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LONDON — The Tate Modern’s Malevich: Revolutionary of Russian Art exhibition explores the career of Kazimir Malevich, presenting a complete image of the painter, sculptor, teacher, and revolutionary member of the early Soviet avant-garde, whose trajectory as an innovative artist mirrored the tumultuous decades surrounding the Soviet revolution. The course of the exhibition identifies and explains the individual elements of Malevich’s work, which he synthesized into a unique blend of Western modernist experimentation, traditional Russian imagery, the effects of revolution and war on a troubled nation and on the artistic avant-garde, and his eventual attempts at re-figuration as necessitated by oppression under a tyrannical dictatorship.
Moving from Kursk to Moscow in 1904, Malevich studied the works of Cézanne, Picasso, and Matisse; the exhibition begins with Malevich’s early portraits and paintings which reflect and respond to these Modern masters. By the second decade of the twentieth century, Malevich’s attention shifted to developing his distinctly Russian voice. His works incorporated the traditions of Russian religious icons and popular prints, and the image of the peasant becomes a central focal point in his studies and paintings.
The culmination of the artist’s early career and experimentation — as well as the central pivot point of the exhibition — is Malevich’s seminal painting “Black Square,” conceived of in 1913 and first executed and displayed in 1915. “Black Square” marked a turning point in the mentality of the avant-garde; mimetic representation in painting had come to an end and was to be replaced with form, color, and abstraction.
A particular success of the exhibition is the recreation of The Last Exhibition of Futurist Painting 0.10 (Zero-Ten), a Petrograd group exhibition in 1915 which exhibited Malevich and his contemporaries and launched Suprematism as a movement. The layout of the 1915 exhibition famously featured “Black Square” in the room’s top corner, surveying over its visitors and looming over its neighboring works. The painting’s position in the upper corner recalled traditional placement of Christian icons, suggesting a substitution of religion with Suprematism and with the new political and artistic orders. The recreation of the Zero-Ten exhibition gives the viewer a contextualized understanding of how “Black Square” was shown, articulating a particularly significant moment in the Soviet avant-garde and in the artist’s career.
The portion of the exhibition devoted to Victory Over the Sun, the 1913 Opera staged by Malevich, the musician Mikhail Matyushin, and the poets Aleksei Kruchenykh and Velimir Khlebnikov, lends to the exhibition a rich and dynamic visualization of this period in the avant-garde. Malevich’s designs for the sets and costumes of Victory Over the Sun relied on geometric and fractured forms, and provided the foundations out of which he would produce “Black Square.” The linguistic basis of Victory Over the Sun, the concept of audible words without meaning, alongside Malevich’s abstracted sets and costumes, produced a stunning, radical opera.
The exhibition includes a video of Victory Over the Sun, reconstructed and filmed by the California Institute of the Arts in the early 1980s. The addition of the video provides an interesting, vibrant, and relevant step in the development of Suprematism; Victory Over the Sun is seldom staged or filmed, the use of the video is crucial to the understanding of Malevich’s work of the period. However, it seems counterproductive to choose a staging of the opera translated into English, when the specific jagged, rhythmic sounds and effects of the poetry read aloud carried particular meaning (or lack thereof) in Russian. The deliberately precise recreation of the Zero-Ten exhibition in the following room offers an accurate presentation for “Black Square”; the language of the grainy video of the 1983 staging of Victory Over the Sun heard throughout the exhibition seems to contradict this careful and successful accuracy and detracts from the historical grounding and balance of the retrospective.
Despite the problematic video, Malevich’s career is presented in a comprehensive and thoughtful manner. A highlight of the exhibition is the presentation of Malevich as teacher. A room devoted to Malevich’s years working as instructor and leader of the art students’ Collective, UNOVIS, at the People’s Art School in Vitebsk from 1919 to 1922 presents a visualization of the pedagogical theory and experimentation of Malevich and his contemporaries working in Vitebsk, as well as the art produced by his students. The charts, graphs, and diagrams, which explain Malevich’s views toward color and form as well as the ways in which he taught his theories in his educational workshops, seem to construct the platform for the younger generation of the avant-garde to experiment, and provides the foundation for Malevich’s typographical designs and later paintings.
The room devoted to Malevich’s works on paper could function as an independent exhibition, and chronicles the artist’s entire development through drawings, notes, and postcards. The intimate nature of these sometimes small yet significant sketches gives a glimpse into Malevich’s working methods.
The works in the final room, portraits and figurative paintings reflect the tumultuous years before the artist’s death in 1935. Following an arrest and two-month imprisonment for presumed spying in 1930, Malevich’s final years were spent navigating the apparently frightening terrain of artistic production under Stalin. With socialist realism the only style allowed, Malevich reintroduced figuration into his painting; these later works present similar subject matter to the paintings of his early career yet lack the energetic vigor and experimentation of his youthful stages.
Malevich the painter, sculptor, and teacher held evident importance for the trajectory of European modernism, and the Tate’s exhibition brings a complete image of the monumental, radical artist to a London audience.
Malevich continues at the Tate Modern (Bankside, London) through October 26.