The Tate seem to have a thing about artists whose names begin with M at the moment. The main temporary exhibition at the Liverpool Gallery features the work of Piet Mondrian and Nasreen Mohamedi, while the Tate Modern in London is showing major exhibitions by both Matisse and Kazamir Malevich. during my trip to London last week I managed to find some time for a couple of visits to the Tate so I can now tick all the M’s off my to do list.
Of the exhibitions in London, although the Matisse had some beautiful works on display, the Malevich was definitely the best of the two. A retrospective covering the whole of his artistic life with a comprehensive selection of paintings and drawings and a room of contextual items – photographs, lesson plans and the like.
The exhibition traced his development as an artist – his rise and fall – in the context of the social and political upheavals in Russia during the first half of the 20th Century. Born during the reign of the Tsars he lived through the First world War, the Russian Revolutions of 1905 and 1917 and the rise of Stalinism. And his art reflected what was happening around him.
His early works in Room show how he was immersed in French Modern Art from the early years of the 20th Century through access to the art collections of two rich merchants in Moscow. His pictures show how he absorbed the influences of the Impressionists, Post_impressionists, early Picasso and Matisse and the Fauves, which can be detected in the paintings on display. Some of the paintings also show influences of traditional Russian religious art.
The second room showed how he built on all of these influences to develop a Russian Modernist style which concentrated on depicting Russian subjects. After 1910 he changed tack as Malevich and other Russian artists came under the influence of the Italian Futurists, absorbing their ideas but going on to develop their own interpretation of the Futurist approach, more radical than the Italians
What came next, however, was without precedent. At a time when the workers and peasants of Russia were struggling to overthrow the old, repressive order, and would go on to try to create a new society based on new ideals, Malevich was in the vanguard of a revolution in art that would overthrow all the established ideas and approaches.
Although I knew it was coming, it was still something of a shock to walk into the room where the Black Square and a small number of other, similar works were displayed. The complex cubo-futurist patterns had gone, replaced by canvases with only simple blocks of colour. This was Suprematism, “the painting of pure form” and “the supremacy of pure feeling”.
It is difficult for us today to appreciate just how revolutionary and shocking this reduction of painting to simple form and pure colour was in 1916. To understand how it came about we need to understand the tremendous upheaval taking pace in society in Russia at the time and view this art in that context. Malevich and his circle were revolutionaries in terms of their art but also their politics. Society was being turned upside down with the old structures and ways of doing things being overthrown and this is exactly what Malevich was doing. Malevich wrote in 1919
‘Painting died, like the old regime, because it was an organic part of it,’
I think this aspect is underplayed in the Tate’s analysis and explanation in the exhibition. Many of the avant-garde artists at the time were active particiapnts in the Revolution, producing posters and decorations for anniversaries, pageants, street theatre and agit-prop trains.
Malevich and the Suprematists continued to produce these works as the Russian Revolution progressed. This culminated in the paintings displayed in Room 8 – The End of Painting – my favourite room in the exhibition. The culmination of the approach was the creation of paintings with white on white such as White Suprematist Cross (1920-21). This room also contained a number of paintings where simple blocks of colour are starting to “dissolve” at one edge, perhaps representing how society itself was dissolving and disappearing.
Suprematist Composition- White on White, (1918)
But Suprematism could only go so far. I think it was inevitable that the Suprematists would take their art in new directions, building on what they had learned. That’s progess. Art like society doesn’t stand still. Unfortunately Russian Society started to move towards dictatorship culminating in the rise of Stalinism. Avant-garde art started to be seen as elitist. Malevich returned to painting figurative works, but they were were complex and semi-abstract. But in the 1930’s, under attack from the Stalinists who favoured “Socialist Realist” art, he returned to painting true figurative works, particularly portraits and there are many examples of these in the final room. But even then he stamped them with his own approach with many of them looking like Renaissance figures, so he was subverting Stalinist art in a subtle way.
His earlier works were too much for the Stalinists. They were banned and hidden away after he died in 1935. But his followers made a last stand, mourners at his funeral paraded with images of the black square.
This was a marvellous exhibition I’d love to visit again. There was too much to absorb and digest in one sitting. But it demonstrated that Malevich was a great artist who could produce great works in whatever style he chose to work and was also responsible for creating a new style.
I went to see the Matisse cut-outs exhibition showing on the Second Floor the next day. That was good but the Malevich exhibition was by far the more interesting, thought provoking and exciting of the two.