Kazimir Malevich painted many Black Squares – this one is thought to have been the first. The work was tautologically titled, redundantly reiterating what the picture blatantly shows. But, with time, this Black Square has become more than (or less than) a black square, as its solid opaque surface has gradually cracked up, revealing other colours and forms behind it. Red, pink, violet, blue and yellow-green geometric shapes are partially visible between the cracks, as are some dark letters in the upper right corner.[i] X-ray photographs show an earlier composition on the same canvas, confirming that the more colourful and compositionally complex Suprematist works once thought to have come after the Black Square’s black square in fact came before – and underneath – it.
Malevich referred to his Square as a “royal infant,”[ii] the “first step of pure creation,”[iii] and “the embryo of every possibility.”[iv] As black is the absence of any colour, and white is the presence of all colours, this polar distillation of the spectrum theoretically contains the raw digital possibility for any painting. Now, as these ruptures open up across the monochrome surface, new details are appearing from the pure potentiality. In defiance of the stated authorial intentions, this black square is gradually undermining its tautological title and becoming something other than itself.
When Malevich launched his Suptematism movement in 1915, he heralded a new temporality for art. His manifesto states that when the “old realists” depict clearly defined objects on the canvas, they “deprive their life of movement.” The Futurists and Cubists had gone some of the way towards instilling movement in their objects – but since the “aspects of time in things” had become more important than “their essence and meaning,” the “new realism” needed to abandon objects altogether and arrive at the “zero of form.”[v] Suprematism was founded on the notion that transitory forms are less recognisable than static ones, and movement itself cannot be shown adequately with discernable, delineated objects.
Within the righteous rhetoric of early twentieth-century isms and their manifestos, time was usually treated as a competitive advancement into The Future. “Remove from yourselves quickly the hardened skin of centuries,” Malevich urged in his Suprematist manifesto of 1915, “so that you may catch us up the more easily.” With Russia on the verge of revolution, the art of the future evidently demanded that all of the past be shed and left behind. Malevich wrote of his hatred of “pedlars of the past,” and announced that the Supremisitsts were proudly “spitting” on the Futurism movement that they had defended only yesterday. They were out-futuring the Futurists. The Futurists had managed to paint motion, which meant “the wholeness of things vanished,” but since they hadn’t fully done away with “copies of nature,” they had failed to “destroy the world of objects.” Suprematism alone would give up on mimesis and “overstep the bounds of nothing.”[vi]
(Left) Malevich’s costume sketch for Strong Man in Victory over the Sun (1913)
(Right) Malevich’s Woman with a Rake (1932)
But despite this zealous rejection of figuration, Malevich later painted many figurative works. By the early 1930s, the only acceptable style for visual and literary Soviet artists was Socialist Realism, which meant that works were to be “realistic in form and Socialist in content.” After returning to Leningrad from Berlin and Warsaw in 1927, Malevich was accused of practicing bourgeois ‘formalism’, and in 1930 he was imprisoned for several months on a dubious charge of espionage. He appears to have subsequently adopted the State’s officially sanctioned aesthetic – but he found ways to continue to work at the thresholds of known and unknown imagery, covertly maintaining some of the nonobjective principals of Suprematism. Returning to the motifs of simple country life that he had painted in his early years, his peasant figures in the late 1920s and early 1930s were often clad in costumes reminiscent of his proto-Suprematist designs for the Victory Over the Sun theatre production in 1913. Elements of Suprematism are also visible in his later work where bodies and the grounds on which they stand are rendered in geometric blocks of bright, boldly inaccurate colour – as in Woman with a Rake (1932). Figuration and abstraction are intertwined in faceless portraits like this, posing a challenge to the simplistic notion of a linear progression from one to the other.
