What makes an artist change their approach to their work? If you are interested in what and whom influences an artist’s work, then the exhibition on the painter Malevich at Tate Britain explores these events and pressures extensively.
The twelve rooms of paintings in the exhibition chart the development of this Russian artist from his twenties in 1904 until his death in 1935. Malevich lived through a tumultuous time in Russian history, through the First World War, the Russian revolution, the death of Lenin and the beginning of the Stalinist era, which rejected all the avant-garde art that he had been working on for the previous decade.
His work was in a constant process of reinvention, not simply as a response to his times but also through the influences of European art. In his twenties he was profoundly influenced by French impressionism and then moved on through cubism to abstraction and suprematism (his own word), which morphed into a dissolution of his painting style and then eventually to a reinvention of figuration and portraits.
As I progressed through the galleries I felt unable to settle; the experience was not a gentle process of assimilating the changes in an artist’s work as he got older and was affected by the times he lived in, but rather a bucking slightly nauseous series of dramatic changes in approach which constantly confronted me with his new ideas about painting whilst he was also struggling with dramatic changes in Russian society. The one constant was his palette, which relies on primary colours with significant amounts of red, white and black. Looking through from one room to the next it was easy to see that although the form of the painting changed, the colour and tonal quality remained the same. I found this both reassuring and somewhat dull.
Early in the 20th century Malevich was exposed to exceptional collections of French modern art, which had been collected by the merchants Sergei Shchukin and Ivan Morozov and were housed in Moscow. Here he saw works by Monet, Cezanne, Picasso and Matisse and later, works by Van Gogh and Gauguin also came to Moscow. The influence of all these artists can be seen in these early paintings (see Self Portrait 1908-10 above).
As he established himself he developed his own form of Modernism using western ideas of the avant-garde and fusing these with the simplified and blocked out forms of popular Russian prints. The posters of happy peasants laboring in the fields for the common good, were reinterpreted by the artist, as simplified individual portraits of land workers. By 1912 he had embraced a movement called cubo-futurism which fractured the picture plane and embraced the idea of speed and technological development resulting in canvases where a confusion of planes challenges the beholder to see any signs of human form despite titles such as ‘Head of a Peasant Girl’. Some of these paintings reminded me of the futurists and vorticists work in lino-cuts which was happening at the same time in Britain.
A few rooms into the exhibition there is an extraordinary piece of film of a futurist opera called ‘Victory Over the Sun’ for which Malevich designed the costumes and backdrop, which is worth sitting down for. It is strange and clunky and mostly incomprehensible but conveys a strong sense of how the three men involved in the project, a musician a poet and the artist were trying to re-invent music, language and the visual sphere. The film conveys a strong sense of how wide ranging the three young men thought the effect of art could be – that it could indeed change society.
At the age of 36 Malevich painted ‘Black Square’ a complete negation of representation in painting. This painting of a black square surrounded by a border of white is very compelling. In its denial of representational painting and in its simplicity it radiates a power and sense of spirit, which I found very moving. The riots of red, green and blue had gone. It was as if the artist had suddenly discovered what painting could do by remaining still and focused. We are of course used now to looking at a Ben Nicholson square on white paper or a huge purple Rothko canvas but despite this, ‘Black Square’ still held for me a lot of drama and sensitivity. ‘The painting still retains its importance for contemporary artists as a marker in the history of modern art.
Malevich , who seemed to like inventing words for new artistic movements, called the next stage of his work ‘suprematism’. He wrote ‘The artist can be a creator only when the forms in his picture have nothing in common with nature’. With suprematism he returned to colour but with entirely geometric forms. The pictures reminded me of geometry lessons. Squares, triangles, circles and oblongs jostle together on the canvas creating an effect of jiggling movement. I found the paintings quite uncomfortable to look at as there was no calm or peace here, and indeed they were painted at the height of the First World War when Russia was suffering terribly.
With the abdication of Tsar Nicholas ll and the Revolution, avant-garde artists questioned the purpose of art in a hoped for egalitarian society. Malevich gave up painting all together and took up designing model buildings for a new Russia. The Tate has recreated some of these models – entirely white, they look like a child’s vision of a futuristic city.
The last part of this exhibition is about the artist returning to representation and portraiture once Stalin had gained power. There was sadness in this final room of work, partly maybe because Malevich was already ill but also because it felt to me like he had nowhere to go but backwards. There are one or two accomplished portraits, which match some of his earliest work but otherwise the work felt flat and dull and lifeless. Stalinism brought about a return to Socialist Realism as if all the previous work of Malevich and other Russian avant-garde painters had been for nought. Malevich died in 1935 at the age of 54.
This exhibition is the story of an energetic, revolutionary life crammed with ideas and experiments, but also sadness. Malevich continues at Tate Modern until the 26th October.