8 October 2014

Kazimir Malevich at Tate Modern

Malevich at Tate Modern is a major and chronologically-organised retrospective of one of the most influential painters of the last century, Kazimir Malevich (1879–1935). It is a moot point whether being born in Kiev to Polish parents makes him a Russian or a Polish artist or even a Ukrainian one, but his major achievements as a pioneer of Modernism were realised in Moscow and St Petersburg (Petrograd). It was in the capital when in his twenties he was introduced to French modern art and his Self-Portrait, 1908-1910 (left) shows the influence of artists like Gaugin and Matisse.

In 1909 Marinetti had published the Futurist Manifesto and the Russian avant garde response attempted to blend Futurism with traditional Russian rural themes, for example Morning in the Village After a Snowstorm (below left) and The Woodcutter (below right) both 1912:

By 1914 Malevich had adopted Cubo-Futurism showing the additional influence of Cubism in works like An Englishman in Moscow (below):

He then moved on to more abstract forms, with the first version of the famous Black Square being painted in 1915. A 1923 version is on show, the original being too fragile to go on loan. Malevich has partially recreated the Last Exhibition of Futurist Painting 0.10 (Zero-Ten) which was held in Petrograd in 1916 (below top). Some of the works are lost but nine out of the twelve known to survive are on show (below lower).

This exhibition marked the launch of Suprematism which Malevich saw as art with forms having no link to nature but being an exercise in colour and geometry, like Suprematist Painting(with Black trapezium and Red Square), 1915 below and Supremus No.55, 1916 (detail in the poster above).

He would take this to the extreme of painting in white with very simple shapes and then turned to experimenting with architectural models and lecturing. However, Malevich’s career was disrupted by events leading up to the Russian revolution in 1917 and the following civil war. In the early years of the Soviet regime, Suprematism and its associated architectural movement Constructivism were accepted, but with Stalin came disfavour and a preference for Social Realism.

In the late 1920s Malevich returned to painting in a style more acceptable to the authorities. Could Head of a Peasant, 1928-29 been an influence on Abram Games’ Festival of Britain poster in 1951, (below left and right)?

In the years before his death he produced figurative portraiture as in his Renaissance-style Self-Portrait of
1933 (right). After 1935 his work was kept from public view until the 1950s. As late as 1971, when the British Council put on the exhibition Art in Revolution: Soviet art and design since 1917 at the Hayward Gallery, the Soviet Ministry of Culture, a major source of the exhibits, demanded and achieved the removal of all works by Malevich.  Black Square would not be seen until the 1980s.

Malevich continues until 26 October. The high standard of the catalogue matches that of the exhibition. 

The exhibition was at the Stedilijk Museum, Amsterdam, October 2013 to February 2014 and at the Bundeskunsthalle (Art and Exhibition Hall of the Federal Republic of Germany), Bonn, March to June 2014.

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