Malevich’s Self-portrait (1933)
This Socialist Realist self-portrait painted by the artist in 1933 might appear to be an irreconcilable betrayal of his earlier claims about freeing painting from the drudgery of depiction (his manifesto eighteen years earlier declared any painting of a face to be a laughable and pitiful “parody of life”) – but it, too, eludes easy categorisation. Like other works from this time, such as Girl with a Red Pole (also 1933), the painting is ‘signed’ with an easily missed, miniaturised Black Square in the bottom right corner. Here, Malevich’s emblematic image of imagelessness appears in place of the artist’s authorising signature. This insertion of his “zero of form” within the recognisable image is another reminder that the teleological schema of figuration → abstraction was a fantasy based on denial.
A photograph of the artist lying in state in 1935 shows a Black Square hanging directly above the corpse, with the Socialist Realist self-portrait right next to it. It is a death-mask-esque photo memorialising the man before his cremation, with the myriad – seemingly incompatible – aspects of his oeuvre staged as part of the one legacy. Various Suprematist, Cubo-Futurist and Socialist Realist works are clustered together on the walls surrounding Malevich’s body. They form a valedictory chorus of disorder, resisting tidy compartmentalisation and linear developmental narratives. There is no operative antithesis between abstract pictures and figurative pictures here, but in the years that followed, the works that didn’t fit the fable of modern art’s ‘progression towards abstraction’ were disregarded.
(Above) Malevich lying in state below a Black Square and his 1933 Socialist Realist self-portrait, in his apartment in Leningrad (1935)
(Below) Malevich’s White on White (1918) installed (on white) between windows at MoMA, New York, the year after Malevich’s death, for Cubism and Abstract Art (1936)
A few months after Malevich’s death in May 1935, Alfred H. Barr Jr., founding director of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, was in Europe preparing what would become his epoch-defining exhibition, Cubism and Abstract Art. Barr came across a number of Malevich’s paintings that had been hidden in the basement of a Hanover museum after the Nazis had denounced ‘degenerate art’. He smuggled a selection out of Germany by rolling them up in his umbrella, and had others shipped to the US under the guise of ‘technical study material’.[vii] The following year, the Cubism and Abstract Art show included some of these works by Malevich, marking their entry into the art historical discourse of the New World. Malevich’s works would not be shown in the USSR until the 1980s; without Barr’s 1936 exhibition, the artist would certainly have been far more obscure, if not wholly forgotten. But the visibility the exhibition granted was also highly selective. It presented paintings by Malevich that were particularly reductionist – such as White on White (1918) – and, needless to say, the artist’s figurative and semi-figurative works were far from sight.
Throughout his career, Barr promoted a violently chronological reading of art. After becoming director of the recently founded Museum of Modern Art in 1929, he illustrated the museum’s ideal permanent collection with a diagram of a torpedo, helpfully equipped with propellers, flying forwards through time. Here, art that was ‘modern’ was art that was shooting into the future, away from the past. When it wasn’t a mechanical projectile, time was represented in Barr’s diagrams with the more archaic weapon of arrows – usually ones that shot swiftly and irreversibly through the early-twentieth-century’s various avant-gardes. (Recall that the notion of the vanguard is itself another metaphor from warfare, initially describing the foremost part of an advancing army.) For his Cubism and Abstract Art exhibition, Barr devised a chronological flowchart that appears on the cover of the catalogue. While this notorious diagram does attempt to account for a degree of complexity and multi-directionality, as a didactic cluster of names and pointed lines it fails to maintain any appreciation of the openness, unpredictability and unaccountability of time. Instead, works of art are subsumed under capitalised labels and ultimately all lines lead through four and a half decades towards one of two culminations: GEOMETRICAL ABSTRACT ART and NON-GEOMETRICAL ABSTRACT ART.
