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 museums until a large exhibition in 1988–1989, shown in Leningrad, Moscow, and Amsterdam. The current exhibition, shown first at the Stedelijk, then in Bonn, and now at London’s Tate Modern, is the largest since then, allowing us to reassess his career as a whole.

A 1908–1910 self-portrait shows an impressive strength of will, but Malevich’s Symbolist and Impressionist work, though competent, would be forgotten were it not for what came later. It is with the Fauve paintings—and Malevich’s adaptation of Fauvism to Russian subject matter—that his boldness and genius emerge. The Bather, a response to Matisse’s La Danse, can be read as a self-portrait. A naked figure, with large red hands and two right feet, also large and red, is about to leap into unknown waters. The only visible facial feature is a single eye. A picture (shown only at the Stedelijk)2 of a chiropodist is no less exciting, and no less Fauve, despite being painted in gray and the very palest of greens and yellows. Even a black-and-white drawing, Floor Polishers (1911–1912), carries a similar charge. The energy of Malevich’s work evidently springs not only from color but also from his ability to evoke movement.

Malevich’s next works fuse the geometry of Cubism with the energy of Italian Futurism. Unlike the Italian Futurists, however, Malevich took his subjects mainly from the life of the peasantry. There are paintings of mowers and woodcutters, and of women carrying buckets or gathering sheaves of corn. Here too, as in Russian icons, the eyes are the main facial feature. And like icons, these paintings are radiant; red and silver dominate. Urban themes appear in only one work: The Knife Grinder (Principle of Glittering). The Futurist technique of multiplying an image to convey movement has seldom been used to better effect. The left foot, operating the pedal that turns the wheel, is in at least five different positions. The fingers are too many to count. The Knife Grinder was shown only at the Stedelijk, but the Tate offers a related drawing, Horse-Driven Carriage in Motion (1913). This too radiates glittering, juddering life.


At the same time as his monumental Cubo-Futurist paintings of peasants, Malevich was creating work he termed Alogist3—a Russian equivalent of Dada. Cow and Violin (1915) shows a cow standing over a hanging violin.4 The painting is not on canvas but on an old shelf from a bookcase—and everything about it is wooden, or as-if wooden; the violin, intact, painted on wood (the appropriate material for a violin!), is as naive as Picasso’s and Braque’s violins are sophisticated. The cow too has wandered in from a world of wood—of peasant huts and of butcher shop signs; it dominates the painting with stolid assurance. Malevich came to see himself as a teacher, a prophet whose mission was to lead humanity into a new world. Many of his most quoted pronouncements about art are fanatically grandiose. The delicate wit of his Alogist work is a pleasing surprise.

Alogism—like Suprematism itself—anticipates many subsequent developments. Malevich’s irreverent Composition with Mona Lisa, for example, was first exhibited in 1915, four years before Marcel Duchamp’s Mona Lisa with a mustache. Best understood as a set of variations on the theme of eclipse—the Mona Lisa’s face, for example, has been crossed out with a thick red X—it relates both to Victory Over the Sun (1913), the Futurist opera for which Malevich had designed the costumes and sets, and to the famous Black Square (1915) that Malevich saw as eclipsing all the art of previous centuries.

In some instances, the drawings are livelier than the corresponding paintings. Portrait of a Lady from Moscow (1915) bears above it the statement: “You are now being struck on the head by the first word. The End.” Beneath this, within a penciled square, are the Russian words for “pistol,” “ballet,” and “years” (all of which rhyme), some arrows—reminiscent of those drawn on maps to indicate the movements of armies—and a medley of objects and shapes. A solid-looking fork is superimposed on a perky horse that is in turn superimposed on a large face; the Lady’s left eye stares out at the viewer, as if challenging him or her to say what all this is about. A direct line of influence can be traced from such drawings to the work of other important artists outside the sphere of official Soviet culture. The writer Daniil Kharms (1905–1942) was close to Malevich both personally and artistically, and Kharms was an important influence on the Moscow Conceptualists of the 1970s and 1980s.

Malevich’s drawings have never been shown more comprehensively and to better effect. A single large room at the Tate contains over a hundred; constituting a summary of his entire career, this would be a remarkable exhibition in itself. As Shatskikh writes, “Malevich had always loved the conversation with the paper, which could respond instantly to any impulse. Paper became the true home of his thought, artistic and philosophical.”

Shatskikh has also written well about the relationship between the Alogist work, in which Malevich set out to expose the illusoriness of appearance, and the abstract, often geometric work he termed Suprematist, in which he aspired to embody what he believed to be truly real. Malevich first exhibited the Suprematist paintings at the “0.10” exhibition in Petrograd in 1915, giving pride of place to Black Square, which became an emblem both for Malevich himself and for the movement he founded. Malevich hung this simple painting—a black square surrounded by a margin of white—diagonally across the corner that was traditionally the home of the most precious icon.

