It's complicated: Tate on Kazimir Malevich and the West

As a touring show opens at Tate Modern, is a rounded picture finally emerging?


The Russian-Soviet avant-garde of the 1910s and 1920s is now well known in the West; exhibitions in Frankfurt, Düsseldorf, Munich, Berlin and Cologne have familiarised us with all aspects of the movement and its artists. But this was not always the case. When the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam staged the first solo exhibition of the work of Kazimir Malevich in 1989, with loans from leading museums in the Soviet Union, it was a sensation. The show attracted visitors from all over Europe, eager to see the unfamiliar works—many of which, particularly his early paintings, had never even been reproduced.

At the time, there was uncertainty around the dating of some of his pictures, and only gradually did it transpire that Malevich (1878-1935) had purposefully concocted an artistic biography in which he backdated some of his later works and included recreations. At the end of last year, the Stedelijk staged another Malevich retrospective, this time entirely in-house, which is due to arrive at Tate Modern next month. At first glance, it seems to be vast, with more than 500 pieces on show, but many are small works on paper. In the work of Malevich, however, these have enormous importance: he developed his ideas on notepaper before translating them onto canvas.

Born in Kiev, this Ukrainian artist of Polish descent is commonly associated with the Black Square, 1915, the somewhat irregular black shape on a white background that signalled both the end and beginning of all painting: the end of representational art and the beginning of Suprematism, the painting of the “highest order”, as he, in full missionary modesty, called the movement he founded. Malevich showed his Suprematist achievements, 39 in number, for the first time in “0.10: the Last Futurist Exhibition” in Petrograd in December 1915, and announced: “Things have disappeared like smoke; to gain the new artistic culture.” Squares, triangles and, above all, beams in unmodulated colours (mainly black and red) spread across a white surface. At the time, Malevich used simple titles such as Suprematist Composition, sometimes supplemented by the word “non-objective”, because he never used the term “abstract” in his life. Malevich did not “abstract” anything, because that would have meant starting with an object, a process he rejected. He had created something new and was well aware of its creative potency.

In the West, Malevich has become the paradigmatic figure of the Russian avant-garde. Neither Vladimir Tatlin nor Aleksandr Rodchenko—nor even El Lissitzky, who had the closest personal ties with the West in the 1920s—have enjoyed an appreciation comparable with that of Malevich. This is largely due to two factors. First, his works can be found in Western museums and his writings are publicly accessible (at least in the German-speaking world). Second, Malevich’s Suprematism gained rapidly growing appreciation with the rise of Western post-war abstraction, which it seemed to historically legitimise.

The first reason—the availability of his works and writings—is, in itself, trivial. There are Russian avant-garde artists whose works are also present in Western museums; Natasha Goncharova and Mikhail Larionov come to mind. They both emigrated to Paris, where they could show their work to a larger audience. Within the styles of the Russian avant-garde, which were changing at an almost insane tempo before the outbreak of the First World War, they are categorised as Cubo-Futurist and Primitivist, that peculiar mixture of adapted Western, and especially Parisian, innovations and their simultaneous rejection. The figurative art of the 1910s was consistent with the Parisian preference for representational art; Cubism was rejected after the outbreak of the First World War, denigrated as the art of the “Boches” (the hated Germans).

Malevich, however, was perceived as a leading avant-garde artist in 1920s Germany. His book The Non-Objective World appeared in 1927 as part of the renowned Bauhaus Books series, although his high hopes of being appointed to the already well-known Bauhaus institution were never fulfilled. Malevich had his most extensive exhibition during his lifetime in Berlin in 1927—one of the reasons why the artist, who was already being heavily criticised in the Soviet Union, decided to leave all the works in the show, including 70 paintings, behind in Berlin. They survived the Second World War unscathed, and in 1958 ended up, not entirely legally, in the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, which was when they began to have an international impact. In 2008, an agreement was reached between the heirs of Malevich and the city of Amsterdam, meaning that the controversial sale of the works in 1958 by their Berlin trustees became legally sound.