Malevich’s SUPREMATISM appears in this diagram as a direct link between CUBISM and NON-GEOMETRICAL ABSTRACT ART. But, as part of his broad critique of modernist art and its insistence on the artwork’s autonomy, the artist Lee Ufan praises what he considers to be Malevich’s resistance to clear chronology and categorisation. Lee posits Malevich as a heroic anti-modernist who transcended his historical context in his artistic search for what Lee calls ‘the infinite’. “Malevich’s art took unexpected turns and did not proceed straight ahead on the rail of modernism,” Lee insists. “After providing a glimpse of a closed, pure, autonomous space, he then ignored the trend of the age, reversing or combining internality and externality.” Any attempt at slotting Malevich into the fabricated linear narratives of modernist art, Lee insists, only proves frustrating: “When critics try to make Malevich into the father of abstraction they frown at his many words and actions and works that do not fit this characterisation.”[viii]
While this is an important insight, critics shouldn’t bear the accusation alone. Nobody indulged more in teleological myth-making than Malevich himself. In fact, he was so determined to establish a progressive temporality for his work that he fraudulently backdated numerous paintings. Throughout his life he continually rearranged the sequence of his works in order to slot them into a fabricated linear trajectory, one that advanced swiftly from Impressionism to Cubism to Futurism to Suprematism. When he later painted in the styles of Cubo-Futurism and Impressionism, he falsely dated them so that his earlier Suprematist works would appear to be the outcome of these experiments. He went to great lengths to establish the notion of the Black Square’s originary supremacy within Suprematism, despite the fact that he had actually painted polychromatic and multi-component Suprematist compositions before/beneath it. Two years after the fact, he claimed that the Square’s origins lay in his set designs for the 1913 play Victory Over the Sun. He inscribed the back of the canvas with the date 1913, but by the end of the twentieth-century it had been established that the correct date was in fact 1915.[ix]
Malevich’s faked timelines frustrated scholars for decades, but they remind us that in a sense all timelines are fakes. Retroactively ascribed causality is always at play in linear readings of the past, and Barr’s 1936 chronological chart of the European avant-gardes was also the sort of concoction that is only possible with the safety and simplification afforded by hindsight. In the chronology that Malevich invented for his oeuvre, and in the chronology that Barr unambiguously mapped out for modern art’s arrival at abstraction, time is posited as something that advances forwards while acquiring and accumulating. The hubristic implication of this homogeneous temporality is that the more recent is logically more advanced, and the present is the rightful heir to all that has been earned. It is a mode of thinking that celebrates all of the past’s progressions, but none of its digressions. It also depends, precariously, on things having definitive beginnings and endings.
According to established art historical narrative, Malevich’s Suprematism movement was launched at the Last Futurist Exhibition of Paintings 0.10 in Petrograd on 19 December 1915. But cracks have started to show here too. In recent years, historians have shown that the artist had in fact presented Suprematist works to the public a month and a half earlier, on November 6, at the Exhibition of Modern Decorative Art: Embroidery and Carpets from Artists’ Designs in Moscow.[x] Remarkably, this radical style of abstraction, which now appears as a standard entry in any art history textbook, was first shown at a needlecraft exhibition. Before presenting his Suprematist motifs as paintings, Malevich presented them as designs for decorative objects – specifically two scarves and a pillow.
Scholars have tended to shy away from Malevich’s involvement with various applied, domestic and commercial arts, but some recent studies have paid more attention to this aspect of his work. Alexandra Shatskikh recently found that in 1911 the artist designed a bottle for a popular eau de cologne called Severny, by Novaya Zarya Perfume Factory, which stayed on the market until the 1990s.[xi] We also know Malevich learnt embroidery and tatting from his mother and he had a sustained interest in Russia’s decorative crafts and historical folk art. Following the 0.10 exhibition, he formed the collective ‘Supremus’ with a majority women members (including Liubov Popova, Nadezhda Udaltsova, Varvara Stepanova, Aleksandra Ekster, Nina Genke-Meller, Olga Rozanova and Ksenia Boguslavskaya), and they worked together on Suprematist clothing and embroidery designs.
