This issue contains:
>> Kasimir Malewitsch - an introduction
>> Beauty and Excitation - an interview with the Curator Matthew Drutt
>> Links and Literature on Malevich and the Russian Avantgarde
>> Malevich and Berlin

>> archive

Follow me, comrades in flight, into the depths!

Kasimir Malevich -
an introduction by Katrin Bettina Müller

The Black Square: much of what this work once initiated continues to have repercussions to this day, both for art and for its relationship to life. It stands at the beginning of the twentieth century like the gate that Modernism entered through. As a kind of period, it terminated (but only temporarily) the era of representational painting.

Malewitsch im Institut für künstlerische Kultur, Leningrad, 1925
Stattliches Russisches Museum St. Petersburg

For the first time, a single work of art called forth the idea of the "end of painting."

The Black Square was not a mere painting. Kasimir Malevich, the painter and inventor of the Black Square, carefully prepared for the first public appearance of his new painting in 1915. The Black Square arrived together with a new theory of art and its function as a regenerative power, which Malevich called "Suprematism." Thus, Malevich and his suprematist phase in painting, sculpture, and design not only became an important point of departure for the art forms of abstraction and geometric reduction; today, its connection to a political position seems just as significant as its formal innovation. The Black Square also heralds the beginning of the history of art as a gesture in which the individual work refers to a larger, highly complex theoretical structure. Kasimir Malevich, like many other artists of the Russian avant-garde, considered himself to be a "leftist" and a "revolutionary," even after the Communist Party had restricted his artistic freedom and robbed him of nearly every function in the educational system.

Suprematism, developed during the time preceding the Russian Revolution, believed art to be capable of a tremendous catalytic power. The short span of time in which the October Revolution of 1917 also opened up new possibilities for avant-garde experiments in Russian art brought forth a tremendous wealth. Yet as closely connected as this avant-garde was with its artists' leftist hopes and idealistic enthusiasm, its history has also linked it to the Stalinist repression of Modernism and its defamation as formalism.

Bilder von Malewitsch auf der Ausstellung 0.10, Petrograd 1915
Galerie Gmurzynska, Köln

As a story of refusal and of failure, Suprematism also became one of the most important reference points for Moscow's conceptual art from the eighties on. In one of his programmatic texts, Malevich addressed his fellow artists as "comrades in flight": "I have broken through the blue lampshade of the boundaries between colors and have attained to the white; follow me, comrades in flight, into the depths; I have erected the signal posts of Suprematism. (…) Fly! The white depths, a free infinity lie before you."

The figures of flight, distance from the Earth and our existence here, and the aesthetic of disappearance take off from this point. And these are not merely figures of aesthetic thought; they branch off into science and technology, as well.

Consequently, many different positions in contemporary art comprise a kind of resonant space in which Malevich's fame continues to echo. All of this has enlarged his myth. Yet when one actually sees his paintings for the first time in the original and not in reproduction, one is almost touched by their traces of aging. The formats seem so small and modest compared to the room-sized canvases of the later abstract artists. They sometimes look so worn out, the painted surfaces so cracked and vulnerable in their materiality, as though time itself had turned against their claim to embody the future, not to mention infinity. Indeed, it was only with great difficulty that a large part of Malevich's works still in existence today could be saved through the turbulence of the times - hidden from Stalinist and Fascist cleansing actions in the Soviet Union and in Germany, through the National Socialists. This history of prohibition and the fear on the part of those in political power of this art's radicalism have inscribed themselves into the works.

Kubofuturistische Komposition: Mann eine Pfeife rauchend, 1913
Kulturfonds Chardschijew- Tschaga, Amsterdam/Stendelijk Museum, Amsterdam

Kasimir Malevich never took the connection between art and theory for granted. In contrast to Paul Klee, who was the same age, or to Wassily Kandinsky, who was twenty years older - both of whom had also developed paradigmatic modernist concepts - Kasimir Malevich began as an autodidact, having never had any systematic artistic or scientific education or contact to the international art world. Born in 1878 as the son of a laborer in a sugar factory, he began his work with color as an amateur's passionate attempt at representing nature.

Malevich never denied his rural, proletarian background. He emphasized it in his behavior (image) and in his rapturous relationship to ordinary people when he admired the beauty of the work in the fields, for instance, or their rhythm of movement (Floor Polishers, 1911-12).