It is no coincidence that the Stedelijk acquired the (mostly Suprematist) paintings of Malevich, while the Berlin museums were instead concerned with closing gaps in the collections of figurative styles like Expressionism and the New Objectivity, which were torn apart by the Nazi regime. The Stedelijk was the first museum in Europe to collect American Abstract Expressionism and was open to all the new trends coming from the US. Malevich was the historical witness of a paradigm shift, to use the term coined by the philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn in his 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Kuhn’s book denotes the point at which, on the meta-level of scientific theory, intellectual leadership transferred from Europe to the US.

The radical way in which Malevich, in his Suprematist phase, left behind objectivity to create his own artistic world can be understood through Kuhn’s paradigm-shift concept. It was natural on the part of the West to draw parallels between this artistic revolution and the political revolution in Russia of 1917. The fact that this analogy is problematic, because Suprematism preceded the October Revolution by several years, was, for a long time, ignored by the West.

The Western view emphasised the political contrast between the Russian avant-garde and the new Soviet Russia and its institutions. Thus, for a long time, the chronologies of avant-garde art ended in 1932, the year that artist groups were dissolved and the Socialist Realist doctrine was enforced. The locus classicus of this view of history was Camilla Gray’s book The Russian Experiment in Art, 1863-1922, published in 1962. Contrary to the title’s suggestion, Gray elucidated the developments up to Stalinisation in the final chapter of the book, but without naming them. The movements, such as Constructivism and Produktionskunst, that emerged from the environment of the Bauhaus and a similar educational institution in Moscow called VKhUTEMAS in 1921 and 1922 made such a concluding chapter indispensable.

A sensation in Paris

Precisely because of the reigning dichotomy between the “good” avant-garde and “evil” Soviet policy—whether in the period of Lenin’s New Economic Plan, or during Stalin’s first Five-Year Plan or under full-blown Stalinism—the 1979 exhibition “Paris-Moscou 1900-30” at Paris’s Centre Pompidou was a sensation. The exhibition, which travelled to Moscow, was a collaboration between the French museum and the Soviet ministry of culture. The conflict between the avant-garde and politics was no longer the focus; rather, it was the “national uniqueness (originalité) of artistic schools and the particularities of the circumstances of their creation”. In other words, the richly stocked and yet problematic exhibition suggested a converging theory of art history. This shake-up of the “art versus politics” paradigm held for a decade.

That is, until the Malevich exhibition in Amsterdam in 1989 started a perestroika of art history. The wealth of works from hitherto inaccessible Russian museums shook up the prevailing image of the “non-objective” Malevich, who suddenly appeared eclectic, especially in the figurative paintings he made in the early 1930s. After the retrospective, a series of predominantly thematic exhibitions on other avant-garde artists was organised, including shows of works by Malevich’s students, such as Nikolai Suetin and Ilya Tshashnik. The George Costakis collection, which had partly come to the West in 1977 (the collector split it with the Soviet state when he moved from Moscow to Greece), had shown the unknown diversity of the avant-garde, and research based on archives and bequests began in Russia in the years after 1990. The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum’s exhibition “Amazons of the Avant-Garde”, featuring six women artists in Russia in the early 20th century and organised for the Guggenheim’s Berlin branch in 2000, unleashed a fierce dispute over the authenticity and dating of many of the works, showing a lack of basic research on the topic in the West.

Particularly interesting was the debate about the authenticity of the drawings by Malevich that were shown in the Guggenheim’s travelling exhibition in 2003. These little pieces of paper were obviously preparatory drawings—or were they not? It was not immediately clear whether Malevich had sketched them to capture a compositional idea or to record a composition he had already executed. The extremely important collection belonging to Nikolai Ivanovich Khardzhiev, a sometime secretary to Malevich in the 1930s, and his wife, Lidia Chaga, which came to Amsterdam in the 1990s, was able to shed more light on the artist’s practice. An extensive catalogue of Kharzhiev’s holdings, published to coincide with the Stedelijk’s retrospective earlier this year, has helped to establish a body of works that defines the range of Malevich’s drawings, executed as meticulously as if every little piece of paper was the last one he could ever get hold of.