Eau de cologne bottle designed by Malevich in 1911 (purchased on eBay in 2014)
Pursuits in areas of non-‘high’-arts were not a supplementary activity; they were an integral part of Suprematism. These artists sought to do away with ‘art for art’s sake’ and focus on industrial manufacture that would enrich the lives of the masses. In 1917, only weeks after the Bolsheviks had seized state power in the October Revolution, the Second Modern Decorative Arts Exhibition opened in Moscow. According to Charlotte Douglas, this exhibition included four hundred decorative artworks – including fabric lengths, handbags, collars, scarves, belts and pillows – that were designed by modern artists and sewn or embroidered by Ukrainian peasant women. Many of them were Suprematist in style, and Malevich contributed geometric compositions for seventeen items including nine pillows and four handbags. As part of the exhibition’s public program, the Futurist poet Vladimir Mayakovsky gave a lecture on the artistic significance of fabric design.[xii]
Textile and other applied arts are absent from Barr’s 1936 chart of art’s progression towards abstraction, but they have been sites for the development of complex nonobjective visual languages for many centuries. In 1971, The Whitney Museum of American Art’s exhibition Abstract Design in American Quilts drew remarkable comparisons between recent examples from the (overwhelmingly male) school of Abstract Expressionism, and the non-depictive use of colour and form in quilt designs by anonymous domestic artists and American housewives since the nineteenth-century. Textile design and needlecrafts are also closely entwined with various European avant-gardes in the early-twentieth-century. Sophie Taeuber was teaching weaving and other needlecrafts at the School of Applied Arts in Zurich when she met her future husband Jean Arp in 1915. She taught him embroidery, and his contribution to the first issue of the Dada magazine was an embroidered work. Hannah Höch, another Dada artist, was also involved in crochet, lace and embroidery design while she was pioneering ‘modern’ abstract formalism.[xiii] And Rozsika Parker writes of Sonia Delaunay’s work with textile arts as being intrinsic to the geometric abstraction she developed in painting after 1913.[xiv]
One of the biggest problems with the narrative of art’s progression from figuration towards abstraction – wherein spatial illusionism and all ties with the world of objects is finally overcome – is that the prescribed precedents of the ‘autonomous’ modern artwork are precariously narrow. To claim, as Clement Greenberg did, that modern painters ‘discovered’ the surface of the canvas and liberated their art from the illusionistic figuration that the Old Masters had pursued, is to disregard a myriad of coexistent histories, and deny the realities of time’s contingency and multiplicity. Russian folk embroidery, Islamic glazed tiling, Australian Aboriginal bark painting, Chinese ceramics, Palaeolithic cave art, Māori tattooing, Gothic stained glass windows, Ottoman miniatures, Zen calligraphy, Persian carpets, Viking runestones and innumerable other pictorial arts have long developed visual languages without concern for portraying objects with coherent, perspectival space. All of these dynamic traditions easily combine depictive and non-depictive elements, inviting us to look into the picture and at its physical support, at the same time.
Even in the absence of directly observed lines of influence, many hallmarks of modernist painting, such as the ambiguity between ‘figure’ and ‘ground’, are evident in many arts that predate it by many centuries. But excessively linear and causal readings of art inevitably caricaturise the things they select for inclusion, and deny the things that cannot be slotted into the chronological line-up. Such readings feed into Euro-American centric and patriarchal modes of storytelling that have historically excluded many things, including women’s contributions. (The systematic exclusion of the female from the written history of art has instigated a dramatic revision of our inherited narratives – one that is gradually taking place – but there are of course many other biases and blind spots at play.) The interwoven histories of textile and decorative arts before the advent of modernism, and the sensitivity that many early modernist artists had towards the possibilities for abstract forms within these (largely unauthored) visual modes, could never be adequately accounted for in a chronological chart of neat labels and phallo-arrows.
While straight pointy lines shoot SUPREMATISM into the GEOMETRIC ABSTRACTION half of Barr’s infamous infograph, Malevich’s forms are more fruitfully read in terms of geometry’s failure. Surfaces are incomplete, angles are misaligned, edges are partially dissolved, positions are imprecise. The hazy, vibrational quality in his Suprematist paintings eludes photographic documentation, but when they are experienced directly the forms refuse to be pinned down. In the Black Square, for instance, the square is very slightly skewed so that while it replicates the square of the canvas that carries it, it also slips away from its material support and appears to hover without fixed spatial coordinates. The edges of the black area are also fuzzy and frayed, adding to the form’s fugitive quality.
