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.

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