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Supreme Suprematist

Kazimir Malevich, 1878–1935 September–November, 1990; The Armand Hammer Museum of Art and Cultural Center, Los Angeles, November 28, 1900–January 13, 1991; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, February 7, 1991–March 24, 1991

an exhibition at The National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC,

Kazimir Malevich, 1878–1935

catalog of the exhibition, edited by Jeanne D’Andrea
Armand Hammer Museum, 230 pp., $29.95 (paper)

Although Kazimir Malevich became a legend in Russia during his lifetime and is considered by many to be the greatest Russian painter of the century, he is much less well known than his two contemporaries and peers in the creation of abstract art, Kandinsky and Mondrian. When in 1919–1920 the Visual Arts Section of the People’s Commissariat of Enlightenment selected works by 143 artists for distribution to various Soviet museums, Malevich’s name took precedence over all others; Kandinsky himself, who had returned to Russia from Munich in 1914 and subsequently joined in the revolutionary excitement, chaired the purchasing committee; his own painting was by now acknowledging a debt to Malevich’s, to its detriment. But within a couple of years the forces of reaction were already set in motion, and in 1929 the director of the Tretiakov Gallery in Moscow, Fedor Kumpan, was given a lengthy prison sentence for having organized an exhibition of Malevich’s work. It took Malevich two and a half years to retrieve his pictures, and although many of them eventually passed into state collections they were not seen again until relatively recently. In 1930 Malevich was himself interned for questioning. He died in 1935 at the age of fifty-seven, in great poverty.

Malevich traveled abroad only once, in 1927, when he accompanied a large selection of his work for exhibition in Warsaw and subsequently in Berlin. In Germany he also visited the Bauhaus in Dessau, where Moholy-Nagy oversaw the publication of his essay “Suprematism and the Additional Element in Art,” which appeared under the title of “The Non-Objective World” (Die Gegenstandslose Welt); for forty years this remained the only one of Malevich’s voluminous texts available in the West, and it had been tampered with in translation. On Malevich’s return to Russia he felt that the political situation had worsened for him and he issued instructions that the pictures he had left behind in Germany, together with a packet of theoretical texts and a series of explanatory charts, should not be returned to him: maybe he hoped that the works might be shown in other Western cities, and he may even have considered escaping to the West.

In 1935 Alfred Barr, prescient as ever, managed to smuggle a group of Malevich’s paintings out of Germany, where they were in danger of being destroyed as part of the campaign against “degenerate art.” Barr had come to Germany looking for works to include in his “Cubism and Abstract Art” exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1936. (Two of the canvases he brought out rolled up in his umbrella—fortunately it wasn’t raining when he crossed the frontier.) Seven of the fifty-five Malevich oils known to have been exhibited in Berlin eventually found their way into the Museum of Modern Art’s collections. A few others were dispersed in public and private collections and many appear to have been irretrievably lost. But in 1958 the remaining thirty-one paintings entered the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, complementing its unique holdings of works by Mondrian and making it the mecca for students and lovers of early geometric abstraction.

In 1988, thanks to perestroika, the Russians and the Dutch pooled their resources and the State Russian Museum in Leningrad, the Tretiakov Gallery in Moscow, and the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam mounted the largest Malevich exhibition yet to have been seen. The Malevich exhibition, which recently closed at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, was slightly smaller but undoubtedly stronger; it brought together for the first time carefully chosen pictures from a wide range of American, Russian, and Dutch collections to produce the most thoughtful and revealing survey of Malevich’s art to date. The exhibition was selected, curated, and in Washington superbly installed by Angelica Zander Rudenstine.

Armand Hammer, long known for his promotion of Soviet-American commercial collaboration, had originally envisaged reconstructing the 1988–1989 exhibition in America, and it was he who made the initial contacts with Soviet officials. He subsequently played no role in the final conception of the revised Washington version of the exhibition, which, shortly before he died on December 11, went on view at his own still uncompleted Armand Hammer Museum of Art and Cultural Center in Los Angeles but in a reduced form. In view of the congratulatory letters from George and Barbara Bush, Mikhail and Raisa Gorbachev, and Hammer himself, it is ironic that every single one of the American Maleviches has been removed from the California showing. Presumably American curators were reluctant to lend on the ground that the new Hammer buildings (by Edward Larrabee Barnes) had not yet been tested for climatic and security conditions. One can’t help wondering why the Russians and the Dutch have in that case been less particular. The American paintings played an integral part in this particular presentation of Malevich’s art, and their loss must be deeply felt. However, all but one of the pictures will be reunited for a final showing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York this February.

