Fresh from showing the most visited exhibition in its history (a unique journey into Matisse’s creativity) Tate Modern now offers another fascinating and extraordinary show. This time, the #Art gallery presents a fresh insight into the work of Kazimir Malevich, founder of the Suprematism movement. Best known for his abstract art, Malevich walked a turbulent career path. At Tate the paintings are displayed in a chronological order which helps visitors understand how Malevich’s thinking and art changed throughout his life.
Born to Polish parents in 1879 in Kiev, Malevich was absorbed by the arts from a very young age. Influenced by Monet, Cezanne and French Impressionism, his early paintings focused on Russian subjects and settings, and particularly on the image of peasants. Intense colours and expressive brushwork, the subject matter depicted is straightforward – but even back then Malevich began to consider the work of art as an independent creation rather than a mere imitation of reality.
Walking through the rooms is like watching an artist grow and develop: from symbolism to cubism and abstractism, Malevich explored a variety of styles. Cubo-futurism was the next stage of his career, and paintings such as Head of a Peasant Girl and Morning in the Village after Snowstorm perfectly combine the dynamism of Cubism with Italian Futurism.
As the exhibition shows, soon Malevich started to develop the idea of Suprematism. This new art movement was purely aesthetic, concerned only with geometric forms and thus completely free from the constraints of figurative painting. At the origin of Suprematism was the Futurist opera Victory over the Sun written by Krunchenykh and for which Malevich designed the sets and costumes in 1913. The group’s revolutionary treatment of language, the idea of words without meaning is what encouraged Malevich to move into abstraction. For Malevich, art should in fact transcend subject matter and the purity of shape and colour should instead reign “supreme” over the image.
The iconic painting of the twentieth century Black Square represented the starting point for this new approach to art. Pivotal piece of the whole exhibition and Malevich’s most radical work, Black Square is exactly what its title suggest: a square painted in black within a white border. Though simple in form, the painting is complex in meaning: a representation of absence and presence, chaos and order together, it is a piece that questions the meaning of art itself.
Interesestingly, Black Square was painted in 1915 but Malevich dated it to 1913 because he believed that the date should refer to the idea for the painting rather than its execution. Precisely in December 1915 the artist launched Suprematism with 'The Last Exhibition of Future Painting 0.10', held in Petrograd. Tate assembles nine of the twelve paintings and follows the layout of the original exhibition. Black Square is thus placed in the upper corner, the position traditionally occupied by an icon in Orthodox homes. The atmosphere in the room is unique: in an extraordinary vortex of pure energy and creativity, visitors can almost hear Malevich saying “Suprematism is the new beginning of a new culture…our world of art has become new, non- objective, pure”.
The Russian revolution coincided with Malevich’s abandonment of painting. As he himself declared, “painting died, like the old regime, because it was an organic part of it”. Once again, Malevich demonstrated his versatility by becoming a teacher and eagerly promoting the principles of Suprematism in his lessons. His teaching charts and materials are so beautiful they have a room here all to themselves.
Malevich only returned to painting in the late 20s, and the majority of these last paintings are rural scenes and peasants. These last years were difficult for Malevich: accused of espionage, he was arrested for a short period in 1930 and died of cancer soon after. This is probably why his last realistic paintings are more disturbing and evoke a feeling of longing, suffering and despair.
Beautifully curated, the exhibition is the first major retrospective of the Russian artist work for almost 25 years. It commemorates one of the most talented, diverse and complete artist of the twentieth century. By discovering, experimenting and challenging art, Malevich developed his own abstract style that paved the way for many generations of later artists. Suprematism was truly “the beginning of a new culture” - and it still feels as modern and revolutionary as it did at the time.