Travelling home from visiting the new Malevich exhibition at the Tate Modern today I am trying to understand why I have been so much more impressed with this show than the Matisse cut-outs that have been so highly praised recently? (my blog CUT IT OUT WITH THE CUT OUTS).
Can it just be that I have come to the Turbine Hall with intransigent and preconceived ideas about the merits of these two artists from the early twentieth century? I have always been unimpressed with Matisse but I do acknowledge he had a big influence on fellow artists in France at that time, and surely if the curators had done their job properly this enormously ambitious (and expensive) show would have won me over? My problem with the cut-outs is that whilst extremely pleasing to the eye I cannot get a sense of the artist’s mind and soul, of the story behind the prettiness.
However, to walk into the first room of the Malevich exhibition is to witness the range of influences acquired, imitated and assimilated into the melting pot that was this artist’s brain. How fascinating to see replicated on those walls an almost perfect Cezanne pastiche piece and how attractive is the idea that, like the older artist, he too resisted the easy formula choosing to distil his own strong and authentic personal perception of the world. (my blog PRIMITIVE OF A NEW ART).
The second room finds Malevich applying those new artistic trends to Russian subjects – the distilling process had begun – and in the third room Malevich rejects Futurist obsession for speed, war and the cult of the machine for Russian themes, applying the new fractured planes of cubism to rural scenes and peasant folk. Catalogue notes say that ‘having followed the innovations of Paris, Malevich was now finding the confidence to outpace them’, a huge claim, but I prefer to think that the work seen here, whilst brilliantly executed still forms part of his formative stage.
Room four illustrates the leap of ideas from one stage of an artist’s development, through the stimulation of a change of discipline, into the creation of an original new form of visual representation. In collaboration with a musician and a poet Malevich staged a futurist opera, Victory over the Sun and the group’s innovative treatment of language proved fundamental to Malevich’s thinking. The idea of words without meaning encouraged him to conceive of, what he called, alogical painting, allowing colours and forms to sever their ties to the physical world. The coloured geometric shapes of the costumes he designed for Victory over the Sun and the dividing up of the backdrops into fields of colour helped Malevich make the radical move to abstraction.
Here, at this point in Malevich’s career we witness how a great moment in art was achieved and Suprematism was born. He has said “What was done unconsciously is now bearing extraordinary fruit”, but what occurred was no accident, it was the result of his incredible immersion into the ideas of that time and, through some process or connection in his brain, it culminated in his painting called Black Square – essentially the ultimate abstract painting – with no colour, just a black square painted onto a larger white one. In reproductions it is easy to miss the dense, layered thickness of this black hole.
From this point the exhibition follows Malevich’s obsession with abstraction and his gradual elimination of the figurative. Whilst Russia underwent extreme change and bloody turmoil the Russian people disappeared from Malevich’s “non-objective and pure” canvasses, “colour harnessed into geometric forms, arranged to convey a sense of agitation and movement drifting together or apart, in a finely balanced tension between order and chaos”. And we witness Malevich enacting the gradual dissolution of painting with his white forms against a white background – the distillation was complete.
But Malevich the man was still watching and distilling the influences all around him and in the last rooms we see the pull of Russian folk to have been too great. He returns, re-invigorated by his abstract de-cluttering to produce some beautiful paintings that are proto post-modernist statements allowing a mix of all styles with aesthetic harmony the only yardstick. Yet the little black square is still present, now used as his logo in place of a signature.
The strength of this exhibition (as opposed to the Cut-Outs) is, I think, because it tells a human story whilst elucidating and educating the viewer about the mysterious alchemy involved in creating an important modern icon.