The Suprematist paintings—and Black Square, above all—fit neatly into a generally accepted narrative that sees decades of artistic experimentation as a rehearsal for a final supreme breakthrough: into total abstraction. My skepticism about this account led me, during my first visits to the exhibition, to spend more time with the earlier and later work. I gradually realized, however, that I had been wrong to consider the Suprematist work overestimated.

The variety of the brilliantly colored paintings that followed the black paintings makes them hard to describe, but the boldness and purity of their abstract shapes extending into space are remarkable. The shapes are seldom as regular as they first appear and the paintings seem to be in constant movement. The work of a time of intense despair and still more intense hope, they are unsettled and unsettling—yet precisely and delicately composed. The large areas of white canvas endow them with a sense of openness, of space for new possibilities. More than any other modernist art, they evoke the sense of a new world coming into being.

Malevich’s parents were Polish and one of his paternal uncles was a priest, martyred in 1863—probably hanged by the Russian authorities—during the Polish struggle for independence. The word supremat is one of several Latinate words that were a part of Church Polish, and Malevich once explained the word “suprematism” as meaning “dominion” or “omnipotence.” Malevich had affinities with his uncle—his father had hoped that he too would become a priest—and he saw himself as an explorer both of the cosmos and of the realm of the spirit. The scope of his ambition is indicated by the titles of some of the Suprematist drawings: Sensation of the Electron (1916), Suprematist Composition Conveying the Feeling of a Mystic “Wave” from Outer Space (1920). Within a few years Malevich had left even color behind him, painting white shapes dissolving into a white background. “I have conquered the lining of the colored sky,” he wrote in 1919. “I have plucked the colors, put them into the bag that was formed, and tied it with a knot. Sail on! The white, free depths, eternity, lie before you.”


The white-on-white paintings mark a temporary victory for Malevich the poet-metaphysician over Malevich the artist, and by 1920 he was writing, “It seems that one cannot attain with a brush what can be attained with a pen. It is tousled and cannot get into the inner reaches of the brain—the pen is finer.” He abandoned painting, concentrating instead on theory and on astronomy—he kept a pocket telescope with him and had an excellent knowledge of the night sky—and on the exploratory designs for a Suprematist architecture he called “architectons” or “planits” (future homes for humanity out in the cosmos).


State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg

Kazimir Malevich: Portrait of the Artist’s Wife, 1935

He also threw himself into his work as a teacher and cultural organizer, in Vitebsk from 1919 until 1922 and then in Kiev and Leningrad. The film director Sergei Eisenstein described how Malevich and his students celebrated the third anniversary of the October Revolution:

All the main streets are covered with white paint on the red-brick walls, and against this white background are green circles, reddish-orange squares, blue rectangles. This is Vitebsk 1920. Kazimir Malevich’s brush has passed over its walls. “The squares of the town are our palette” is the message that these walls convey.

Whatever his concerns about Soviet authoritarianism—in 1918 he had published several articles in a short-lived journal called Anarkhiya—Malevich was evidently making the most of this brief opportunity to translate Suprematist ideals into everyday life.

Like other members of the avant-garde, however, he met with growing hostility from the Soviet authorities. In 1923, he became the director of Ginkhuk (the State Institute of Artistic Culture in Leningrad), but this was closed in 1926, after being denounced in an important newspaper as “a government-supported monastery.” And in late 1930 Malevich spent two months in prison, accused of being a German spy. Trying to protect him, friends and family burned some of his manuscripts. During his last years Malevich found it increasingly difficult to exhibit or to find any way of earning a living. Had he not died of cancer in 1935, it is likely that he would soon have been rearrested.

Malevich’s late work, from his resumption of painting in 1927 until his death, is still sometimes treated dismissively. John Golding, whose Paths to the Absolute (2000) includes a sensitive account of Suprematism, devotes only fourteen lines to these years, ending: “Malevich was being gradually broken by the system.” Such assessments say more about the demands we often place on Russian artists than about the artists themselves. Many avant-garde artists in the West—T.S. Eliot, Picasso, Stravinsky—adopted a more classical style in the late 1920s and 1930s; this is not usually seen as a capitulation.

