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Before artists are lionized, canonized, given major retrospectives at major museums, they are people. And when they are people, they are often poor, and so they must find ways to make money. Paul Gauguin tried his hand as a stockbroker, Henri Rousseau worked as a toll collector for most of his life, and Kazimir Malevich — whose retrospective opens at Tate Modern today — designed a perfume bottle.
It’s hard to find much information about this obscure, early episode in Malevich’s life. Art historian Aleksandra Shatskikh wrote an article about it in the now-defunct Russian magazine ArtChronika in 2008, and although the piece itself seems impossible to find, two people blogged about it, offering glimpses of the information contained therein. Designer Hollister Hovey writes:
Kazimir Malevich, poor and desperate for a commission, borrowed his friend’s coat and headed off to answer a perfumer’s call for a bottle that would capitalize on the frenzy over Robert Peary’s 1909 trek to the North Pole. As the incredible mag ArtChronika tells it, this shabbily dressed Suprematist, eventual King of the Black Square, got the job and created one of Russia’s most iconic cologne bottles.
In 1911, Malevich’s career was just starting to take off, as he showed his work in avant-garde group exhibitions. (It would be another four years before he found his way to Suprematism.) It seems feasible that he was in need of commissions. But Shatskikh also mentions the perfume bottle in her 2012 book Black Square: Malevich and the Origins of Suprematism (Yale University Press), and by this account, Malevich’s motivation may have been different. She writes:
Many gaps in the Russian avant-gardism’s artistic biography were filled in at the very end of the twentieth and the beginning of the twenty-first century when information about Malevich’s interest in applied arts before Suprematism came to light. Documents have confirmed that it was he who created the Severny perfume bottle, which was produced in 1911 in the Russian empire, then in the Soviet Union, and in the 1990s in the Russian Federation, a bottle that broke all records for longevity and popularity.
In this telling, designing the perfume bottle was part of Malevich’s artistic exploration and growth — which doesn’t exempt it from also being a move for cash.
The bottle features a rocky iceberg base with jagged lines etched into the frosted glass. Atop that sits a stopper, the peak of the crag, with a polar bear poised on top. The jagged shape of the bottle, which looks further fractured by the etched lines, seems to loosely align with Malevich’s Cubo-Futurist style of the time, although it’s not exactly what you’d call radical. According to a site called 43info, which has a page extensively documenting the bottle (where it also promotes the theory that Malevich needed money at the time), it measures nearly eight inches tall and comes with a label that mimics the stopper, featuring a polar bear atop a vaguely hexagonal ice floe.
The bottle design was commissioned and manufactured by Brocard & Co, a soap and perfume company that expanded to Moscow from Paris in 1864. After the Russian Revolution, Brocard was renamed Novaya Zarya (“new sunrise”), a name under which it still operates today. It’s unclear if a version of the Malevich-designed bottle has been officially displayed anywhere; 43info notes a similar object on view in the permanent collection of the Barcelona Museum of Perfume. In the meantime, keep your eyes trained on eBay: that’s where critic and curator Amelia Groom found and purchased a Severny bottle earlier this year.