Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Malevich at Tate Modern

I didn't know much about Kazimir Malevich other than he worked at the start of the 20th century in Russia and pushed abstraction as far as it could go and that's about it. When I saw that the Tate Modern planned a summer exhibition of his work then I decided to go to find out more about the man and his work. I made an unplanned visit yesterday since I was in the area and needed to get out of the sun for bit (yes, London is sunny at the moment). Not the best reason for going but it got me through the gallery door and I'm pleased I did.

The exhibition is on the floor above the current Matisse exhibition and, possibly, suffers because of that. There were quite a few people browsing his paintings but nothing like the hoards that seem to inhabit Matisse's Cut-Outs exhibition. That was a good thing from my point of view. The twelve rooms take us chronologically - and intellectually - through Malevich's career, from his early, largely figurative paintings through his extreme Suprematist abstractions and back to a figurative form in the 1930s. Politics is never far from Malevich and his work wasn't always welcomed by those in power and soon disappeared from view shortly after his death in 1935 when Stalin decided that socialist realism was the way forward.

There are lots of labels in this exhibition, and just just the names of the paintings. We see how the Russian painters absorbed cubism from Paris and futurism from Italy and developed their own 'cubo-futurism' style. One of my favourites in this style is 'Morning In The Village After The Snowstorm' where we see planes and curves of snow drifting and covering the houses and trees. Later, after the Russian revolution, Malevich led the new artistic and intellectual discipline of 'suprematism'. He wrote, 'The artist can be a creator only when the forms in his picture have nothing in common with nature' and, 'Suprematism is the beginning of a new culture...'. 

Malevich holds a rather unique position in the history of art, living through not only the First World War but also the Russian revolution and staying in Russia. Perhaps that's why we see such radical changes in his art, not just the inevitable growth and development you would expect between someone's early and later works, but Malevich seems to push any conceivable boundaries to their extreme limits. And then worry that he can't push them any further. We see his early figurative work give way to flat and curved planes of colour before moving into more pure abstraction and then, when he reaches the limit of that, starts painting white on white pictures before falling silent. He then recovers and starts painting intensely colourful figurative paintings before re-discovering his own version of realism in the last years of his life. 

The one word that screams at me throughout this exhibition is 'intellectual' - no doubt their is passion in there as well but it's the intellectual foundations of his works that overpower. That's what makes him a bit different from his contemporaries and what makes this exhibition rather special.

After going through his extreme experimentation with art he returned to figurative painting in his later years and I like this painting of his wife in 1935, the year of his death. That makes it rather poignant. The lasting impression of the exhibition is the painting that helped him to develop suprematism, his 'Black Square', a black square with a white border. It's an iconic and challenging symbol of revolution and change and he signed his later paintings with a small black square rather than with his name. The exhibition booklet tells us that, at his funeral, his mourners held flags with black squares. What a profound gesture of respect.

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