Beyond Zero

Peter Wollen

  • Kazimir Malevich: Suprematism edited by Matthew Drutt
    Guggenheim, 296 pp, US $65.00, June 2003, ISBN 0 89207 265 2

Kazimir Malevich was the most enigmatic and the most provocative painter of the early Soviet period. He can be seen as a pioneer of abstraction and of the minimalist works produced many years later by such artists as Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko and Yves Klein. Or he can be regarded as a folk artist, or as a visionary who proposed to launch his Suprematist constructions and artworks into outer space, where they would circle the earth as satellites. He was also deeply interested in the theoretical relationship between painting, on the one hand, and poetry, music, film and architecture, on the other, an association which inspired him to get involved in the design and staging of his extraordinary opera, Victory over the Sun.

Malevich was born in the Ukraine in 1878, in a small town near Kiev. His family was Polish, and he would occasionally write his name as Kazimierz Malewicz. His father worked in a sugar beet factory, which Malevich hated, later observing that ‘there, every worker focused intently on the working of the machine as if on the movements of a predatory animal. And, at the same time, you had to keep a watchful eye on your own movements. One wrong move meant death or mutilation. For the small boy that I was, these machines seemed man-eating beasts.’ In contrast were Malevich’s descriptions of peasant life: ‘One essential distinction between workers and peasants: drawing. Workers never drew, and nor were they capable of decorating their houses – in contrast with the peasants who all were. Country people were interested in art (a word I did not then know).’ Malevich loved the household ornaments peasants made, their decorative drawings, the bright colours they prepared and used.

After going to agricultural college, Malevich took a job with a railway company, saving his money and painting (he sold some of these works, though none has survived). Eventually, he had accumulated enough cash to make the long train journey to Moscow, where he arrived in 1904, already in his late twenties. In Moscow, he managed to gain access to Sergei Shchukin’s massive collection of modern French paintings, which included Matisse’s great masterpiece La Danse. It seems that the paintings which impressed him most, however, were Monet’s shimmering Rouen Cathedral series. ‘For the first time,’ Malevich later recalled, ‘I saw the luminous reflections of a blue sky, painted in pure and limpid tones. Thereafter I set about painting luminous pictures, full of happiness and sun.’ Even at this early stage he insisted that Monet’s painting was not a depiction of Rouen cathedral so much as a painting about painting, whose real subject was the tonal play of the brush-strokes, the abstract impression of light and colour. Years later he noted that ‘the contours of the world of objects fade more with every moment – everything we loved and all from which we lived, becomes invisible.’

By 1907, Malevich had become involved with the Blue Rose group of artists, whose roots lay in Symbolism. He exhibited his work at the Moscow Society of Artists, along with Mikhail Larionov, Natalia Goncharova and Kandinsky. The following year, he attended the Golden Fleece Salon, an exhibition of two hundred paintings from France, including works by Cézanne, Gauguin, Renoir, Degas, Signac, Van Gogh, Pissarro and many others – the Nabis, the Pointillists and, especially significant for Malevich, the Fauves, including Matisse. However, it was not until 1910, when he first met Larionov and Goncharova, that his career began to take shape. Larionov and Goncharova had both been strongly influenced by French avant-garde painting, which they mixed stylistically with traditional Russian folk art and icon painting; along with Kandinsky, who painted his first abstract watercolour in 1910 and published his extremely influential book, Concerning the Spiritual in Art, in 1911, they were crucial influences on Malevich.

Soon afterwards, Larionov and Goncharova organised a new exhibition, The Donkey’s Tail, to which Malevich contributed. At that time his work was clearly much influenced by Cézanne, while Larionov and Goncharova were already putting Parisian Cubism behind them and looking to the Italian Futurists for inspiration. Malevich was more interested in the work of Fernand Léger, whose latest paintings combined Cubism and Futurism: John Golding has construed Malevich’s 1912 painting The Knife Grinder: Principle of Flickering as ‘a marriage between Léger’s Woman in Blue and Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase of 1912’. Like Duchamp’s painting, The Knife Grinder depicted motion in quasi-cinematic terms, but Malevich soon began to lean more towards Cubism than Futurism, towards an architectural rather than a kinetic approach. In 1915, he launched his own new art movement, Suprematism, with a series of bold abstractions, conveying in his own words ‘the zero of form’, a tendency which led to the notorious Black Square of 1915 and the even more notorious White Square on White of 1918.

In his lively memoirs, published as My Futurist Years, Roman Jakobson, the great Russian linguist, vividly recalled his first encounter with Malevich, in 1913. ‘I am painting new pictures, non-representational ones,’ Malevich explained. ‘Let’s go to Paris in the summer, and you can give lectures and explain these paintings at their exhibition.’ Jakobson noted that ‘partly he made this proposition because he didn’t speak French, but, also, because he trusted me as a theoretician more than he trusted himself, despite all my naivety at that time.’ Malevich spoke to Jakobson of his ‘gradual departure from representational to abstract art’, explaining that there was no abyss between the two: abstract art should be thought of as involving ‘a non-representational relation to representationality and of a representational relation to non-representational thematics – to the thematics of surface, colour and space’. Jakobson compared this theory of painting to his own theory of poetic language, which was based on sound and rhythm rather than semantic meaning and rationality. In return, Malevich expressed his admiration for Jakobson’s ‘transrational verses’, welcoming their distance from the normal semantic emphasis of poetry.

