Room 5 A Modern Icon

Kazimir Malevich Black Square 1913

Kazimir Malevich
Black Square 1913  
 © State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

Malevich dated the Black Square to 1913, though it was almost certainly painted in June 1915. The discrepancy was due to his belief that the date should refer to the original idea for the painting rather than its execution, and he insisted that the square derived from his designs for Victory over the Sun two years earlier. The coloured geometric shapes of the costumes and backdrops for the opera re-emerged in his mind as purely abstract forms. ‘What was done unconsciously’, he wrote to Matyushin, ‘is now bearing extraordinary fruit’.

As the idea coalesced, Malevich worked quickly to set the Black Square down on canvas. He later described working in a state of ecstatic frenzy. He immediately recognised the uncompromising power of the Black Square, and it remains one of the iconic paintings of the twentieth century. The apparent simplicity of the composition is matched by its enigmatic complexity as an artistic gesture: embodying affirmation and negation, absence and presence in equal measure, it brings to an end centuries of representation and marks a zero hour in modern art. For Malevich, the Black Square was the starting point for a wholly new approach to art, which he called suprematism.

The surface of the original painting soon began to crack, and Malevich painted another version around 1923 so that it could be exhibited. He painted four versions in all. As the original is now too fragile to travel, the 1923 painting is shown in this room, and the 1929 version in the next room.