Between 1895 and 1910, he gained access for the first time, albeit with interruptions, to drawing schools and artists' studios in Kiev, Kursk, and, at the age of 26, finally in Moscow, as well. There, Western art was received with great attention. Paintings by Malevich exist in which he converted this enthusiasm into appropriation: the impressionist idylls in the municipal park, for instance, or the cubist collages of surfaces and voluminous forms. Together with Michael Larionow, he worked in a neo-primitivist manner (1910/11), expressing rural life in simple, poetic forms (see Morning in the Village Snowstorm, 1912). Cubo-futurism (more here), developed only a short time later, was already somewhat further developed in its tendency towards lending autonomy to color surfaces, even in representation.

Bühnenbildentwurf zu 'Sieg über die Sonne' (2. Akt, 5. Bild), 1913
Staatliches Theater- und Musikmuseum St. Petersburg

Although all of these aesthetic forms recall modernist art movements in the West, the acceleration and emphatic enthusiasm with which the Russian artists took in these splinters of a disintegrating image of the world and enriched it with a few additional facets, such as Neo-Primitivism and Constructivism, offers evidence of a different energy. For them, it was about more than art, and the aesthetic renewal was usually closely tied to the expectations awakened by the social upheavals of the time. Art was ready to go out on the street.

This was not only meant as a metaphor for the artists' longing to unite themselves to the people with their work and to get involved in the restructuring in a concrete way: in an almost literal sense, narrative pictorial sequences for the illiterate, agitational posters (more here), and festive decorations to celebrate the Revolution carried art out into the streets and into the public arena. In its simplification, reduction, and dynamism of forms, both Malevich's Suprematism and Constructivism, with whose protagonists Malevich partly worked together, but also partly fought polemically, took this new form of public into account. They invented new signs for the mass media. The utopia of attaining to a new identity together with their public infused them with an extraordinary amount of energy.

Kasimir Malevich also set about creating agitational images in folkloristic style and festive decorations; for the opera Victory Over the Sun from 1913, he designed the stage set and costumes (images). The performances attained legendary fame, above all because of their departure from conventional aesthetics on every level: atonal music (by M. Matjuschin), a libretto deliberately transgressing logic (by A. Krutschonych - you can find the text here; the prolog was written by V. Chlebnikov), and a conception of stage space, which he treated as a surface to be organized in a painterly manner. A preliminary design for the Black Square turned up on the curtain for the first time (more information and further links on the opera can be found here; here also a photograph of Matjuschin, Malevich, and, lying down, Krutschonych).

But it was only as an autonomous image that no longer referred to anything and was hence - as the "germ of all possibilities" - capable of meaning everything, that it became the suprematist icon.

Schwarzes Quadrat, 1915
Staatliche Tretjakow-Galerie, Moskau

Before he exhibited his paintings for the first time in such a radically reduced form in Moscow in 1915, Malevich had worked on a brochure entitled From Cubism and Futurism to Suprematism. The exhibition title Last Futurist Exhibition 0.10 (image) already gives an idea of the intellectual climate, which was somewhere between a prophetic illusion of grandeur and the expectation of the end of the old world and the beginning of a new one. The mysterious number 0.10 describes a mental figure: zero, because they believed that the world could begin again from zero following the destruction of the old, and ten, because ten artists were originally supposed to take part. A tendency towards a cryptic and secret knowledge for the initiated was another one of the strategies of an art that had to protect itself from old and, soon enough, new enemies, as well.

Suprematism stands for an absolute approach to art. A certain claim to superiority can be perceived in the term. In the pathos-ridden, polemical formulations of suprematist theory, it often sounds no less totalitarian and authoritarian than the tones of the political leaders themselves. Yet this radicalism was also a symbolic gesture and an instrument of beginning, in which the preconditions for painting, and even for perception itself, were to be determined anew.

Rotes Quadrat, 1915
mit freundlicher Genehmigung
der Galerie Gmurzynska, Zug

Schwarzer Kreis, 1915
mit freundlicher Genehmigung
der Galerie Gmurzynska, Zug

As radical as the Black Square was in its formal reduction and in its renouncement of references to realities extraneous to the image, it was not sent alone into the race. Suprematism immediately revealed itself as encompassing an entire cosmos of possibilities. Along with the paintings that made do with a surface, a cross, or a circle were those that dissolved the monolithic blocks of form into a many-faceted combination of larger and smaller shapes. No longer tied to an illusionistic pictorial space, the surfaces seemed to become liberated from gravity and well capable of regrouping in ever newer combinations. There was a flying and a gliding, a suspension and flow as though the laws of nature themselves suddenly stood at our disposal.

