Much praise has been heaped on the Kazimir Malevich exhibition at the Tate Modern in London, the first major retrospective of the artist’s work for 25 years, which runs until 26th October. Malevich was born in Kiev in 1879 and his life coincided with an extraordinarily volatile and fertile period of Russian history. The paintings have been displayed in more or less chronological order, enabling visitors to track how Malevich’s thinking and art changed in response to the cataclysmic events he was living through.
The pivotal piece of the exhibition is Black Square, which Malevich created as the logical culmination of his ideas about an art divorced from the need to represent the natural world and thus completely free from the constraints and traditions of figurative painting.
The paint itself is quite textured, with brush strokes and faint gradations of colour clearly visible within the whitish border. The black square itself has acquired further texture as a result of extensive cracking of the paint. These days, original 1915 canvas is too fragile to be moved from its home in the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, with the result that the version on display in London is one of three copies Malevich made in the years that followed.
For all its simplicity, the image presented is incredibly haunting, signifying as it does both an ending and a beginning. It’s impossible to view it without considering the historical context; a Russia on the brink of revolution, careening at full speed towards an abyss of orgiastic destruction.
What is in hindsight particularly heart-breaking is the overwhelming sense of new possibility, an unwavering confidence in an as yet unknown future. It must have felt truly amazing to be an artist like Malevich, with both the skill and the licence to reimagine the world in every detail.
Viewed in this way, Black Square becomes a void pregnant with possibility. What it made me feel was a sense of the universe in the seconds before the big bang, pulsating with pent up energy at the very instant it explodes into life.
In the years following the creation of Black Square, Malevich initiated a movement known as Suprematism and produced a series of canvases featuring shapes of various colours, usually on a white background. These images convey a sense of dynamic fragmentation, as if a fist has been slammed onto the surface of a table and Malevich had somehow managed to capture the moment when all the objects on top of it have flown up into the air. Later yet, he created a series of images dissolving at the edges and fading to white; what he called the end of art.
In the 1920s, Malevich abandoned painting and turned to teaching instead. By this time, the pieces thrown up by the Russian revolution had come back to earth and resettled in a new reality. Although by this time he was beginning to find a new audience abroad, Malevich found himself falling foul of the Stalinist regime and its retrograde ideas about art. He was arrested for a short period in 1930 and died of cancer soon after. The original Black Square, and the ground-breaking ideas it exemplified, disappeared from public view, not to re-emerge for more than quarter of a century.