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.
Other slightly later Cubo-Futurist works, like the arresting Face of a Peasant Girl, show an awareness of the early and hermetic phases of Picasso’s Cubism, a moment in art that Malevich was subsequently to recognize as a turning point in twentieth-century painting; here it looks as if the Picassian prototype (in the Sergei Shchukin collection) had been transposed into metal and subsequently bent and twisted by a powerful fist. The element of abstraction and fragmentation or dislocation in the earlier phases of Cubism was at the service of an attempt to analyze forms in such a way as to present them to the spectator in greater fullness or completeness. Malevich, on the other hand, saw this analysis as an attempt to shatter the subject: “The Cubists, thanks to the pulverization of the object, left the field of subjectivity,…” he was to declare. Cubism was in many respects a classically slanted art in its search for balance and poise, and both Picasso and Braque tended to favor the classical pyramid in their compositions. Malevich, even at a later date when he was distinguishing more clearly between the aims of Cubism and Futurism, continued to see Cubism as being “stuffed with explosiveness.” Cubism had taken objects apart but an appreciation of its aims involves the spectator’s ability to put them back again. Malevich on the contrary believed, according to Futurist principles, that “all matter disintegrates into a large number of component parts which are fully independent.”
Even odder was the way in which Malevich interpreted the later, Synthetic Cubist works which Shchukin added to his collection in 1913 and 1914. By now the subject matter in Picasso’s work had once again become more immediately legible and he undoubtedly saw the abstract pictorial substructure of his works as reinforcing the realism, the materiality of his subjects, and as helping to lend them weight and substance. Malevich on the other hand seems to have viewed the areas of papier collé in Cubist works, and flat slab-like planes derived from them, as new configurations working against the subject, challenging its importance and supremacy. Although many of Malevich’s canvases of 1914 have at first glance a very Cubist look about them, in all of them the subject defies a logical visual and intellectual reconstruction, the kind of reconstruction that is fundamental to the mechanics of Cubism, and the paintings are essentially medleys of disconnected fragments buried in an abstract pictorial architecture. From the start the Cubists had sought an art that was antinaturalistic but simultaneously representational in a non-imitative fashion. Malevich when he first saw Synthetic Cubist works seems to have felt that their creators were in search of some super-reality of a transcendental nature which challenged the subject’s existence. In his own last Alogic and Cubo-Futurist works the subjects’ identities become menaced rather than reinforced by the large oblongs and quadrilaterals that surround them or that are superimposed over them. And when Malevich subsequently achieved abstraction he saw the geometric forms in his pictures as being dynamically charged with all the wealth of visual material that he had absorbed in his formation as an artist, just as he felt that they could in turn be split or broken apart to form a whole new pictorial vocabulary.
All of Malevich’s interests and worlds—his belief in Futurism, his absorption in Cubism, his love of poetry and sound, his fascination with his own Russianness—came together in 1913 when he agreed to collaborate on an opera for the Saint Petersburg Union of Youth. Victory over the Sun, which had two rapturously received performances at the Luna Park Theater, had a prologue by Khlebnikov and a nonsense libretto by Kruchenykh; the plot, insofar as there was one, involved the stabbing of the sun and its enclosure in a square container for Futurist but somewhat obscure ends.
Khlebnikov and Kruchenykh were in some respects complementary characters, the one a dreamer who nevertheless produced verbal experiments as daring as Mayakovsky’s own, the other an extrovert whose verse invited performance in staccato platform style; Malevich learned from both of them. Music for the opera was composed by Matiushin and combined “ready-made” sound effects with pianistic dissonances and odd passages of thin, wistful melody. A trick photograph taken at the time of the production shows Matiushin, Kruchenykh, and Malevich with a grand piano upside down over their heads, and it catches some of the flavor of the enterprise.
It was at this time that Matiushin introduced Malevich to Howard Hinton’s book on The Fourth Dimension, a concept that intrigued artists throughout Europe. Malevich seems to have found Hinton’s diagrams helpful; and the row of squares in Portrait of the Composer M.V. Matiushin of 1913, a work to which Malevich was particularly attached, may be a reference to the “higher cubes” belonging to a “higher space” discussed by Hinton, and possibly also a reference to the quarter tones which were among the most daring aspects of Matiushin’s operatic score.
Malevich’s sets for Victory over the Sun were executed in black and white for economic reasons, but the costumes were decorated with brightly colored and often jagged abstract shapes and motifs. The general effect was Cubo-Futurist, but the curtain for Act II, scene 5, consisted of a simple square against a white background; and it is possible that when Malevich saw this geometric emblem hanging motionless in the theatrical arc lights it appeared to him all of a sudden strangely numinous, filled with some breathless, expectant hidden truth. Certainly Malevich saw the opera as a landmark in his career; and the importance he attached to it is surely relevant to his subsequent insistence that Suprematism had originated in 1913. The lighting of Victory over the Sun was one of its most avant-garde features, and the costumes were designed in such a way that often only parts of the performers, their heads or their legs for instance, were visible. The players must have presented an appearance not unlike the configurations of colored forms that were soon to appear in Malevich’s paintings.