Suprematismus, 1915
Staatliches Russisches Museum, St. Petersburg

Not least, they are highly fragile constructions that required a strong degree of protection from the very beginning, one that was powerful with words. With their renouncement of representation, they did not renounce meaning; on the contrary. They strove to constitute a counter-proposal that could encompass much more than the representational or the worldly could ever describe. They aimed for the absolute and the transcendental. Why shouldn't that be perceived as a freedom, this possibility to infuse a form with newer and newer claims?

O.Rosanowa, X. Boguslawskaja und K. Malewitsch auf der Ausstellung 0.10
Galerie Dobytschina, Petrograd, 1915- 16
Staatliches Russisches Museum, St. Petersburg

"And I'm happy that my square's face can't be compared to any master or period. Am I right? I didn't obey the fathers, and I'm not like them," Malevich wrote triumphantly and polemically in 1916 to his opponents. Malevich demanded art's liberation from every ideology, under which abstract forms did not allow themselves to be subsumed. In a text similar to a manifesto on the first exhibition of his suprematist paintings, this belief becomes apparent: "I have transformed myself into the zero of forms and have fished myself out of the stinking morass of academic art. I have broken through the ring of the horizon and have escaped the circle of things, the ring of the horizon that entraps the artists and the forms of nature. (…) Things have disappeared like smoke, art too moves forth towards a new culture of art, towards the creative as a means unto itself, to a supremacy over the forms of nature."
Such sober pictures, yet so much pathos in the words. The power that art laid claim to at the dawn of the Russian Revolution and for a short time afterwards was not to last for long. First, however, Malevich not only became a well-known artist and theorist both in Russia and the West, but also one of the most successful art functionaries who provided impulses for the renewal of education at various art schools and academies. This included art history, questions in epistemology, and an increase in attention towards social reality, brought about by architecture and urban planning.

Between 1919 and 1922, he led the artistic workshops in Petrograd and Moscow as well as the professional art school in Vitebsk, which became a kind of headquarters for the suprematist cosmos. Some of the designs made by Malevich and his students were aesthetic visions that anticipated the conquest of outer space and the construction of satellites.

Yet for Malevich, Suprematism was never a matter for art alone. In his texts and speeches, he quickly assumed a critical position towards the Communist Party and their backwards-looking idea of art, their authoritarian structures, their demand for representation. He coined the term "feeding-trough socialism" and criticized the communist concepts for their materialism and utilitarianism, which adhered short-sightedly to the representational and barred all possibilities for going beyond it. In the process, he fought with the constructivists, who in his opinion took too much recourse to utilitarianism. Malevich assumed an important role in opposition to the party's cultural policies, one which was only, however, capable of assembling on the theoretical battlefield between art theories. For this reason, his charismatic effect in lectures and his nearly messianic manner not only earned him adherents and recognition, but increasingly a mistrustful scrutiny, as well.

When Malevich traveled abroad for the first time in 1927, to Berlin, the process of stripping him of his authority and limiting his sphere of influence had already begun. He left seventy of the paintings he'd showed in Berlin in a special room at the Great Berlin Art Exhibition at Lehrter Bahnhof with the Berlin architect Hugo Häring, probably out of a justified concern over his work. These works went on to experience an adventurous fate - they were hidden in cellars, taken along on flight, and finally sold in part to the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, who also administer his written estate.

Malewitch auf dem Sterbebett, umgeben von Freunden und Familie, 1935
Wassiliy Rakitin, Frankfurt am Main

Upon his return to the Soviet Union, Malevich had become an artist whose influence was increasingly dismantled. Although he still received large exhibitions, the reproof of formalism hampered him from having any great effect. The fact that he returned to representational painting at the end of the twenties still creates confusion to this day. Did he give in, in the end? Or was he trying out new forms that he'd gained from Suprematism? What also makes the classification and evaluation difficult is the fact that Malevich in part gave incorrect dates to his works - namely from the time preceding Suprematism. One of his last paintings is a self-portrait in the style of Italian Renaissance painting. Yet instead of his name, he signed it with a black square in the bottom right-hand corner.

Malevich died in 1935 in Leningrad. Because he hadn't emigrated, but had tried throughout his lifetime to resist while continuing to remain in his country, he became a moral authority both for many artists of his time and for generations to come.

Katrin Bettina Müller lives as a freelanced journalist in Berlin.

Translation: Andrea Scrima