Fearless Malevich


an exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, October 18, 2013–February 2, 2014; the Art and Exhibition Hall of the Federal Republic of Germany, Bonn, March 8–June 22, 2014; and Tate Modern, London, July 16–October 26, 2014.
Catalog of the Tate exhibition edited by Achim Borchardt-Hume
London: Tate Publishing, 264 pp., $49.95 (paper)
Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven
Kazimir Malevich: The Knife Grinder (Principle of Glittering), 1912–1913

Kazimir Malevich was perhaps the most fearless innovator in twentieth-century art. Aleksandra Shatskikh, whose Black Square is both informative and full of insight, writes of his “primordial ignorance of boundaries.” She goes on to suggest that Malevich possessed what Viktor Shklovsky has called “the energy of delusion”—an energy that springs from a genuine ignorance that “you cannot do that.” In the course of his life Malevich worked in a great variety of styles and mediums. This “energy of delusion” is one of the few constants; no matter what field he was working in, he seems never to have known that “you cannot do that.”

Like many other members of the Russian avant-garde—the painter Pavel Filonov, the Futurist poets Vladimir Mayakovsky and Velimir Khlebnikov—Malevich did not have a particularly cultured upbringing. He was born in 1879 in Kiev, to Polish parents. His father managed a sugar refinery and Malevich spent much of his childhood in Ukrainian villages. A concern with the peasantry is another important constant throughout his career.

When he was seventeen, Malevich began work as a draftsman for a railroad company in Kursk. He drew and painted in his free time, but little of his work from these years survives. In 1906 he moved to Moscow, where he soon became involved with avant-garde circles.

Between 1911 and 1916, Malevich mastered several different styles; looking at the finest works in any of them, for example, his Fauve Bather (1911) or his Cubo-Futurist Woodcutter (1912), one wishes he could have gone on painting that way throughout his life. It is easier to understand the swiftness of his development—and the sudden blossoming of Russian painting more generally—if we bear in mind the quality of the contemporary European art to be seen in pre-war Moscow. The greatest of the Moscow collectors, Sergey Shchukin, owned not only many works by all the major Impressionists but also a unique collection of early Matisse (he had himself commissioned a version of La Danse) and many early Cubist works. From 1909, Shchukin opened his house to the public every Sunday. Malevich studied the works closely and responded to them sensitively and intelligently.1

Unlike several of his avant-garde contemporaries, Malevich has never entirely disappeared from view. During the relative freedom of the first years after the Revolution he occupied important positions in the Soviet artistic establishment. Nevertheless, he understood the threat to him and his art posed by the subsequent cultural clampdown and in 1927, after traveling to Berlin for a major retrospective, he left around seventy paintings and many of his manuscripts with German friends. Some were shown at an important exhibition at MoMA in 1936 and twenty-four were acquired in 1958 by the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. Most of his work, however, lay in the cellars of Russian…

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