The significance of the Stedelijk’s acquisition of the Khardzhiev collection (part of which was intercepted at Customs in Moscow en route to Amsterdam and is now in the Russian State Archive of Literature and Art) cannot be overstated in this regard, since it gave rise to critical questions at the time. The museum’s complete catalogue of the Khardzhiev collection emphasises the enormous importance of notepaper-and-pencil sketches to the artists of the avant-garde. Given the physical hardship of the years after the October Revolution, the artists’ reduction of their to the smallest formats is immediately obvious, but this was not just about the scarcity of material. The medium also symbolised the movement, the design of which had to be formulated and tested with scientific thoroughness. This is certainly true of Malevich, who emerged as a theorist and even, almost, as a prophet of a new worldview.

What characterised Malevich, but also the majority of other avant-garde artists, was an unprecedented move away from the West and from Western rational thinking. On this topic, “The Russian Avant-Garde, Siberia and the East”, a pioneering exhibition at the Palazzo Strozzi in Florence last autumn, has not been adequately appreciated. The preoccupation of the avant-garde with the “inner East” of Russia, with the peoples of Siberia from the vastness between Ural and the Ochot sea, brought about a new awareness of the cultural foundations of Russia, before the indigenous cultures of the domestic Russian East perished in the October Revolution. It should be remembered that Wassily Kandinsky, before he became an artist, participated in one of the ethnographic expeditions of the late Tsarist empire.

Kandinsky raised another problem in the Western reception of the avant-garde. He came of age as an artist in Munich but was forced to return to Russia by the First World War; he had to leave the German Reich in 1914 as an enemy alien. But the works he created during almost seven years in Moscow, and the distribution of his works to newly created museums in the provinces, shows a continuing affinity with Russia and the spiritual thinking of the country, which had been pushed into the background during his Munich years. Kandinsky is one of the founders of abstract painting; that is, the abstraction of objects. Nevertheless, it is important to emphasise how strongly Kandinsky differed from Malevich’s creatio ex nihilo, although there are similarities in the spirituality of his thinking and, indeed, in the development of his artistic forms. The two antipodes of non-representational art also bore similarities in their detailed theoretical justification of their art.

Malevich propagated Suprematism with missionary zeal. He was also an un-, even an apolitical, artist. Or was he? This was one of the questions asked by a symposium devoted to Malevich and organised by the Stedelijk in January. Alexandra Schatskich found a wealth of evidence in Malevich’s estate pointing to his clear-sightedness: he was under no illusions about Communism as early as the early 1920s. At first, in 1917, he said that socialism meant the “complete liberation of the mind, of thought, of culture and of that radiant pearl of creativity—art”. Malevich still stood on the side of the anarchists, whom the Bolsheviks, however, quickly suppressed. In 1919, he said—with bitter irony—that if the now autocratic Bolsheviks wanted to get rid of the avant-garde, they should close the Museum of Modern Western Art, formed from expropriated private collections, and have its collection “burn in a crematorium”. Complaints about the Bolsheviks’ old-fashioned artistic conceptions followed. Finally, Malevich wrote in his diary with impotent rage that there has “never been such slavery as that spawned by Communism”.

Politically informed

John Bowlt of Yale University, a doyen of avant-garde research and the editor of significant source books on the subject for 40 years, took as an example the enigmatic (although pre-revolutionary) painting An Englishman in Moscow, 1914, to demonstrate that Malevich was very well informed about the political events of his time and processed these in his “alogical” images in those years. The subject of that work was the visit to Tsarist Russia of a British delegation, including four Anglican bishops who wanted to improve relations with the Russian Orthodox Church. Malevich observed this with a hint of irony. At the time, he had in mind the designs for the Futurist opera “Victory Over the Sun”, where a world of supermen remove the sun from the sky, anticipating a theme of the Socialist revolution: the subjugation of nature by ideological man.

