Kazimir Malevich and the Russian Avant-Garde

Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam; Bundeskunsthalle, Bonn; Tate Modern, London
19 October 2013 - 2 February 2014; 11 March - 22 June 2014; 17 July - 26 October 2014

2015 marks one hundred years since the Russian avant-garde artist Kazimir Malevich (1879-1935) painted Black Square (1915). Its pure form—a plain black square painted on a white background—was ground-breaking, and the artist’s rejection of figuration absolute. Malevich had created a new art for revolutionary times and knew it, claiming ‘I have transformed myself in the zero of form and have fished myself out of the rubbish slough of academic art’. Black Square was a watershed moment in art history: it heralded, to some, a radical new beginning for art, paralleling the political and social upheaval of revolutionary Russia, yet to others it represented the death of painting.1

‘Kazimir Malevich and the Russian Avant-Garde featuring selections from the Khardziev and Costakis Collections’ is the Stedelijk Museum’s largest survey of Malevich’s work in more than twenty years. The exhibition traces the artist’s trajectory through over five hundred paintings, drawings, sculptures, costume designs and film. It is an intelligent and considered exhibition, contextualising his work chronologically and within his artistic, social and political milieu. Over twelve thematic rooms, Malevich’s development as an artist, theorist and educator is revealed. His early experiments in Impressionism, Symbolism and Cubo-Futurism show a rapacious explorer rapidly adopting, synthesising, and then abandoning artistic styles. However you can also see, through the works on display, that some stylistic elements were retained. For example, the artist had seen Monet’s Rouen Cathedral, Afternoon (1893) in a private collection in Moscow in 1903 and, while it spurred him to paint several canvases in the Impressionist style, it was the Impressionist’s interest in the materiality of paint that became a recurring element, especially in his later Suprematist work.

The performance work Victory over the Sun is recognised as being a pivotal point in Malevich’s artistic growth, and its importance was recognised through having a whole room dedicated to the work and its development. Produced in 1913, Victory over the Sun brought together Mikhail Matyushin’s dissonant music, Aleksei Kruchenykh’s libretto—written in part in the invented Zaum ‘transrational’ language—and sets and costume designs by Malevich. The prologue libretto and footage from the sixth scene were displayed alongside Malevich’s drawings. While the drawings showed similarities to his figurative paintings of the time, their experimentation and immediacy clearly show the artist’s hand. Malevich’s playful use of line, colour and notation can also be seen in his lubok folk tales postcards of the following year, which were shown in the next room, and which have always seemed an anomaly in his oeuvre. In this context, they make perfect sense. Several later sketches reflect the artist’s Suprematist works, with opaque black rectangles and squares superimposed over figures and text. However the artist himself later stated ‘What was done unconsciously is now bearing extraordinary fruit’.

Sadly the Black Square of 1915 was deemed too fragile to travel, its surface is now cracked and revealing its coloured underpainting, and so remained in the Tretyakov State Gallery. However Malevich had painted four variants of Black Square and the Stedelijk Museum borrowed the 1929 version, also from the Tretyakov State Gallery, for this exhibition. Black Square was hung high in a corner, the place usually reserved for Russian icons, surrounded by a dozen of the artist’s Suprematist paintings, an exhibition design which paid homage to the ‘Last Futurist Exhibition of Paintings 0.10’ (19 December 1915 – 17 January 1916, Petrograd). In the next room were four of Malevich’s entire output of five white paintings, where the shape, shades of white and texture of the paint had become the focus. Gone was any resemblance to recognisable objects, painting was finally liberated as non-objective: the pure painterly language of Suprematism.

The variety of media in Kazimir Malevich and the Russian Avant-Garde is one of its strengths. Visitors can see the whole range of Malevich’s output: from his well-known paintings and drawings, to the lesser known utopian architectural models and theoretical charts. In 1919 Malevich stopped painting, and the following year diverted his attention to teaching. In 1926 he produced a series of charts ‘Research on painterly culture’ to present his methodology to audiences in Berlin and Warsaw. Part didactic and part aesthetic, the charts are fascinating in that they reveal his research and theories on the development of Suprematism, in addition to colour theory, art history, and pedagogical methods.

While Malevich had supported the 1917 Russian revolution, he eventually suffered under it. Expelled from the State Institute for History, he returned to painting in 1928, by which time abstraction had been rejected as discrediting the Revolution. Malevich’s paintings of simple country life reflect the neo-primitivist style of his early career but with Suprematist elements evident in the crisp geometry and clear colours. His final self-portrait and portraits of his wife and mother are sensitive and personal, without reference to the heroism demanded by Social Realism. The last drawing of the rooms dedicated to Malevich was made by Ivan Klyun the day after the artist’s death in 1935. Malevich had previously fallen out with Klyun, but this drawing is sensitive and sincere, almost an apology from Klyun to Malevich.

The final two rooms of the exhibition clarify the exhibition subtitle: ‘featuring selections from the Khardziev and Costakis Collections’ as, without these two collectors the Russian avant-garde would be little known. Nikolai Khardzhiev and George Costakis were two of Malevich’s earliest supporters, who collected avant-garde art at a time when abstract art was forbidden in the Soviet Union. It is due to their vision and courage that the work of these avant-garde artists exists today. Khardzhiev, a Russian critic, scholar and friend of Malevich moved with his wife and his collection from Russia to Amsterdam in 1993, at the age of 90. The collection is now on long-term loan to the Stedelijk Museum. Russian-born Costakis started buying only after the Second World War but amassed a larger and wider collection, most of which he took with him to Greece in 1977. It is now housed in the State Museum of Contemporary Art, Thessaloniki.

The Stedelijk Museum already has an extraordinary collection of works by Malevich. To see this collection augmented by private and public collections in a beautifully curated exhibition was nourishment for the mind and soul. Kazimir Malevich and the Russian Avant-Garde will travel to the Bundeskunsthalle in Bonn and to the Tate Gallery in London later in 2014, and with each gallery its curatorial focus will shift according to the vantage point provided by each venue. This is a comprehensive survey of a major twentieth century artist whose pioneering work still reverberates with many contemporary artists. It is complemented by a beautifully illustrated catalogue that does justice to, but does not take the place of, seeing the work in the flesh.
 

Kazimir Malevich, Gallant Company in a Park, 1908. Collection Stedelijk Museum Khardziev-Chaga.

Mystic Suprematism (red cross on black circle), 1920-1922. Collection Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam.

Suprematism: Self-Portrait in Two Dimensions, 1915. Collection Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam.

Installation view, Room 5, 1915-1916: Suprematism and 0,10. in Kazimir Malevich and the Russian Avant-Garde, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam 2013. Photograph Robyn Daw.

notes: 

1. Alexandre Benois, review of the 0.10 exhibition, in Rech, 9 January 1916.