In the 1930s Malevich explored a variety of figurative styles, often seeming to return to the different phases of his early work. Perhaps most surprising are the naturalistic portraits that recall his impressionist studies of the 1900s. The portrait of his mother in this room could easily be paired with that of his father in Room One, painted thirty years earlier.
A number of portraits, including Self-Portrait 1933 and Portrait of Nikolai Punin 1933, adopt a more realist style though their spirit is far from Stalinist orthodoxy. The postures of the figures suggest Renaissance Florence rather than 1930s Russia, while the curiously fantastical costumes incorporate the coloured geometric planes of suprematist painting. Rather than putting his name to these canvases, Malevich signed them with a black square, implying that he never repudiated the radical gestures of suprematism.
These last years were difficult for Malevich. In 1930 he was arrested and held for two months, accused of espionage during his time in Germany. Fearful friends destroyed many of his manuscripts. He was diagnosed with cancer, and died on 15 May 1935. At his funeral, a long procession of mourners held flags adorned with black squares.
Within months, Malevich’s work disappeared from public view as Stalin adopted Socialist Realism as his official cultural doctrine. While some of Malevich’s less radical work could be shown after the ‘Khrushchev Thaw’ of the late 1950s, the Black Square itself was not exhibited again until the 1980s. Yet the idea of it remained like an almost mythical presence in the history of twentieth-century art, haunting, challenging and inspiring artists across the world.