Saturday, 26 July 2014

Swallowed by the black hole of Suprematism

Self Portrait (1908-10)
It’s difficult to remember, sometimes, both how long ago modern art became ‘modern’ and how much world events can shape what we see in galleries.

Somehow, for instance, it’s difficult to mentally locate Duchamp’s urinal in the years of WWI – perhaps because we look at pictures of that world and the way people were dressed, and find it hard to think of it alongside art works that, even today, are considered so radical that many would not accept that they are art.

But in the context of major political and social upheavals – and a world war – fits rather obviously into such a description – perhaps radical art may well be inevitable as artists search for a way to deal with what is going on.

And of course, in the case of revolution, then exactly the same would be true.

Bathers Seen from Behind (1910)
Now on at the Tate Modern until 26 October, an exhibition of works by Kazimir Malevich (1879-1935) is a perfect illustration of such things.

A room of early paintings shows a mixed approach, from conventional portraits to Self Portrait (1908-10), which is far more expressive.

Bathers Seen from Behind (1910) has a modernity in its abstraction of the subject, and Shroud of Christ from 1908 incorporates a background decoration that is reminiscent of Russian icon art.

Incidentally, on Bathers Seen from Behind, anyone else recognise a spot of cloisonnism?

Shroud of Christ (1908)
But this was already a period of huge upheaval in Russian life.

When Malevich had started painting, the country was still a Tsarist autocracy, with a vast percentage of the populace being peasants.

Growing demands for change saw many artists looking west for inspiration, but for others, they sought to create a specifically Russian type of art, focusing on very Russian subjects, which included the peasantry.

In terms of this exhibition, you see Malevich’s
Bather (1911)
style leap forward in 1911, with Bather, but it’s with The Scyther
(1911-12) that we first really see the desire to create a particularly Russian visual language appear.

It was a style that he extended with Morning in the Village After Snowstorm (1912) a work where it’s possible to see both the influences of Cubism and Futurism.

Filippo Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto had been published three years earlier, calling on artists to reject the traditional in art in favour the cults of speed, technology and the machine.

In Russia there was just as much enthusiasm as elsewhere, but in Malevich’s works from this period, we find a combination of Futurism with Cubism – Cubo-Futurism.

But hopping between styles, he also produced a number of avowedly Cubist works – In the Grand Hotel (1913) is a particularly fine one, with a rather haunting quality.

In the Grand Hotel (1913)
In early 1914, Malevich had declared that he renounced reason, and when war broke out that autumn, he switched from the absurdism of that year’s An Englishman in Moscow to total abstraction.

Originally painted in 1915 – further versions were painted in 1923 and 1929, and these two are featured at the Tate as the original is too fragile to be moved – Black Square has been an icon of modern art ever since.

This was the birth of Suprematism.

In an ingenious bit of arrangement, the latest of these is hung high in a corner of one of the exhibition rooms, as the first painting was displayed originally, in a deliberate echo of how icons were often hung in homes.

In the previous room, the 1923 version is hung at a more traditional height and you can sit – back to film footage of a US revival of a Suprematist theatre production, Victory Over the Sun – and take it in.

The Scyther (1911-12)
I’m not going to pretend that it’s a work that I particularly ‘like’, but it has something very powerful about it.

It screams out an eradication of everything that had gone before; wipes the slate clean. Or perhaps it’s a suggestion of a black hole that will swallow everything.

There’s something threatening about it.

It is, I think, the use of the black that makes it so powerful: neither the later Red Square (which gave Martin Cruz Smith the idea for a novel of the same name) nor White on White have anything like the same power.

Malevich declared that the painters of the past were “counterfeiters” of nature, and announced that “the artist can be a creator only when the forms in his picture have nothing in common with nature”.

It was a revolutionary approach.

Morning in the Village After Snowstorm (1912)
At this stage, the exhibition moves into rooms of canvases made up of geometric shapes in various colours.

Frankly, there’s only so much of these sort of works that I can take. They work best when they’re used in the few cups and saucers that are on display.

After the October Revolution, Malevich gradually moved away from these compositions into increasing simplification, with white forms on white backgrounds.

In 1919, he wrote that: “Painting died like the old regime, because it was an organic part of it”.

But as an artist, where do you go after that?

By the late 1920s, the first Five Year Plan was in place to drive industrialisation.

Black Square (1915)
Malevich returned to painting – mainly strange, rural scenes that are reminiscent in some ways of the earlier Cubo-Futurist ones, but with often blank-faced peasant figures.

I did, however, like Landscape With Five Houses (1932) from this period.

The final room gives us some of the final paintings.

The rural scenes continued, but there was also a return to much more conventional painting. Well, sort of.

There are a number of portraits here with strange hand gestures and even costumes that seem straight out of a Renaissance painting.

That he took to signings his works with a black square suggests that he still believed in his own ideas – but that in turn leads to the conclusion that what he later produced was not  genuine.

Landscape With Five Houses (1932)
Malevich died of cancer in 1935 and, with that, his works disappeared from view in the Soviet Union, failing to meet Stalin’s criteria for art.

The cultural avant garde had long since been viewed as elitist.

Some works re-appeared in Krushchev’s time, but Black Square was not reshown until the 1980s.

This is an interesting exhibition in many ways.

The early works – and the attempt to fashion a particularly Russian form of art – are fascinating.

It’s worth seeing Black Square, not simply because of its iconic value, but also to realise that it is genuinely powerful, whatever your personal response to it is

But after that, the exhibition really all rather peters out.

And after all, once you’ve announced the death of something, how can you really breathe new life into exactly what you claim to have ended?

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