Despite the many recent new insights into Malevich he remains an enigmatic figure. He clearly had great charisma, and photographs of him taken in his youth and in his prime generate a feeling of exceptional intensity. We know that he was an inspired teacher. He corresponded and collaborated closely with many of the most celebrated Russian artists of his generation, including Mayakovsky and Eisenstein, but few of them appear to have known him really well, although he developed a lifelong friendship with the composer and painter Mikhail Matiushin. He was a prolific writer and a voracious reader, but he had received only a rudimentary education. He grew up in various rural communities in and around Kiev and Kursk and was largely self-taught; even those fluent in Russian (I myself am not among them) find his writings difficult. And yet in 1919, the year in which he completed one of the most important of his theoretical texts, “On the New Systems in Art: Statics and Speed,” he also produced an essay on poetry, and the previous year the poet Kruchenykh in his eulogy on “zaum“—transrational language—praised Malevich as one of its most effective practitioners.

The first major turning point in Malevich’s career came in 1907, when he moved permanently to Moscow. His arrival there coincided with the first independent exhibition of a new group of Symbolist artists, Blue Rose, held in the house of the painter Pavel Kuznetsov. Kuznetsov’s influence can be seen in a revealing group of studies for frescoes, dating from this year, which Malevich showed in Moscow in 1908 and then again in 1911 as The Yellow Series, but which subsequently disappeared from view until their inclusion in the present show. In them the pantheism that characterized the work of so many of the Blue Rose artists takes on a genuinely mystical dimension, and the naked figures which appear in all of them do not so much commune with their landscape surroundings as become literally absorbed into nature. The pictures are also totally devoid of the submerged eroticism that pervades so much other contemporary Russian Symbolist art: and they radiate some of the innocent spirituality that characterizes so many anonymous provincial Russian icons.

In Washington The Yellow Series was hung in juxtaposition with the superb large gouaches of 1911–1912, depicting different aspects of labor and society—chiropodists, floor polishers, gardeners, and so forth. These later works are explosive, raw, deliberately clumsy, and totally unself-conscious; the confrontation revealed for the first time of Malevich’s full potential as an artist. By now he had come into contact with Larionov and Goncharova, who were at the time trying to give certain forms of French Post-impressionism a specifically Russian flavor by injecting into it aspects of icon painting and local folk and peasant art; the Neoprimitivism which they sought struck a natural chord in Malevich’s makeup and they helped him to hear it within himself. Malevich himself was also aware of the most recent developments in French art, and it is possible to find echoes of Cézanne, Matisse, and Braque in his figures; but these references seem irrelevant: Malevich’s creations remain archetypically Russian—like characters out of Gorky or Kuprin—and supremely themselves.

The question of sources, however, becomes a prime concern in discussing the next phases of Malevich’s development, for it was to a large extent through his creative misunderstanding of them that he was able to reach such startlingly original visual conclusions of his own, just as his thought was the result of a sort of collage of the most disparate and often most unlikely intellectual influences. By 1912 Italian Futurist manifestoes had already been widely distributed in Russia. But whereas many outside France tended to approach Cubism through the type of Italian pictures that owed most to it, for the simple reason that Futurism was more accessible and fundamentally popular in its appeal, Russian artists, and Malevich in particular, tended to look at Cubism through a Futurist aesthetic or program. The results were for the most part striking; and if there has been a tendency to underplay the influence of the Italians upon the Russians the reason may be that in Russia the achievements of the parent movement were superseded at virtually every level.

Malevich’s immersion in Cubism, although it was to have its most far-reaching results in the “alogical” work of 1913–1914, had a splendidly logical start in that he began by investigating and identifying with the work of Léger who, more than any other artist associated with Parisian Cubism, was able to retain a French sensibility to purely formal values and yet to subscribe to Futurism’s vision of the modern mechanized scene and to its insistence on the dynamic fragmentation of matter. Léger was also the French artist with whom Malevich had temperamentally most in common. (The two men never met, but Léger’s second wife, Nadia, claimed to have been a pupil of Malevich. In moments of emotion she also claimed that she and she alone held the secret to an understanding of Malevich’s art, which she would one day divulge; unfortunately, to my knowledge she never got around to doing so.) Léger’s Essai pour trois Portraits of 1911 (now in the Milwaukee Art Center) was shown at the second “Knave of Diamonds” exhibition in Moscow in 1912 in which Malevich also participated. The Léger was to inspire a poem by Benedict Livshits that appeared in A Slap in the Face of Public Taste published in December 1912, a document that can in some respects be regarded as the first fully integrated product of Russian Futurism. Léger was a frequent visitor at the painting studio known as the Académie Russe, run in Paris by Marie Vasiliev: during 1913 and 1914 he was to deliver there two important lectures which were subsequently published and certainly read in Russia.

Another link was the gifted Russian painter Alexandra Exter, in certain respects a pupil of Léger’s, who divided her time between Paris, Kiev, and Moscow, carrying back and forth with her photographs of the artist’s work. Léger’s particular brand of Cubism had early on been dubbed “Tubism,” and the geometric metallic configuration of his figures and compositions find an echo in, for example, Malevich’s Taking in the Rye and The Woodcutter, both of 1912, works which Malevich himself classified as Cubo-Futurist.

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