These theories were of special interest to Malevich because of Jakobson’s conviction that ‘verbal sound could have more in common with non-representational painting than with music,’ the implication being that non-representational paintings could be meaningful, just as the sound patterns of transrational poetry could be meaningful despite their abstraction. Malevich was also in touch with a number of other transrational poets. In 1913 one of them, Kruchenykh, wrote the transrational libretto for Victory over the Sun, and in 1915, Malevich attempted, along with Kruchenykh and the abstract painter Matiushin, to bring out a jointly edited journal, to be called Nul because its aim would be ‘to reduce everything to zero’. ‘Afterwards,’ he noted slyly, ‘we ourselves will go beyond zero.’

Victory over the Sun was staged in Moscow in 1915 with a backdrop by Malevich consisting simply of a square within a square, the inner square divided diagonally into two segments, one white, the other black, a visual concept later accepted as the founding act of a new art movement. Later the same year, Malevich, Kliun, another painter, and Kruchenykh published a collection of essays, under the title Secret Vices of the Academicians, post-dating its publication in order to stress their orientation towards the future. In December 1915, his first Suprematist paintings (49 of them) were displayed in Petrograd at the Zero-Ten exhibition, which were described as The Last Futurist Exhibition of Paintings after the organisers refused to use the word ‘Suprematism’ in the catalogue. Malevich responded with a brochure, From Cubism and Futurism to Suprematism: The New Painterly Realism, arguing that just as Cubism gave way to Futurism, so Futurism must give way to Suprematism.

The following year, Malevich wrote a letter to Matiushin in which he observed that ‘the surface of painterly colour suspended on the white canvas immediately gives our consciousness a strong sense of space. It carries me over into fathomless space, where you can sense the creative points of the universe around you.’ This extraordinary statement seems to imply that Suprematist art would leave the reality of terrestrial objects behind and embark on a journey into a new world of spatial forms. In 1920 Malevich published another booklet, Suprematism, 34 Drawings, in which he predicted that in the future, human beings would be launched into outer space. Even more amazing, he added that somewhere in the area between the Earth and the Moon ‘we could build a new Suprematist satellite,’ which would circle in its own orbit. It was at this time that he began to construct model architectural forms, as a step into the third dimension and, presumably, towards the fourth. Malevich claimed that Suprematist forms ‘will not be copies of living things in life but will themselves be a living thing’. He explained that white, as a colour, gave the viewer ‘a strong sensation of space’, noting that his black square of 1915 was capable of overcoming gravity and launching the viewer, spiritually at least, into the cosmos.

Malevich also cited the poet Khlebnikov’s vision of ‘floating cities’ located in a gravity-free environment; he himself envisaged new aerial cities, together with floating studios for artists, which would all be located high above the Earth, above or perhaps on board zeppelins. Such cities would themselves be weightless. It is in this context that we should look at abstract artworks such as Suprematist Painting: Aeroplane in Flight (1915), which consists of a black square and 12 black, blue, yellow and red rectangles of different dimensions and forms, as a serious attempt to portray a world in which space travel and extraterrestrial life will have become normal as humanity enters a new epoch, envisaged first by Suprematists and subsequently realised by scientists and engineers. Basic geometrical forms – squares, rectangles, trapeziums, triangles, circles, semi-circles and other curvilinear forms – were not only models for painting, though this was part of their appeal, but also elements of a new utopian future, uniting design, technology and art. For Malevich, in fact, the world of objects was a kind of dream-world which somehow overlapped with the painterly world of the white square in White on White – the square actually being slightly oblong.

It is surprising how many of Malevich’s paintings have survived. In 1993, his friend Nikolai Khardzhiev left Russia for the Netherlands, taking with him 1350 works of art, including eight major paintings by Malevich and a much greater number of drawings and sketches. As a result it finally became possible for Malevich’s works to be properly exhibited, and among those shown have been transrational paintings from the Suprematist period. As Matthew Drutt notes, these transrational, or ‘alogic’ works were ‘experiments with visual form intended to confound conventional picture making, inventing new relations or associations derived from a "random” collision between seemingly unrelated images and shapes’.

Malevich’s paintings were not simply precursors of abstraction. They raised issues of surface and space and always had a crucial temporal dimension, influencing spectators’ movements and the direction of their gaze. The design of his Suprematism: Painterly Realism of a Football Player (1915), suggested the vibrancy of players, ball and pitch through its use of stripes, circle and rectangle, thus evoking the dynamism of the game. In the 1920s, Malevich began to design three-dimensional ‘architektons’, primarily coloured white, although other colours also were introduced, as well as prisms, tall towers and stepped structures. These quadrilateral and three-dimensional works demanded to be looked at from different angles. Malevich also paid particular attention to the installation of his work, compelling spectators to keep changing their angle of vision. His abstract forms and structures were imbued with both meaning and kinetic movement, an effect that Malevich, an ardent filmgoer, thought of as cinematic.

