Kazimir Malevich's revolutionary art

It is hard not start with Black Square, Kazimir Malevich’s masterpiece painting. The 1915 original is considered to be as powerful as Marcel Duchamp’s readymades – the most iconic being Fountain – and just as divisive. For those reasons it remains one of the most important works of art of the twentieth century.
Unveiled to the world the same year it was painted at The Last Futurist Exhibition 0.10, in St. Petersburg, and hung high in the top corner of the room – a space usually reserved for Russian icons – Black Square is as its name suggests and, at face value, nothing more.
The work is an example of suprematism, a movement he launched with his manifesto From Cubism to Suprematism. Stylistically, it is defined by geometric shapes and sharp colours, while philosophically it is absent of language. Works like Black Square are the product of pure feeling, a response it likewise evokes.
Noticeably absent from his first major retrospective in almost 25 years at Tate Modern – it is so incredibly fragile that the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, where it is based, refuses to lend it at all – the work nevertheless makes its presence felt. The weight of the void is telling.
“There’s depth in the black,” writes the Guardian’s art critic Adrian Searle. “It seems to be as much volume as surface. It is simple, it is complicated, and Malevich said that it had been painted in a sort of ‘ecstatic fury’, though each version seems calm and emphatic.”
There is nothing to make out. It is blank, meaningless and very, very quiet, yet, as suprematism intended, it talks to us and, in turn, provokes an emotional response: all that from a square that is black.
Think of Fernando Pessoa’s epic poem The Tobacco Shop, which begins: “I’m nothing. I’ll always be nothing. I can’t wait to be something. But I have in me all the dreams of the world.”
The exhibition takes visitors on a captivating tour of his work over the years, starting with his fairly average early paintings of Russian landscapes and religious scenes and moving onto his probing abstract works before finally settling on his remarkable suprematist compositions.
Tate explains his oeuvre as a “fascinating story about the dream of a new social order, the successes and pitfalls of revolutionary ideals, and the power of art itself” – he was providing humanity with a different way of seeing and it was both frightening and liberating.
Modernism was, after all, still flourishing and having to exist in what history would write as the denouement of the age of empires. The establishment still held onto the past and thus, the absolute reductionism of Malevich’s work was, at the time, extraordinarily radical.
Where were the people? The animals? The landscapes? What were these symbols? These shapes? Such questions were of course welcome. The artist had realised something new.
And so we return to Black Square, unable to resist its overpowering, unknowing pull. It would prove to be a prescient catalogue of the twentieth century, where, against great violence, we made beautiful works of art, advanced medicine and invented the TV.
In place of the original at the exhibition are two later versions of the work, which echo the sentiments of their mighty predecessor and do well to make up for our loss. The bulk of the work on show comes from the Khardzhiev Collection (Amsterdam), including more than 150 rarely seen works on paper and the Costakis Collection (SMCA-Thessaloniki).
The rest, which is made up of sculptures, design objects, prints and drawings, have been drawn from public and private collections from around the world. It is, quite simply, breathtaking.
“Man’s skull represents the same infinity for the movement of conceptions,” he once said. “It is equal to the universe, for in it is contained all that sees in it.”
Malevich: Revolutionary of Russian Art at Tate Modern runs until October 26th 2014
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