In our attitude toward Soviet artists and writers, however, we often seem strangely authoritarian; just as the Soviet authorities wanted these artists to renounce their original vision, so we have wanted them to stand by it. For many years it was taken for granted that the more jagged, experimental earlier work of the prose writer Andrey Platonov and the poets Boris Pasternak and Nikolay Zabolotsky was more important than their later, apparently simpler work. We have been reluctant to accept that they might have wanted to move in new directions, or that the authorities’ demands might even, on occasion, have inspired them to make new discoveries.

Malevich was never a man for compromise. This is clear even from how he signed many of his last paintings: not with his name but with a small black square. And not one of these paintings accords with the tenets of Socialist Realism; even paintings of workers are imbued with a tenderness not to be seen in the work of officially approved painters. The paintings that make up the “Second Peasant Cycle” (1928–1932) are comparable in their effect to The Foundation Pit, Platonov’s despairing novel about collectivization: some are imbued with a sense of tragic grandeur; others evoke a sense of alienation.5 The small drawings, with their coffins, their black or red crosses, and their crucified figures, are a still clearer response to the tragedy unfolding in the Russian and Ukrainian countryside in the late 1920s and early 1930s.

During these same years, Malevich also painted luminous semi-abstract works that perhaps evoke some world of future harmony. Female Torso (1928–1929) exemplifies his capacity to incorporate in his late paintings the discoveries of his earlier periods, employing them to deeper emotional effect. The mostly geometric shapes—green, red, blue, black, and two different yellows—that make up the woman’s right shoulder and the right half of her face recall the radiance of early Suprematism; the different shades of near-white that constitute her hair, her left shoulder, and the left side of her face recall the white-on-white paintings. The overall effect is of a transcendent vision either materializing or slipping away from us.

In 1933 Malevich painted a dignified portrait of Nikolay Punin, the Futurist art critic and common-law husband of Anna Akhmatova, wearing priest-like clothes whose colors and geometric forms are no less reminiscent of Suprematism. A courageous and independent figure, Punin later served two terms in the Gulag; how a portrait of such a man in such a style can be seen as symptomatic of a desire to compromise is baffling. A self-portrait from the same year evokes a famous self-portrait by Dürer, though the colors and shapes of the clothes are more Suprematist than Renaissance. And during his last three years Malevich painted realistic portraits of his wife, mother, and daughter and several other friends.

As Malevich’s earlier work is remarkable for its energy, so these late portraits are remarkable for their humanity. There is a sense of loss in them, but this capacity to express loss is itself an achievement. The delicate gray eyes of Malevich’s wife see clearly and are clearly seen. Unlike the staring, visionary eyes characteristic of the earlier work, these eyes are alert to the world of our everyday lives. Here again there is a parallel with the work of Andrei Platonov who, soon after this, wrote two of the greatest love stories in Russian literature: “The River Potudan” (1937) and “The Return” (1946). In both, the heroine bears the name “Lyubov”—the Russian for “love.” Like these stories, Malevich’s paintings of his wife are fully realized embodiments, at a time of state terror, of clear-eyed love.

One of the most interesting assessments of Malevich, an article published over thirty years ago in an obscure émigré journal by the art historian Igor Golomstock, deserves more attention than it has received. It ends with a discussion of what Golomstock believes should be called “the Malevich complex,” which he defines as an “inner split between the artist’s unmediated experiencing of the world…and his rational outlook on the world.” Golomstock continues:

The works of these artists—artists who were fanatically devoted to the ideas of the Revolution but followed inner intuitions in their immediate creativity—reflect, in their very structure, not so much the optimistic aspirations of the time as an apocalyptic disintegration of the world, an inner discord and the helplessness of Man in the face of advancing dehumanising powers.

It is Malevich’s late work that Golomstock has in mind, but these words are equally applicable to Suprematism itself. Most critics have been surprisingly ready to take Malevich’s own comments on his black paintings at face value. Little has been written about the obvious possibility that black squares and crosses, like talk of partial and total eclipses and a “victory over the sun,” could be seen as an expression of despair.6 Even though Russia was in the middle of a terrible war, most critics have accepted the counterintuitive interpretation proffered by Malevich and his colleagues: that the old world and its old ideas of light and reason were being eclipsed to make way for the new.

During much of 1915 and 1916 Malevich and other members of the avant-garde were arguing about the new art with extraordinary ferocity. Much of the time, they appeared oblivious to the horrors of the war. In reality, of course, they were not. Whatever Malevich’s conscious intentions, his Black Square is a symbol of mourning. It is a direct response to World War I, just as the “Second Peasant Cycle” is a response to collectivization. And the last portraits are a dignified reassertion of human values in the face of the “apocalyptic disintegration” to which Malevich had already given such powerful expression. For all its apparent shifts of direction, Malevich’s career is surprisingly coherent.