In the West, Malevich’s late U-turn from Suprematism to figuration, albeit in paintings using Suprematist forms and colours, was long seen as a regrettable form of backing down before Socialist Realism was fully enforced in 1932. At the Stedelijk’s symposium, this shone through in Sjeng Scheijen’s presentation, which dealt with the Soviet state’s demands on the arts and the accusations of “formalism” against numerous artists. Malevich—who exhibited publicly for the last time in 1932, in a representative group exhibition called “15 Years of Artists in the RSFSR” (the Russian Soviet Republic, which was the core of the Soviet Union, created in 1922)—had already been relegated to the “bourgeois” corner and presented as a negative example, and wisely stopped commenting publicly.

What the party expected—and, with it, “the masses” who now visited museums and exhibitions—was an understandable, representative art that reliably showed heroic deeds, great leaders and a radiant socialist world. But this compliant art was never precisely defined; party criticism could apply to anyone. Artists could never be sure that they were following the party line; the usual accusations of “formalism”, “symbolism” and, strangely, “naturalism” were broad enough to tar any artist with the brush of being an unpopular dissenter.

Through the Stedelijk’s symposium, one of the desiderata of research into Malevich was fulfilled: the integration of the artist and his work into the emerging Stalinist society. It confirms that a nuanced picture of the avant-garde is necessary—a synthesis of the numerous, previously more-or-less disconnected areas of research around Tatlin or Rodchenko, with the inclusion of the culture of the post-revolutionary years. What the current retrospective makes clear is how hopelessly outdated the avant-garde already was when it was finished off by politics​​. The end of the avant-garde was not merely due to the despotism of the Stalinist system; it had a social basis. A new, proletarian class was growing, to whom Malevich’s speculative, spiritually primed approaches meant nothing.

Malevich’s funeral—he died of cancer in 1935—was the last manifestation of Suprematism (even this was, surprisingly, tolerated by the party). The following year, all avant-garde art was removed from the exhibition halls of museums. It did not re-emerge from the sealed vaults until more than half a century later. With this latest exhibition on Malevich, avant-garde art is finally being historicised. Twenty years after the end of Soviet Communism, its earlier role as a standard-bearer for a timeless Western ahistorical freedom has become obsolete.

• “Malevich”, Tate Modern, London, 16 July-26 October


Selected works

The Woodcutter, 1912

Influenced earlier by Gauguin, Matisse and Cézanne, Malevich began to explore Cubism and Futurism in earnest before the First World War. His take was unique, concentrating on colour rather than form, and attempting to establish a Russian idiom, informed by rural life and Orthodox beliefs.

An Englishman in Moscow, 1914

This “alogical” work, made as Malevich grappled with Cubism, was informed by his designs for the Russian Futurist opera “Victory Over the Sun”. It includes the words “partial eclipse” and “zaum”, a Futurist word meaning “beyond sense”. Appropriately, it is filled with enigmatic and symbolic imagery (see main text).

Supremus No.50, 1915

Suprematism at its height. Malevich formed the Supremus group with a number of other artists, and intended to produce a magazine (which never appeared). The “Supremus” series built on early Suprematism, such as Black Square, 1915, by introducing more intricate compositions and richer and subtler colours.

Woman with Rake, 1928-32

By the late 1920s, Malevich had abandoned “non-objective” art, comparing it to “a homeless tramp”. Instead, he applied the principles of Suprematism to his “Second Peasant Cycle”, in which figures were totemic everymen, painted with a reductive, colourful simplicity far from Stalin’s Socialist Realism.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Malevich: freed from ideology?'