At the “Tramway V” exhibition mounted in Petrograd in February 1915 Malevich was represented by works of his Cubo-Futurist and Alogic styles; it was at this exhibition that it became obvious that Tatlin and Malevich together were to form the spearhead for future developments in revolutionary Russian art. At the end of this same year at “0.10. The Last Exhibition of Futurist Painting,” also in Petrograd, Malevich launched the Suprematist movement. It was accompanied by the obligatory manifesto, although friends had tried to persuade Malevich not to publish one, on the grounds that there were all too many of them around. In fact it is one of the grandest of all the Russian manifestoes of the period; it betrays a debt to Italian Futurist prototypes but it has about it a dignity and almost biblical resonance that the Italians never achieved. Toward the beginning of it Malevich declared, “I have turned myself into the zero of form.”
He had indeed. Visitors to the exhibition must have been stunned to be confronted with thirty-six totally abstract works, the first of their kind. Hung across the corner of Malevich’s space was The Black Square, which was to become his own emblem and that of the movement. “The Black Square,” Malevich proclaimed, “is the face of the new art. The Square is a living, royal infant. It is the first step of pure creation in art.”* Recent X-rays of the first Black Square (now in the Tretiakov Gallery, Moscow) have revealed a more elaborate abstract composition underneath it; and if The Black Square is a static form and certainly the most minimal image yet to have been produced, Malevich himself saw it as being charged with energy and dynamic power. In one sense, it was Futurism’s ultimate revenge on Cubism.
Although with hindsight we can to a certain extent come to an understanding of early Suprematist works by exploring the visual and intellectual avenues that led to them, nevertheless there is a sense in which Suprematism sprang ready formed from the brow of its creator. And this distinguished Malevich’s approach very sharply from that of Kandinsky and Mondrian, who had inched their way into abstraction over a period of many years. His art differed from theirs in other fundamental ways as well. Once Kandinsky had moved into abstraction he to a large extent turned his back on the natural phenomena that had originally inspired and moved him, and Mondrian did so completely. Malevich’s attitude toward nature was much more receptive and sympathetic. He sought through Suprematism, “a world in which man experiences totality with nature,” although he also stressed that simultaneously “forms must be made which have nothing in common with nature.” And there remains in Malevich’s writings, underlying his exaltation of modern technology and urban life, an undercurrent of nostalgia for the green pastures and meadows of his youth; at his own request his ashes were buried in an open field next to his dacha in Nemchinovka.
Ultimately Mondrian’s art is more contemplative and more profoundly philosophical than Malevich’s, and it gives more enduring pleasure and sustenance to the eye. Kandinsky’s early abstractions are exhilarating because, apart from their sheer physical beauty, the apocalyptic fervor and drama of the subjects underlying them have epic implications. To be confronted by a Suprematist work by Malevich, and above all to be surrounded by a whole room of them, as one was in Washington, is like traveling in uncharted territory.
Already in his first Suprematist paintings Malevich had found what over the next few years was to be the true subject of his art. It was to be an art about flight, about man’s ascent into the ether and into the planetary world of the future. On the page showing “the Environment that stimulates the Suprematist” in “The Non-Objective World,” Malevich illustrates photographs of airplanes in formation and aerial views, and these patterns of flight and overviews of townscapes clearly formed the basis for many of the compositions of tipping, tilting planes and shapes that appear almost at once in his Suprematism.
The concept of flight was one that was obsessive in Russia before 1917, and it became, in a sense, one of the leitmotifs of the great revolution itself; insofar as there is a hero in Victory over the Sun, it is the aviator who flies in at the end of it. In his tantalizingly brief fragments of autobiography Malevich tells us how as a child he had sacrificed to flight, tethering chickens on the thatched roof of the cowshed in order to watch at closer range the arcs described by the wings of hawks as they closed in on their prey. Perhaps, too, flight was a motif that allowed him unconsciously to fuse his love of nature with the most daring products of a new, mechanized world. If The Black Square can be viewed as the collision of planes in space to fuse into a new entity, the idea of a journey through space is also the theme that unifies the three different phases of Suprematism that Malevich came to distinguish.