The restlessness within Malevich’s pictures was further emphasised by the way he presented them. Documentation of The Last Futurist Exhibition of Paintings 0.10 (1915), for instance, shows his canvases clustered over two intersecting walls, in a way that ensures dynamic, multi-directional relations between them. The irregular placement of these unframed paintings – some of which were still wet at the time of the exhibition opening – throws all into a state of incompletion. As is often observed, the Black Square appears at the ceiling in the ‘holy golden corner’, where the Christian icon would be placed in Russian homes. But in the painting directly next to it, the form is repeated – with difference. Another square appears in this adjacent canvas on a diverging plane, emphasising the quality of flight within and across the imagery.
Malevich’s exhibit at The Last Futurist Exhibition of Paintings 0.10 (1915)
Despite the totalising, progressivist rhetoric to which Malevich is still bound, his art reveals itself to be always incomplete, unpredictable and at variance with itself. The 1915 manifesto insisted that the “aspects of time in things” had become more important than “their essence and meaning.” Malevich came to contradict many of the principles and goals declared in this ecstatic text – but in doing so, he honoured its more nuanced and enduringly relevant implications about flux, contingency and the aspects of time in things. By going against what he said, he affirmed the values of inconsistency, inconclusiveness and unknowable futures. Appropriately, the manifesto ended with this urgent exhortation: “We, Suprematists, throw open the way to you. Hurry! – For tomorrow you will not recognise us.”
[i] See Vikturina, Milda and Lukanova, Alla, “A Study of Technique: Ten Paintings by Malevich in the Tretiakov Gallery” in Kazimir Malevich 1878–1935 (exhibition catalogue) (The Armand Hammer Museum of Art and Cultural Centre in association with The University of Washington Press, Los Angeles, 1990) 187-198; 194
[ii] Malevich, Kazimir “From Cubism and Futurism to Suprematism: The New Realism in Painting” in K. S. Malevich: Essays on Art 1915-1933 Vol 1, trans. Xenia Glowaski-Prus and Arnold McMillin, ed. Troels Andersen (Borgans Forlag a-s, Copenhagen, 1971) 19-41
[iv] Cited in Gamboni, Dario, Potential Images: Ambiguity and Indeterminacy in Modern Art (Reaktion Books, London, 2002) 142
[v] Malevich, Kazimir “From Cubism and Futurism to Suprematism” Op. Cit.
[vii] Joosten, Joop M., “Malevich in The Stedelijk” trans. Ruth Koenig, in Kazimir Malevich 1878-1935 (exhibition catalogue) (Russian Museum, Leningrad; Tratiakov Gallery, Moscow; Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, 1988-1989) 44-54; 48
[viii] Lee, Ufan “Kaleidoscopic Catharsis” in The Art of Encounter, trans. Stanley N. Anderson (Lisson Gallery, London, 2004) 57-59
[ix] See Shatskikh, Aleksandra Black Square: Malevich and the Origin of Suprematism (Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2012)
[x] See Douglas, Charlotte “Suprematist Embroidered Ornament” in Art Journal (Vol. 54, No. 1, ‘Clothing as Subject’, Spring, 1995) 42-45
[xi] See Shatskikh, Alexandra, “A Cologne Bottle by Malevich” (In Russian) in Артхроника (ArtChronika magazine) (#5–6, Autumn-Winter, Moscow, Russia, 2008) 100-110
[xii] Douglas, Charlotte “Suprematist Embroidered Ornament” Op. Cit.
[xiii] Addressing craftswomen in 1918 in an article for the magazine Embroidery and Lace, where Höch worked as an illustrator, she insisted that embroidery, like painting, must develop its “feeling for abstract forms.” Höch, Hannah, “On Embroidery” in Hannah Höch (exhibition catalogue) (Whitechapel Gallery and Prestel Publishing, London, 2014) 72
[xiv] Parker, Rozsika The Subversive Stitch: Embroidery and the Making of the Feminine (The Women’s Press, London, 1984) 192
A post script can be found here