Black is my favourite colour this summer. Why? It’s all because Malevich’s iconic and elusive Black Square is on display at the Tate Modern in London.
I’m not often stopped in my tracks by an art work but this superb painting demonstrates why black is never out of fashion. And it shows why Malevich is such an important modern artist and creative genius.
You may think I’m making an awful lot of fuss about a plain black square with a white border.
But you have to cast your mind back to when this remarkable, abstract painting was created.
Malevich conceived the original Black Square in 1913 on the brink of the outbreak of World War One. His home country, Russia, was facing revolution, unrest and turmoil.
A revolution in art
For me it’s a revolution in art. For 1915, it was stark, powerful and uncompromising. Today it still packs a punch. Standing in front of the painting is like gazing into the dark void.
Malevich painted the Black Square in what he called a state of “ecstatic frenzy”. For him it was a return to ‘year zero’, a reinvention of painting. It still has the power to shock even today.
This version in the Tate dates from 1923 when Malevich repainted the original painting which had started to crack and deteriorate. The original version is now too fragile to travel. A second version from 1929 also features in the show.
It’s amazing to think that both works have spent long periods out of the public’s gaze. During the Stalin years, abstraction was considered too radical and the painting was consigned to the museum vaults.
The Black Square wasn’t exhibited again until the 1980s but the work cast a long shadow over the modern art world like a mythical presence.
It took on great symbolic meaning. When Malevich died in 1935, his mourners formed a procession, bearing flags adorned with simple black squares.
But the Tate exhibition isn’t just about this one iconic painting. There’s much more to admire in the show from Malevich’s early expressive, colour paintings (including his dramatic Self Portrait) to his famous geometric, grid works.
Walking a fine line
Malevich is perhaps best known for his geometric works made up of lines and blocks of vibrant colour. He gave the name ‘suprematism’ to these paintings which he saw as an extension of Cubism and Futurism.
Shapes, lines and spaces jostle to get the upper hand in these striking abstract works which remind me of Dutch artist Mondrian – with added va-va-voom.
The Tate show also tries to recreate Malevich’s “The Last Exhibition of Futurist Painting 0.10” which caused a sensation in 1915. Nine out of the 12 paintings still traceable today are featured in a riotous mix of colours, cubes and shapes.
No prizes for guessing that Malevich placed the Black Square in the top corner of the original show, like a Russian Orthodox icon.
How Malevich made these visionary works at a time of war, food shortages and conflict is really hard to imagine.
Experiments in art
As the war drew to a close, it’s interesting to see how Malevich’s uncompromising vision failed to waver in the face of turmoil in Russia.
But what did fade was his passion for painting.
Not long after the war ended, he abandoned painting. He signed off with another ground breaking work, a plain white cross against a softer white background.
It’s one of my favourites in the show.
Malevich wrote that “painting died like the old regime because it was an organic part of it”.
Instead he turned to architecture as the way of transforming everyday life.
Looking at the models of his futuristic buildings – many of which never got built – it’s clear that he was light years ahead in his vision.
But there’s a sadness that hangs over his later years when Malevich was largely confined to teaching art students because he was struggling to make a living.
His own art was sidelined by the anti avant-garde stance of the ruling Stalinist regime. It hated abstract art which was dubbed ‘elitist’.
In spite of the oppressive regime, it’s great to see that Malevich did bounce back. He returned to painting around 1929, creating works which mixed abstraction and figurative art.
I like his colourful rural scenes and images of peasants with their geometric, blank faces staring out at us, conveying a sense of isolation and alienation.
These works are extremely powerful. This was a period of famine and collectivism as well as brutal repression. A poignancy hangs over these large-scale paintings as you wonder about the real life stories behind the blank faces.
In his final years, Malevich explored a variety of figurative styles, some of which are less to my liking.
But you can never accuse him of being dull – and every work has an intriguing style, some portraits echoing Renaissance art with their rich, bejewelled colours.
At this point in the show you can always whisk back to the rooms exploring other aspects of Malevich’s earlier creative life including his dalliances with performance art, poetry and opera.
Wherever you look, there’s an intriguing story about the artist’s life and career. My personal favourite is Malevich’s collaboration with the musician Mikhail Matyushin and the poet Aleksei Kruchenyhk on a manifesto calling for the dissolution of language.
They proposed the rejection of rational thought in favour of ‘zaum’, a new language of sounds beyond reason and meaning!
There’s something very Dadaist about this collaboration.
And there’s more than a hint of surrealism in Malevich’s Knave of Diamonds period when the artist wore a wooden spoon in his button-hole, declaring a renunciation of reason.
But it’s his geometric shapes that are the real show stoppers in the Tate exhibition.
Having seen this stunning show, I’m a convert to the simplicity and power of Malevich’s blocks of colour and geometric style.
But his best work remains his Black Square. There’s something primal and powerful about this iconic painting.
Malevich will forever be renowned as the king of the minimalist black square. Long live black!
Tammy’s cultural guide – Malevich
Malevich: Revolutionary of Russian Art is at the Tate Modern in London between 16 July-26 October 2014. There’s an admission fee. The exhibition is open daily and till late on Fridays and Saturdays.
Look out for talks and special events throughout the exhibition’s season. The exhibition itself brings together paintings, sculptures, theatre and large collection of Malevich’s drawings.
Photos are courtesy of Tate Modern, Stedelijk Museum – Amsterdam, Khardzhiev Collection, Tretyakov Gallery Moscow and the Costakis Collection.