The first of these was black and corresponds, Malevich tells us, to economy. Malevich’s use of the word is baffling until one realizes that it is derived from the nineteenth-century German philosopher Richard Avenarius, whose Philosophy as a reflection on the World, according to the minimal waste of energies, originally published in 1876, came out in Russian translation in 1913. Avenarius rejected all processes of deductive reasoning and claimed that truth could be apprehended through direct perception; if the truths so perceived appeared to be unconnected or contradictory, “economy” of thought could be produced by formulating a compromise or synthesis of the two. This engaging concept must have reinforced Malevich’s own vision of shapes as representing ideas coming together to form new ones.
The second phase of Suprematism was the red or colored phase, corresponding to Revolution. The final phase is the white, which corresponds to “pure action.” In a sense what had happened in his art was that The Black Square had split apart, forming new configurations that had taken on bright color, and that as these configurations had wheeled and drifted to the edges of the canvas they had paled and faded, and that as they had revolved through an infinite space they had regrouped or reassembled to form the purified White Square on White of 1918 (now in the Museum of Modern Art).
As a small boy, when his father was employed as overseer in a series of sugar factories, Malevich had been fascinated by the miracle that occurred when the dark, raw molasses was fed into the machines to emerge as a white crystalline substance. In 1919 he was able to declare: “The blue color of the sky has been defeated by the Suprematist system, has been broken through and entered white as the real concept of infinity.” And a year later:
What in fact is the canvas? What do we see represented on it?…a window through which we discover life…blue does not give a true impression of the infinite. The rays of vision are caught in a cupola and cannot penetrate the infinite. The Suprematist, infinite white allows the beam to pass on without encountering any limit.
During the years immediately following the launching of the Suprematist manifesto, Malevich’s thought evolved considerably, largely under the influence of his reading of Hegel, whom he interpreted in a characteristically willful fashion. His view of the cosmos, always on a considerable scale, became if anything more expansive and certainly increasingly eccentric. The most significant document for an understanding of his new position is perhaps God Is Not Cast Down, published in 1922, a crucial period for Malevich when he was reconsidering the whole future of art. It soon becomes obvious that God, as viewed by Malevich, is an embodiment of the super-artist, and he suggests that man (the artist) can reach perfection “through all that he produces” so that he can achieve “a state of rest” and act “no longer as man but as God….” Already in 1920 Malevich had announced the death of easel painting. “There can be no question of painting in Suprematism,” he declared. “Painting was done for long ago.” In his essay “On Poetry” (1919) he had already condemned craftsmanship out of hand: “The poet is not a craftsman, craftsmanship is nonsense.” At the same time, in “New Systems of Art” he had given a hint of how he had come to see his Suprematism when he had written: “The important thing in art is signs flowing from the creative brain.”
One of the peculiarities of Malevich’s writings is the recurrence, in his discussions of creativity, of the image of the human skull. And Malevich’s latter-day Suprematist paintings are no longer paintings in the traditional sense at all. Rather they are signs, messages, pictorial planets, emanating from the artist’s skull—in itself white, spherical, translucent—and directed out through infinite space toward some ultimate unknowable Godhead, seat of perfection, purity, and infinite repose.
Lissitzky, the most gifted of Malevich’s disciples, and a more educated and hence more accessible writer, was to clarify his master’s position in a lecture entitled “New Russian Art,” delivered in 1922. In it he distinguishes between two kinds of signs. One type, he posits, is derived from our knowledge of the world and natural phenomena and can be easily read and identified, since the idea exists before the pictorial sign for it is identified.
Now the second possibility: a sign is designed, much later it is given its name, and later still its meaning becomes clear. So we do not understand the sign, the shape, which the artist created, because man’s brain has not yet reached the corresponding state of development.
After the Suprematist “Whites” Malevich painted less and less, and during succeeding years gave himself over increasingly to teaching and writing. In Washington a moving photograph blown up to mural scale separated the Suprematism of between 1915 and 1918 from the Suprematism of the 1920s; it shows members of Malevich’s UNOVIS (“affirmation of life”) team departing from Moscow to their new headquarters in Vitebsk around 1920. His students, many of them little more than children, wore black squares stitched onto their sleeves, and they adopted as their slogan “Art into Life.” And on the anniversary of the Revolution in 1920 they transformed the grimy town into a pageant of colored signs. Eisenstein was to write:
All the main streets are covered with white paint splashed over the red brick walls, and against this white background are green circles, reddish-orange squares, blue rectangles. This is Vitebsk 1920. Kazimir Malevich’s brushes have passed over its walls. “The squares of the town are our palettes” is the message which the walls convey.
Long before the doctrine of Social Realism was even imminent Malevich had fallen out with avant-garde Constructivist colleagues because he felt that the role of art could never be utilitarian. But he was a prophet and a reformer and given his own social concerns it was inevitable that he should have turned his attention to architecture. And together with his students in Vitebsk and subsequently Petrograd (renamed Leningrad in 1924), he executed a large number of architectural designs and three-dimensional models in plaster of Paris. Four of the models are in the current exhibition: one is an original and the other three are recent reconstructions made from casts taken in part from surviving original elements. Although they are all beautiful and continue to look visionary, the original shines forth among them.
