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Over the years, many an artistic masterpiece has been discovered hiding beneath layers of paint on reused canvases. There was a portrait of a woman behind van Gogh’s “Patch of Grass” (1887); a portrait of a bearded man beneath Picasso’s “The Blue Room” (1901); and a painting of a woman with a child, bull, and sheep under Picasso’s “The Old Guitarist” (1904). But unlike the painting that art historians recently discovered under Kazimir Malevich’s “Black Square” (1915), none of these hidden compositions contained racist jokes.

After examining “Black Square” under a microscope, researchers from Russia’s State Tretyakov Gallery, which houses one of three versions of the Suprematist composition, found a handwritten inscription under a topcoat of black paint. They believe it reads “Battle of negroes in a dark cave.”

Though they’re still deciphering the handwriting, the researchers assume this phrase is a reference to what is widely believed to be the first modern monochromatic artwork, a 1897 work by French writer and humorist Alphonse Allais, called “Combat de Nègres dans une cave pendant la nuit” (“Negroes Fighting in a Cellar at Night”). If their speculations are correct, then “Black Square” is in some kind of dialogue with Allais, who was well-known in Russia at the time Malevich worked, and whose “Combat” piece was considered a joke by contemporary European audiences, even if it is clearly a racist one.

Alphonse Allais, “Combat des Negres dans une cave, pendant la nuit” (“Negroes Fighting in a Cellar at Night”) (1897) (via

Now often referred to as the “zero point of painting,” “Black Square” is widely considered an avant-garde masterpiece. It has considerably degraded over the years due to poor conservation, having spent years unattended in Soviet archives. As art critic Peter Schjeldahl put it in the New Yorker, “The painting looks terrible: crackled, scuffed, and discolored, as if it had spent the past 88 years patching a broken window.”

In addition to the inscription, two other images were found under the black topcoat. “It has been known that under the image of the Black Square some other, underlying picture exists. We’ve found out that not just one, but two images are [underneath it],” Ekaterina Voronina, a researcher from Russia’s State Tretyakov Gallery, told Russia’s Kultura (Culture) TV channel. “We proved that the initial image is a Cubo-Futurist composition, while the painting lying directly under the Black Square — the colors of which you can see in the cracks — is a proto-Suprematist composition,” she said.

Carey Dunne

Carey Dunne is a Brooklyn-based writer covering arts and culture. Her work has appeared in The Guardian, The Baffler, The Village Voice, and elsewhere.

19 replies on “Art Historians Find Racist Joke Hidden Under Malevich’s “Black Square””

  1. Hilarious! Especially the Supremely UnConstructivist statement by Ekaterina Voronina at the end. After a century of serious palaver from the Critics, Abstraction turns out to be an Exquisitely Corpsed knock-knock joke, dispensing with the object but keeping the punchline intact. Duchamp would be proud.

    1. First Christianity, then capitalism, then Duchamp. The owl of Minerva now flies every hour on the hour. Under an enormous, brutal cloud of funny money, we who were once artists await the rain.

  2. Some sources informed me that several options are under consideration: (1) the writing was someone else’s ; (2) it came from Malevitch, but he was forced by some leftwing or right-wing power to make the note. (3) The most dramatic one: Malevitch turns out not to be Russian. (4) Robert Rauschenberg was allowed some time – alone in the room – with the painting.
    These visons are not mine, says Drager Meurtant

  3. Before I start a painting I always paint or write something on the canvas that is randomly ridiculous to befuddle and confuse the future art investigators of my paintings….
    “Under his painting he painted a group of 7 1/2 black & white neutered dogs wearing cubist dresses & impressionistic top hats who are handing out bibles while singing the praises of proto-Cubo-Futuristic compositions – what could that mean????”

  4. It should be noted that a possible “sister” painting to this one was recently discovered quite recently during the demolition of a tenement once occupied by the artist in the suburbs of St. Petersburg/Leningrad.
    The work consisted of a large white square (rectangular) and was tentatively determined to be one of Malevich’s efforts from what is now considered the post-suprematist, pre-Cubo-Futurism he adopted in fresh bloom of the early post-revolutionary years.
    Curiously, art experts studying the painting for confirmation of its authenticity have found underneath the heavily craquelured paint an inscription clearly saying, “Snowstorm with Polar Bear.”
    Together these two finds confirm both works as echte Malevich beyond a reasonable doubt.

    1. Actually, it wasn’t “Snowstorm with Polar Bear” but “White person getting knocked out by polar bear during blizzard in boxing ring.” At least that is what they discovered under the White on White painting at MOMA. (I posted the page.)

  5. Particular to the found title, maybe there was a word play and engagement with the Supremacist idealogy.

  6. I wonder if the other two underlying images have a correlation with the racist phrase, or if Malevich just chose to paint over the other images in black to “erase” them and respond to Allias’ painting…

  7. I wonder how people would change their mind on this “master piece” after they find out this is a racist piece. Will it still be a master piece because of its artistic value, or will it just be considered as racism.

  8. This is quite an interesting article and brings new light to a piece that to some, doesn’t look like much.

  9. “… “Black Square” is widely considered an avant-garde masterpiece” That tells us all we need to know about “avant-garde”.

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