Kasmir Malevich

WHY DID KASIMIR MALEVICH, whose name has become the very embodiment of abstract painting, end his life's work with figure paintings and portraits that strike admirers of Suprematism with pure horror? Why this treason against the square? Not even this exhibition of works from the collection of the State Russian Museum in St. Petersburg, the largest show to date of Malevich's late period, can offer an answer. But what if it was not treason at all? What if this development was inherent in the painter's work from the very beginning?

The exhibition contained many depictions of peasants, whom Malevich (following a prerevolutionary usage) referred to as “krestjane” (“baptized ones”). In 1915 when he and the poet Velimir Khlebnikov were looking for a name for their art, they decided on “Budetjane,” coined from budet (it shall be) and jane, the suffix taken from krestjane. So it means something like “the ones to come.” The art of the future, Malevich predicted, was to be the art of the peasants. And peasant art was the art of icons. Indeed, Malevich approaches his peasants frontally, the way icon painters depicted saints. And his palette points up the same connection. At the Dacha, sometimes dated around 1910 but at Bielefeld as 1928–29, is painted in red, blue, and yellow on a background in which green and pink predominate. The figure in Peasant Woman, dated at Bielefeld to the early '30s, is painted as a group of flat, unmodeled surfaces in white and black, the colors of Malevich's squares, against a background of yellow, blue, red, pink and green—in other words, the seven colors typical of icons. A coincidence? An abstract painting from 1928–29 called Suprematist Construction of Color displays precisely these seven colors.

Icon painters work from the premise that reality cannot be captured. They renounce mimesis, the dominant western concept of art since the Renaissance, which had come to hold sway even in Russia, at least among the educated. Throughout the course of his life. Malevich tried to reconcile these two interpretations of art with his peasant paintings—borrowing the peasant from reality while at the same time placing him outside of reality through color and the modeling of light and space, as in an icon.

He acted even more radically in 1923, when he participated in the Unovis exhibition in Petrograd. There Malevich showed two “empty” monochrome canvases that he called Suprematist Mirrors, 1923. What knowledge do these mirrors reflect? In his manifesto of the same name, Malevich calls it “zero-knowledge,” for “science and art know no boundaries, because that which they seek to know is infinite and not calculable in numbers; that which is infinite and incalculable equals zero.” Shortly thereafter, he stopped painting. Why? Was it because he could no longer believe in the representational value of images?

In 1928 Malevich once again took up the brush, and once again it is peasants that he painted. He executed gripping images in which faceless figures appear in a timeless space. In astonishing paintings like Suprematism: Female Figure, 1928–29, a woman painted in black wearing a green skirt stands isolated against a white background, with two white-on-white figures emerging on either side of her. He also painted colorful, seemingly lighthearted pictures that mimic the styles of the Impressionists, Cézanne, and Matisse. Many of these had until now been considered part of his early work. Some are cheerful, others grotesque, as though they were parodies of these various modern “isms.” Why not? After all, Malevich's belief in the representational value of images, the goal of all these artistic movements, had been fundamentally shaken since the Suprematist Mirrors.

From earlier exhibitions we are familiar with Malevich's late portraits, “signed” with a black square, in which he and his friends appear as Renaissance personages. Their faces and hands are painted realistically, while their clothing is composed of flat, colored surfaces as in the peasant paintings. Why this reference to the Renaissance? Couldn't it be that Malevich, who in his oeuvre deals with the conflict between icons and images-as-representations, felt a kinship with the artists of that era of transition? It was they who bade farewell to the Western equivalent of icons and replaced them with mimetic images. In contrast, Malevich remained true to the icon until the end of his life. In one of his last paintings, Portrait of V.A. Pavlov, 1933, not exhibited in Bielefeld, Malevich realistically depicts his friend in front of a black square on a white background, which is hanging on the wall as a painting—painting as representation or as icon? Was it this conflict that led Malevich to such a chameleon-like (from today's point of view, even postmodern) use of styles and cultural traditions?

Noemi Smolik

Translated from German by Sara Ogger.