The whole exhibition, with the exception of a few pieces which labels identify as being by assistants, is informed by Malevich’s extraordinary sense of touch—everywhere the sense of his hand is almost uncannily alive and present. The architectural constructions (with one or two possibly later exceptions) were never practical or functional; and once again they may best be seen as messages, designs, blueprints for the builders of the future. Malevich called his constructions “blind architecture” and referred to them also as “planits.” And even in these solid, three-dimensional structures there persists the obsession with the white purity of flight. A note attached to one of the drawings touchingly reads:
Thanks to its construction the planit is easy to clean. It can be washed daily…the material is matt white glass…the planit will be accessible from all sides for the earth dwellers who will be able to be in it and on top of it.
The year 1922, in which Malevich publicly voiced his reservations about the Constructivists grouped around Rodchenko, also saw the formation of the Association of Artists of Revolutionary Russia, designed to counter the dominant role played by the avant-garde in the arts since the inception of the Revolution; forces were by now rapidly polarizing. Malevich’s own activities continued to proliferate. In 1923, for example, he became involved in the proposal to convert the Petrograd Museum of Artistic Culture (MKhK) into a scholarly institute for research on the culture of modern art; his teaching activities multiplied and diversified and he participated in various exhibitions and helped in the organization of others. But he was in fact becoming an increasingly isolated figure and there are indications that more and more he found himself in disagreement with colleagues of both the left and the right; certainly the authorities were viewing his concerns with mounting suspicion. In 1926 he was dismissed as director of GINKhUK (a revised form of MKhK) after an attack on the institute, A Cloister at the Expense of the State, had been published in Leningrad Pravda. Subsequently it became difficult for him to get new theoretical texts published. By the end of 1930 he was registered at the Union of Art Workers as unemployed. In 1932 he was given a small working space in the basement of the State Russian Museum, but even there his tenure was insecure.
An important recently discovered letter from Malevich to Meyerhold written in 1932 (part of it is reproduced in one of the wall texts accompanying the present exhibition) makes it clear that his attitude toward Constructivism was if anything more negative than before, and he seems to have seen it as betraying the achievements of his own non-objective art and the ideal society it had envisaged. It is hard to tell whether his references to the new figurative Soviet art, whose necessity he acknowledges, are involuntary or even possibly deeply ironical. And against the ambiguity of his intellectual position the problems posed by his own late paintings become increasingly complex and baffling. In his own 1929 retrospective at the Tretiakov Gallery he was already recapitulating subjects and compositions he had first broached in 1912 and in 1913; and these reprises though incisive and commanding are cold and a little empty compared with their earlier counterparts. Other works, like the large Sportsmen of c. 1928–1929, which shows faceless athletes in latter-day Suprematist costumes, are coloristically original and have about them a sort of submerged optimism that is invigorating but also somehow strangely heartbreaking. One of these works, in particular Suprematism, Female Figure of c. 1928–1932, has some of the same mystic intensity that informs the “Whites” of 1918.
The installation of the exhibition at Washington persuasively placed several somewhat impressionistic canvases that had hitherto been thought to be early (and some of them bear early dates in the artist’s own hand) at the very end of his career; desperately pressed for funds as Malevich was, it is likely he felt that works such as these might more easily attract a market. Malevich was a tireless correspondent and it is likely that other letters will come to light which may make it possible for us to come to an understanding of how he saw the problems he was facing. The last three paintings in the exhibition (all of 1933, two years before his death), paintings of himself, his wife, and the critic N.N. Punin (an early supporter who later became seriously antagonistic to much in Malevich’s art), are disquieting essays in an archaizing Renaissance style; they are signed with tiny Suprematist squares. Subversive whispers?
The catalog that accompanies the exhibition was produced independently by the Armand Hammer Museum of Art and Cultural Center. It contains some invaluable new scholarship assembled in Angelica Zander Rudenstine’s catalog entries, prepared with the collaboration of several other scholars; and Joop M. Joosten has expanded and revised his previously published chronology. N. Avtonomova’s useful article “The Acquisition of 34 Malevich Paintings by Soviet Museums, 1919–1921,” is marred by innumerable misprints and mistakes that crept in during the translation of her original text. (A corrigenda was belatedly printed after the exhibition closed in Washington.) Otherwise the catalog is a sad affair. The front cover reproduces the weakest of Malevich’s early self-portraits, and the back shows his last and saddest. What a way to treat this great pioneer of new artistic galaxies!
January 17, 1991