|SocialismToday Socialist Party magazine|
Issue 181 September 2014
A real abstract revolution
Tate Modern, London
To 26 October • £14.50
Reviewed by Manny Thain
Kazimir Malevich was a revolutionary artist in a revolutionary time. By 1915, he had led a full-frontal assault on the art establishment, armed with pure abstraction. Following the Russian revolution of October 1917, he poured his abundant energy into teaching and ever more collaborative innovation. He is one of the most important artists and art theoreticians of the 20th century. This exhibition is a celebration of his work and, ultimately, of the forces which drove it.
Malevich was born in 1879, and raised in rural Ukraine. His father was a sugar beet factory manager. Malevich moved to Moscow in 1904, where he sated his voracious artistic appetite, devouring western European modernism. He joined up with Natalya Goncharova and Mikhail Larianov as they led the split from the Jack of Diamonds group, protesting that it was too closely based on western European art. They set about fusing western avant-garde with Russian influences. Cubo-futurism was born. Malevich applied futurist themes (speed, technology, the city) to the rural life he knew so well – peasants, villages, religion.
Standing resolute and bare-footed in shiny clothing against a stylised background is The Scyther (1912). Morning in the Country after Snowstorm (1912) has drifts like frozen white waves, peasant women weighed down by heavy pales, snow reflecting light off roofs. Malevich collaborated with musician, Mikhail Matyushin, and poets, Aleksei Kruchenykh and Velimir Khlebnikov, to create a futurist opera, Victory over the Sun, performed in St Petersburg in December 1913. Discordant piano, cylindrical costumes and masks, nonsensical words, satirising religious doctrine and tsarist rule.
This artistic dynamism reflected the great contradictions of Russian society, summed up by Leon Trotsky in 1905 as ‘combined and uneven development’. Side-by-side with the deepest economic and cultural backwardness in the country stood cutting-edge technology in the major cities, massive factories churning out commodities, turning peasants into workers. Society was polarised, in flux, in turmoil. The ingredients for the two revolutions of 1917 were fomenting in this earlier period. Little wonder that, when the revolutionary floodgates opened, so many Russian avant-garde artists plunged into its torrential waters.
Malevich’s ground-breaking Black Square was painted in 1915. The form had featured in designs for Victory over the Sun, and Malevich wrote: "That drawing will have great significance for painting. That which was done unconsciously now bears extraordinary fruit". He was right. Black Square is what it says it is. Some commentators call it a ‘year-zero’ moment for modern art. It certainly is a qualitative step, although ideas do not come out of the blue. The move towards abstraction in modern western art had been developing apace through the 19th century and into the 20th. Malevich took it further.
Black Square was among his 39 works displayed as part of The Last Exhibition of Futurist Painting 0.10, in Petrograd, December 1915. They were the result of two years working in secret. This was the launch of ‘suprematism’, suggesting superiority or perfection. In his booklet, From Cubism and Futurism to Suprematism, to accompany the exhibition, Malevich wrote: "The artist can be a creator only when the forms in his picture have nothing in common with nature". He denounced previous artists as ‘counterfeiters’ of nature. His stated aim was to set colour and form free.
He hung the Black Square in an upper corner, a place traditionally reserved for religious icons – many denounced it as a blasphemous act. The Tate displays a (smaller) number of the works in similar positions as in The Last Exhibition. It gives an impression of the impact they would have had at the time: the clash of colour and monochrome shapes in motion and collision – as in the frantic movement of Suprematism 1915.
The Tate exhibition is great on the art. It is sketchier on the context in which it was produced. It is a tricky balance, of course. Too much text in an exhibition can get in the way. Sometimes, however, more explanation is needed to give a more rounded view. For example, following the throwaway comment that the Bolsheviks "seized power" – they had, in fact, led a mass revolutionary movement – the exhibition text reads: "Avant-garde artists greeted the Revolution enthusiastically, seeing the political transformation of society as a parallel to their own radical transformation of art. Yet there was also an intense questioning of the purpose of art in an egalitarian new society".
That is true, but it needs to be expanded. The last sentence could imply a conflation of two distinct things. On the one hand, the suggestion that any egalitarian society (including a genuinely democratic socialist system, presumably) would inevitably seek to control and constrain the arts. On the other, the fact that, under Stalin, the workers’ state in Russia degenerated into top-down bureaucratic rule, which included a clampdown on artistic expression.
The revolution did indeed throw all social and economic relations into question. Against the background of dire, mass poverty, the invasion by imperialist armies, and the delay in successful revolutions in other, more economically developed countries, the immediate problem was how to hold on in Russia until circumstances improved. Nonetheless, even in the face of these huge problems, the planned economy was able to achieve significant economic growth and social improvements.