Malevich successfully negotiated the changing policies of the Soviet regime, making what must have been a difficult decision and retreating from abstraction – or, at least, from the purist forms of it that were typical of his earlier work. From the late 1920s, he reintroduced figuration, with the apparent intention of making his work comprehensible to the masses. Peasants and sportsmen now became typical subjects. He also designed Suprematist teapots and women’s fashions. Years earlier, in 1915, he had painted a red square on a white background and given it the title, Red Square: Painterly Realism of a Peasant Woman in Two Dimensions. It was hung like an icon, angled diagonally from wall to wall, in the topmost corner of a room. Peasants of 1928-32 shows two peasants, one with a yellow tunic, the other with a red, both of whose faces are in the form of an oval. The bottom segment of each oval is dominated by black and grey, while the top section is white. Between and behind the two figures we can see a cultivated landscape, a jigsaw puzzle of rectangular plots and fields with no curvature at all, while in the far distance blue paint suggests the sea and the sky.

In 1928 he also painted a single Peasant, full size, with dark brown shoes, light brown and yellowish trousers, white hands – apparently gloved – and a red shirt, rather like a smock but drawn in around the waist. The peasant has a grey beard whose extremity is black, as is the hair on his head. He has no real individuality – he is a type – and, like the subjects of Peasants, his face has no features. Not until 1930, in his Portrait of a Woman, did Malevich paint a face with features, albeit geometrical rather than physical ones. We have his own word for it that in these simple but disturbing paintings, ‘the composition has been made from the sensations of emptiness, solitude and lack of ways forward in life.’ In his Head of a Woman, also painted in 1930, the face is divided into quarters, two red and two white, with a triangular black nose like a sundial blade. There were three types of painting, he had noted in 1920 – coloured-in drawings, coloured forms based on the relationships of pure tones, and finally ‘painting proper’, in which the colours were blended and mixed.

Malevich is mainly remembered today for White on White, a painting which can be interpreted in any number of ways. It can be compared to other contemporary ventures into abstraction, such as those of Kandinsky, Moholy-Nagy and Mondrian, or it can be seen as distinctive in its expression of painting itself as subject-matter, resolutely non-objective, a work which simply presented geometric forms – ‘quadrates’, as Malevich called his squares and rectangles – filling space rather than representing an object. In 1919, Malevich was invited to Vitebsk, in the Ukraine, to teach in the art college. The students were mainly under the influence of Chagall, whom they adored, but Malevich convinced them that truly revolutionary art must be non-objective. One of the students, Lev Yudin, kept a diary in which he noted that ‘things are very good. We all feel ourselves close to K.S. [Kazimir Severinovich]. I entirely feel the gulf between us and everything old. We are innovators and it is up to us to go through everything that K.S. and others have had to go through.’ It was in Vitebsk that Malevich came to recognise that the true destiny of Suprematism lay in the field of the decorative arts, including his beloved architektons.

Inspired perhaps by the memory of Ukrainian peasants decorating their Easter eggs, Malevich and his students decorated the entire town of Vitebsk, filling it with colour. In 1922, he returned to Petrograd, where he was largely responsible for setting up the new State Institute of Artistic Culture, GINKhUK. In 1926, he visited the studio of one of its students, Valentin Ivanovich Kurdov; notes of their conversation were taken down by an assistant. Malevich told Kurdov that ‘the colour from the tube is mere paint, but the painter always rubs the paint, mixes it, turns it into a tone. And on your canvas there is a combination of ochre and yellow, which you wish to fuse into one colour. You have the characteristics of a painter.’ He went on to congratulate Kurdov on the absence of contour in his work and its dependence on pure tones. Later that year, the Stalinist crackdown began and GINKhUK was closed down. Malevich was allowed to retain a small flat, where he lived with his mother and his third wife. However, despite official disapproval, he received permission from Lunacharsky to visit Berlin, where he prudently left his artworks and papers in safe keeping. On his return, he was detained for questioning. His painting career was over. Excluded from exhibiting, he was listed as a ‘formalist’ and his work condemned as the expression of a bourgeois consciousness.

In 1935, Malevich died of cancer. The original Black Square was hung like an icon above his deathbed and a white cube, with another black square on it, was placed on his tomb. He had already planned this as an installation, insisting on the specific architekton that must serve as tombstone, a tower within whose turret a telescope was placed for watching Jupiter. With the advantage of hindsight, we can see that he was not simply an abstract artist, but indeed a transrational artist in the spirit of poets and linguists such as Kruchenykh and Jakobson. His goal was to create art-forms that would represent his own vision of the future, rather than the everyday reality that dismayed him. As Jakobson once put it in a transrational phonic gesture of his own: ‘chr. Greet fg evl if clear don’t see’. Although, along with other struggling members of the avant-garde, he had become a target for the lackeys of Stalinism, Malevich insisted to the very end that non-objective art was guaranteed final supremacy, observing irrepressibly that ‘the effort of the art world’s authorities to set art on the path of common sense has given us zero creativity.’