to spiritual decadence. Rooted in reality, Suprematism expresses the necessity to escape it. However, the reference to reality is not entirely lost: it remains in the chaotic composition of different elements, in the juxtaposition of bold colours in a broad white space, in the sharp and neat lines of the square, the cross, the circle.
Pointing out the circularity in his production, the Tate Modern exhibition displays Malevich profoundly figurative later paintings. These paintings attest the abandon of Suprematism, an art form too cryptic for the new regime. In power, Stalin intend to use art to communicate to the masses; the ensuing Social Realism is simple, straightforward and realistic.
The last paintings of Malevich – his work between 1928 and 1935, the year of his death – fall into one of two categories. In the Head of Peasant (1929) and in Woman with Rake (1932) for example, the peasant, once an icon for the ‘national soul’, depersonalised and universal, is depicted as a geometric mannequin, recalling the designs for Victory over the Sun. Here Malevich plays with forms, the symbols of his revolution, dressing these ‘puppets’ with his ideas. In other pictures such as Girl with Red Pole (1932) and Autoportrait (1933), Malevich favours figuration.
Here his characters are realistic like never before and represented with individual facial traits. They recall to an extent painting from Florence renaissance where for the first time in human history art began exploring humans as subject, representing individuality of people.
Malevich speaks by symbols once again, and the way he deals with rediscovered real characters is fundamental to look back and understand the language he developed during his life. The message in this last period is subtly subversive: Malevich gives faces to the people, which the totalitarian regime sees as a group of undefined individuals. Malevich also asserted his own individuality with the signature of these paintings: his name next to a black square.
Malevich’s art lays claim to the power of the icon: the image of reality can be far stronger that the subject represented. In its sublime beauty, the geometrical form completes and perfects what it stands for. Fashion images, and fashion itself, aim at this polished perfection. The focus is all on the surface, be it the glossy page of a magazine or the hyper-curated stage of the catwalk. In most cases, the image promoted by fashion has little to do with reality; it’s an aspiration, a transfiguration, a dream. The fashion system embezzles perfectible beauty and fix it, flattens it, and presents it anew, turning it into a message – often a consumable one.
Representation is re-presenting, presenting again, under a new and unexpected form. To represent is to give new meanings to what already exists, turning subjects into signs – something which ‘stands for that object, not in all respects, but in reference to a sort of idea’ (Charles S. Peirce).
Malevich paved the way to the contemporary representations of reality. Modernity, in all its forms of expression, has to thank him for this freedom.
16 July – 26 October 2014
The Eyal Ofer Galleries, Level 3
Adult £14.50 (without donation £13.10)
Concession £12.50 (without donation £11.30)
12s go free (up to four per parent or guardian)