Correcting Malévich’s own disinformation

Conference papers of the 1988-89 touring exhibition are scutinised


Kazimir Malévich was one of the great innovators in twentieth-century art, notably for his creation of the abstract language of brightly-coloured geometrical forms floating against white space which he christened Suprematism. Unexpectedly, in the late Twenties, he painted portraits in a naturalistic style derived from the early Renaissance and began a series of pictures of peasants with featureless faces and bodies expressed in geometrical forms. This and other aspects of Malévich’s career urgently need consideration.

Soviet art historians trying to assess Malévich’s achievements have been frustrated by the fact that there are comparatively few Suprematist works in their country. In 1927 he toured Poland and Germany with a large selection of his pictures. Unexpectedly he returned home leaving them behind. Apart from several which went to the United States they were hidden from the Nazis until they were sold to the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, in the 1950s. After his death in 1935 his Suprematist works remaining in the Soviet Union were neglected or destroyed.

In 1988-89 a great assembly from collections all over the world was exhibited in Amsterdam, Moscow and Leningrad. Making full use of the event a conference was held in the latter city during which Soviet and foreign scholars read papers of which only six are printed here, together with an essay by Malévich which gives some idea of the waffle to which he was prone.

These talks aimed to correct the myths Malévich created about his career by publishing misleading autobiographical accounts and falsely dating his pictures.

They also tried to determine why Malévich turned away from abstract Suprematism and painted the last enigmatic works—not so enigmatic, perhaps, if the speakers had looked at Picasso’s neoclassical period and Malévich’s contemporaries such as Pakulin and Pakhomov. These papers are helpful and informative and the book is well illustrated, but with less than sixty pages of text it is decidedly expensive.