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…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.