Curator Achim Borchardt-Hume picks out some of the key works from Tate Modern’s retrospective of radical Russian artist Kazimir Malevich
An Englishman in Moscow 1914
A sabre, a white fish, a candle, a Russian Orthodox church: what can these possibly have to do with the full frontal portrait of a man in a top hat? And who is he anyhow? Some believe that this is a portrait of the poet Aleksei Kruchenykh with whom Malevich had collaborated on the avant-garde opera Victory over the Sun the year before. Kruchenykh wrote in Zaum, an invented language that defied the common rules of grammar and description, just as Malevich’s ‘alogical’ paintings defied common pictorial conventions. He combined disparate objects with words to break down the divide between image and text. Malevich at times would parade around the streets of Moscow with a red spoon attached to his lapel to expose the narrowness of bourgeois taste. The sabre at the centre may be a reference to the rising tensions across Eastern Europe, which soon enough culminated in the outbreak of the First World War.
Black Quadrilateral 1915
Black Quadrilateral is much more famous under its popular, but not strictly accurate, title Black Square. Over the past hundred years, Black Square has lost none of its stark power and continues to baffle and bewilder viewers today as much as it did then. The original version presided over Malevich’s dramatic unveiling of suprematism, the term he chose for his abstract art, at The Last Futurist Exhibition 0.10 in St Petersburg in late 1915, a landmark in the history of modern art. Then, it was hung across the top corner of the room, taking the place traditionally reserved for Russian icons. Over the course of his life, Malevich painted four versions of Black Square. This suggests that the programmatic idea of a painting showing nothing was more important to him than the actual object. Like Duchamp’s ready-mades, once in existence, Black Square opened unlimited possibilities for future generations of artists.
Supremus No 55 1916
Following his visit to one of the earliest Malevich exhibitions in the West, the US sculptor Donald Judd wrote in 1972: ‘Today, it’s clear that form and colour appeared for the first time in the forms and colours of the paintings Malevich painted in 1915… within the framework that Malevich laid down, new works and controversies continue to arise to this day.’ Many associate Malevich’s abstract work with hard-edged geometric shapes in bold colours, but Supremus No 55 shows an altogether different sensibility. Abstraction is often interpreted as a turning away from reality. Many artists, however, Malevich included, experienced non-figurative painting as creating a new, less earth-bound reality, not dissimilar to the dream of flying into space, which so dominated the Russian imagination of the time. Supremus No 55 owes its escape from the Stalinist persecution of avant-garde art to the fact that courageous curators at the Regional Art Museum F.A. Kovalenko in Krasnodar resisted orders for its destruction.
Gota 2-a 1923–7 / 1978
In 1919, Malevich moved to Vitebsk in Belarus to teach at the local art school founded by Marc Chagall in what was Chagall’s home town. Following the October Revolution in 1917, many artists wondered how their work could contribute to the struggle of their fellow countrymen and women. Life in post-revolutionary Russia was blighted by civil war, the hardships of the First World War and food shortages, all of which made a teaching post in a regional town seem an attractive option. Malevich soon abandoned painting in favour of developing ideas of how to apply suprematism to the world at large. Not long after his arrival, together with his students, he painted the streets of Vitebsk with suprematist decorations. But he soon began to translate two-dimensional compositions into three-dimensional architectural models which hint at the ambition and urgency of wanting to turn feudal Russia into a radically modern society.
Woman Worker 1933
In the final years of his life, Malevich not only returned to making art but to figurative painting. Much art history is informed by the view that abstraction signals progress and figuration a ‘return to order’, like the prodigal son returning to the home of his father. It is questionable whether Malevich ever experienced abstract (or non-figurative art, as he would have called it) and figurative painting this way, or even saw them as mutually exclusive. This portrait suggests otherwise. The colour scheme is very similar to that of various suprematist compositions, especially the use of bold primary colours. The woman appears to be dressed not in working clothes but a suprematist uniform. Thus it appears too facile to explain this anonymous portrait simply as a concession to the demands of socialist realism; all the more so, as Malevich signed the painting not with his name, but his signature Black Square.