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Malevich, K S

Category: Artist and sculptor

Self-portrait (1933)

Kazimir Severinovich Malevich (23 February 1879 – 15 May 1935) was a Russian painter born of ethnic Polish parents.

He was a pioneer of geometric abstract art and “the originator of the avant-garde, Suprematist movement”.  He was also a user of nitrous oxide. There are hints that he achieved out of body states with the gas.  The official line now is that “he was interested in aerial photography and aviation, which led him to abstractions inspired by or derived from aerial landscapes”, however, this appears to have been a posthumous interpretation of where his inspiration comes from, provided by academics.

His art was little understood whilst he was alive and, as is normal, panned by the critics, who derided Malevich's art as “a negation of everything good and pure: love of life and love of nature”.  Malevich responded that art can advance and develop for art's sake alone, saying that "art does not need us, and it never did".  In effect inspiration exists outside of human beings.

But the tide changed.  Alfred H. Barr, Jr. included several paintings of Malevich’s in the exhibition “Cubism and Abstract Art” at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1936, and in 1939, four years after Malevich’s death, the Museum of Non-Objective Painting opened in New York, whose founder, Solomon R. Guggenheim – an early and passionate collector of the Russian avant-garde – was inspired by the same aesthetic ideals and spiritual quest that exemplified Malevich’s art.

Kazimir Malevich was born Kazimierz Malewicz to a Polish family, who settled near Kiev (today in the Ukraine).  His parents were Roman Catholic like most ethnic Poles and had fled from the former eastern territories to Kiev in the aftermath of the failed Polish January Uprising of 1863 against the tsarist army.  His native languages were Russian and Polish.

Kazimir was the first of fourteen children, only nine of whom survived into adulthood. His family moved often and he spent most of his childhood in the villages of Ukraine, amidst sugar-beet plantations, far from centres of culture. Until age twelve he knew nothing of professional artists, although art had surrounded him in childhood. He delighted in peasant embroidery, and in decorated walls and stoves. He studied drawing in Kiev from 1895 to 1896.

In 1904, after the death of his father, Malevich moved to Moscow. He studied at the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture from 1904 to 1910. By 1912, his works were influenced by Natalia Goncharova and Mikhail Larionov, Russian avant-garde painters, who were particularly interested in Russian folk art called lubok. Malevich described himself as painting in a "Cubo-Futuristic" style in 1912. In 1914 Malevich exhibited his works in the Salon des Indépendants in Paris. 

But if we concentrate on his exhibitions and outside painting influences we miss two of the main influences in his life –Polish Catholicism and Symbolism – the two are complementary.  I had a friend called Richard who was Polish and I went to his wedding.  The ceremony lasted over two hours and the celebrations lasted all day.  The lives of the Polish community in the UK [Richard’s father had been an RAF pilot in the War] were steeped in ritual and ceremony and symbolism.  Polish Catholicism was almost Kabbalah like in its approach.  It may still be.  In other words, it was spiritual and mystic.

In 1915, Malevich laid down the foundations of Suprematism when he published his manifesto, From Cubism to Suprematism. In 1915–1916 he worked with other Suprematist artists in a peasant/artisan co-operative in Skoptsi and Verbovka village. Famous examples of his Suprematist works include, Black Square (1915) and White On White (1918).

Suprematism is, in some senses, Symbolism taken to its final conclusion.  If we trace Symbolism and its evolution, the starting point is to capture realistic pictures with the symbols embedded within them.  The pictures then look ‘normal’ to any person, but there is a hidden code.  The problem with this approach is the vast vast majority of people look at the pretty picture and never stop to try to untangle the code, so out of this was born Surrealism, where there is no pretty picture, but an apparently unrealistic picture that has been entirely constructed from symbols and nothing else.  This is much more effective at getting people’s attention and getting them talking, but the problem is they tend to discuss the weirdness of the paintings and wonder why the artists did them that way, without saying – 'perhaps they are symbolic, maybe the artist is trying to tell me something'.

I think what Malevich tried to do was bare the symbolism down to the absolute minimum, enough for his paintings to get talked about, but not enough to confuse people.  White on White is an attempt to paint the two symbols of Light and White.

Black square is the symbolism of Darkness and Light or if you prefer, Black and White together with the symbol of the square.  It couldn’t be more simple – but unless you know the symbolism it ends up being just as confusing.  All the artists were trying to keep the symbol system going and to try to get people to think.  But getting people to think and question has been an almost impossible task as Nietzsche recognised long ago.  People don’t think.

A black square placed against the Sun appeared for the first time in the 1913 scenery designs for the Futurist opera Victory over the Sun.

After the October Revolution (1917), Malevich became a member of the Collegium on the Arts of Narkompros, the Commission for the Protection of Monuments and the Museums Commission (all from 1918–1919). He taught at the Vitebsk Practical Art School in the USSR (now part of Belarus) (1919–1922), the Leningrad Academy of Arts (1922–1927), the Kiev State Art Institute (1927–1929), and the House of the Arts in Leningrad (1930). He wrote the book The World as Non-Objectivity, which was published in Munich in 1926 and translated into English in 1959. In it, he outlines his theories.

In 1923, Malevich was appointed director of Petrograd State Institute of Artistic Culture.  But in 1926, it was forced to close, after a Communist party newspaper called it "a government-supported monastery rife with counterrevolutionary sermonizing and artistic debauchery." The Soviet state was by then heavily promoting a 'politically sustainable' [propaganda based] style of art called Socialist Realism—a style Malevich had spent his entire career repudiating. Nevertheless, he swam with the current, and was quietly tolerated by the Communists.

In 1927, Malevich traveled to Warsaw and then on to Berlin and Munich for a retrospective which finally brought him international recognition. He arranged to leave most of the paintings behind when he returned to the Soviet Union. Malevich's assumption that a shifting in the attitudes of the Soviet authorities toward the modernist art movement would take place after the death of Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky's fall from power, was proven correct in a couple of years, when the Stalinist regime turned against all forms of abstraction, considering them a type of "bourgeois" art, that “could not express social realities”. As a consequence, many of his works were confiscated and he was banned from creating and exhibiting similar art.

But thanks to the fact he left his art behind in the West, we now have at least some of his paintings in public galleries.  Malevich's works are held in several major art museums, including in New York, the Museum of Modern Art and the Guggenheim Museum. The Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam owns 24 Malevich paintings, more than any other museum outside of Russia.  Another major collection of Malevich works is held by the State Museum of Contemporary Art in Thessaloniki.  The State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow also has some of his works.

Malevich died of cancer in Leningrad on 15 May 1935. On his deathbed he was exhibited with the black square above him, and mourners at his funeral rally were permitted to wave a banner bearing a black square.  He had asked to be buried under an oak tree on the outskirts of Nemchinovka, a place to which he felt a special bond. Nikolai Suetin, a friend of Malevich’s and a fellow artist, designed a white cube with a black square to mark the burial site.

The memorial was destroyed during World War II.  In 2013, an apartment block was built on the place of his tomb and burial site.


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