Two cardinal figures in the early development of abstraction are Kandinsky and Malevich. While Kandinsky seems the painter-philosopher, expounding lyrical links between art and music, and developing a system of symbols, Malevich appears to be the painter-priest: fervent, austere and inflexible. Malevich is forever preserved in a funereal photograph as an emaciated ascetic with a monkish beard, lying in state under a severe black painting.
Kazimierz Malewicz was born in 1879 in Kiev to a Polish family. After successively embracing impressionism, symbolism and cubo-futurism, during 1915 he radically pared down his work to produce basic geometric shapes on white backgrounds, an approach he called suprematism. An appalled critic facing these paintings declared: “It is no longer futurism that we have before us, but the icon of the square. Everything we hold holy and sacred, everything we loved and which was our reason for living, has disappeared.” The artist said, “painting has long become obsolete”—hardly a promising manifesto. Intoxicated by a “cosmic” utopianism, Malevich did not see the clouds gathering on the horizon.
Like much of the Russian intelligentsia, he was a supporter of the October Revolution and for a while the faith of such progressives was sustained by an atmosphere of modernisation and co-operation. However, the euphoria of revolutionary Russia soon evaporated as war, famine and internecine struggle hardened the Bolshevik position. By 1919, following the sudden death of his talented young protégé, Olga Rozanova, and the defection of allies, it was clear Malevich was swimming against the artistic and political tides. Officially sanctioned art would henceforth serve the revolution through utilitarian means and, by 1921, Malevich was isolated. Although he held a series of teaching posts, suprematist paintings were winnowed from public presentations, leaving the artist to concentrate on architectural models. An exhibition in Berlin in 1927 secured Malevich’s international reputation even as the artist lived a life blighted by impoverishment, interrogation and incarceration by the Soviet authorities. From 1928 until his death in 1935 he painted colourful, semi-geometric paintings of peasants, reprising his cubist style. His final works were conservatively painted portraits of figures wearing suprematist-style clothing.
In Painting the Absolute, Andréi Nakov explains how it was common practice for the citizens of the USSR to rewrite their personal and family biographies to expunge potentially dangerous evidence of bourgeois (or otherwise counter-revolutionary) associations and activities, which consequently led to inaccuracies in Malevich’s biography. For the 2002 catalogue raisonné, Nakov (partly) untangled the backdating of late figurative works to the painter’s pre-suprematist phases. Preparation of that catalogue, from which these volumes have been detached, has given Nakov considerable expertise and insight regarding Malevich’s work.
Painting the Absolute is divided into four volumes. The first three cover Malevich’s art in chronological order; the fourth consists of a biography, an analysis of technique, a list of exhibitions and an extensive bibliography. All are profusely illustrated with period photographs and colour reproductions of paintings, with footnotes supplied in the margins. (One minor drawback is that the main text can get uncomfortably close to the page gutter, making reading awkward.) The book’s extensive scope and long gestation has, perhaps inevitably, led to inconsistencies and slips (for example, art illustrated in the first volume has no dimensions listed), but these do not seriously undermine Nakov’s achievement.
He guides the reader through the intricate links and rivalries between the micro-movements of Russian modernism in the 1910-20 period. One such movement was alogism—founded by Malevich—which lasted less than a year (1914-15) and consisted of combining illogical and jarring motifs and styles (for example, the juxtaposition of a cubist violin and a realist cow). Others were fragmentary phrases on blank surfaces. All predate both surrealism and dada by some years.
Although Malevich did not paint the first abstract painting, he was the first to refine abstraction through a systemically developed grammar of movement, energy, balance, colour and simple geometry independent of motifs derived from the outside world or fixed ideas.
He was of a religious mindset and his proclamations (for example, on the “sin” of illusionism) divided him from socialist realists, just as suprematism’s stubbornly anti-functional aesthetic alienated constructivists. (The architectural models that the artist designed throughout the 1920s were essentially suprematist sculptural projects, shorn of practical detail.) The Soviet authorities were only too willing to bolster the artist’s martyr complex by branding him a “bourgeois formalist”, airbrushing him from official histories. Nakov characterises Malevich’s late pictures as
anti-materialistic resistance to the dominant Soviet representationalist aesthetic, and his blank-faced prisoners as allegories of oppression. Here we find the mystic’s technical skills marshalled in the service of humanity rather than god, his aloofness finally, movingly, vanquished.
Malevich: Painting the Absolute
Lund Humphries, four volumes,
1,649 pp, £300 (hb)
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'The pioneering painter-priest of abstraction'