The isolation of the revolution, however, provided the conditions for Stalin’s rise to power. But it was not inevitable. It was a struggle of living forces, in real time, under specific conditions. The revolution gave a glimpse of what could be realised under a genuinely democratic socialist system. It led to a flowering of artistic initiative and experimentation although, here too, there were urgent needs to be addressed. In the first instance, many artists were engaged in literacy and education campaigns, essential prerequisites in the attempt to build the new workers’ state.
Collaboration between artists flourished. Malevich worked with the futurist poet, Vladimir Mayakovsky, on a play called Mystery-Bouffe, produced by another great innovator, Vsevolod Meyerhold. It was premiered on 7 November 1918 as part of the official celebrations of the first anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution.
Malevich was brought into Narkompros (People’s Commissariat of Enlightenment), which was directed by Anatoly Lunacharsky and included many leading artists, including Vladimir Tatlin, Olga Rozanova, Alexander Rodchenko and Wassily Kandinsky. The following year he began teaching at the People’s Art School, founded by Marc Chagall in Vitebsk, in what is now Belarus. He taught there until 1922, setting up the Champions of New Art (Unovis) collective with his students.
Malevich saw suprematism as a means to transform everyday life. Unovis attempted to bring good design to the masses, and linked up with the Lomonosov ceramics factory in Petrograd, producing teapots, cups and other household goods. The ideas were there. Their full realisation was out of reach.
A wall covered in designs for all manner of projects, include Malevich’s cover for the programme for the Congress of Committees on Rural Poverty (1918) – back to his rural roots – his design for a propaganda kiosk and loudspeaker platform, theatre decor and propaganda posters. In the 1920s he began to produce ‘architectons’, models which, although they had no specific purpose, were suggestions for future buildings.
In 1922, Malevich moved to Petrograd (renamed Leningrad in 1924), teaching at the Academy of Arts until 1927, continuing his work with Unovis. In 1923, he was appointed director of the State Institute for Artistic Culture in Petrograd, set up in 1919 by Narkompros. Part of it was an experimental, interactive museum, freeing artists from the old art establishment. It was closed down in 1926, as Stalin was consolidating his grip on power.
Malevich taught at both the Leningrad Academy of Arts and the Kiev State Art Institute (1927-29), and travelled to Warsaw, Berlin and Munich, which brought him international recognition. Included in this exhibition are some of his teaching materials, a fascinating look into the huge amount of work he put in, and to his systematic approach.
In 1929, he started painting again, returning to rural scenes, but retreating from abstraction. There is a feeling of dislocation, alienation and desperation. Carpenter (1928/9) echoes The Scyther, but the peasant looks gagged. Landscape with Five Houses (1928/9) has colour but feels bleak, weighed down, abandoned. At the time, Stalin was forcing through the collectivisation of the land.
In 1930, Malevich was arrested and held for two months, accused of spying for Germany. He was increasingly marginalised. In the same year, Lunacharsky was removed as head of Narkompros. Many artistic organisations were shut down in 1932. The Stalinist regime denounced abstraction as bourgeois art, and the avant-garde as elitist. But why, and what other sections of society were being likewise suppressed?
It was part of the systematic removal of all the elements of workers’ democracy introduced after the revolution. The bureaucracy was concentrating power in its hands, while resting on the basis of the nationalised planned economy. No criticism of its top-down rule could be tolerated, and increasingly brutal methods were being employed.
Councils (soviets) in workplaces, communities, the army and among peasants were stripped of their accountability to the people they were supposed to represent. Autonomous groups were suppressed. Artists, writers and composers, a typically ‘bolshie’ breed, were prime targets for similar treatment. They saw their work censored and confiscated. In 1934, ‘socialist realism’ was declared the sole authorised artistic style. The role of art, it was decreed, was to promote the revolution. What that actually meant was that it had to glorify the counter-revolution against workers’ democracy – in praise of the bureaucracy and, above all, Stalin.
Malevich’s last paintings are an eerie, distorted kind of socialist realism. Instead of signing these paintings with his name, however, he inserted a small black or red square in the corner – a final defiant gesture? Poignantly, he painted Portrait of the Artist’s Wife in 1935, the year he died of cancer. His funeral procession was lined with people holding black-square flags.
Apart from a handful of his paintings that had been smuggled out of Russia, much of his art was destroyed or kept behind locked doors by the Stalinist censors. In the 1960s, some were exhibited during a thaw in the regime. Black Square would not be seen again until the 1980s.
The works are now back on view and Kazimir Malevich fully deserves this attention – as do the many others involved in the great explosion of artistic innovation that accompanied those revolutionary years. Despite the setbacks which followed, they have left a lasting legacy, an inspiration as to what could be achieved in a genuinely democratic socialist system.