December 28, 2011

The Kasimir Malevich Spectrum

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Why did Malevich devolve his Suprematism back to figuration? Or was this a re-evolution from a year zero forward? Was he reacting to Stalinist pressure to provide his own form of socialist realism? Was the avant gardist moment by internal necessity only a fugitive moment in history?

Searching on, I harvested the following fascinating links:

Here is a blockquote from artist John Goto, who based his work partly on the life of Malevich:

The final years of Malevich's life are poorly documented and the intentions behind the works he made remain uncertain. No historical consensus has emerged to explain why his paintings seemed to draw ever closer to the official Socialist Realist style, or to account for his practice of faking his own earlier works by dating images made during the early 1930s as if they came from the pre-Revolutionary period.

In an attempt to unravel the mystery surrounding these late works, Goto makes a speculative reading of Malevich's life and images against the political and social event of the early Stalinist period. He picks up the story in 1927 when Malevich toured Poland and Germany with an exhibition that marked the high point of his career and was to guarantee his reputation in the West long after he was all but forgotten in the USSR. Even 'as glory falls like rain' upon Malevich, a sense of foreboding seems to have motivated a last will that he wrote in Berlin.

As the 1920s concluded Malevich, like many intellectuals, found himself under increasing pressure as articles and exhibitions were criticised or censored and his research post terminated. He was arrested in 1930 and questioned over several months. This period saw the first Five Year Plan introduced and also one of the first major trials of technicians scapegoated for the failures of industry. Stalin turned his attention to the countryside where the Party still lacked complete control and began a programme of forced collectivisation of the farms. The wealthier peasants, termed 'Kulaks', were deported in their millions. During the winter of 1932/3 a terrible famine swept the Ukraine.

The cancer that killed Malevich was probably diagnosed in 1933, but his requests to be allowed abroad for treatment were refused. After the assassination in 1934 of his rival, Sergei Kirov , Stalin unleashed the Great Terror which claimed the lives of countless millions including some of Malevich's old students and collaborators. Malevich died on 15 May, 1935.

Avant-garde and politics, Malevich, Stalin, Laibach by Tuomas Nevanlinna.

Kasimir Malevich - an introduction by Katrin Bettina M?ller

The fact that he returned to representational painting at the end of the twenties still creates confusion to this day. Did he give in, in the end? Or was he trying out new forms that he'd gained from Suprematism? What also makes the classification and evaluation difficult is the fact that Malevich in part gave incorrect dates to his works - namely from the time preceding Suprematism. One of his last paintings is a self-portrait in the style of Italian Renaissance painting. Yet instead of his name, he signed it with a black square in the bottom right-hand corner.

More of the big lie that ?Dream factory communism: the visual culture of the Stalin era?an exhibition at the Schirn Kunsthalle, Frankfurt By Marianne Arens and Sybille Fuchs:

As noted earlier, works of Kasimir Malevich are also exhibited, including three paintings: ?Three Girls? (1928-32), ?Three Women on a Road? (1930) and ?Female Harvesters? (1928-29). These works fall completely outside the exhibitor?s framework of socialist realism. No one would be a more unlikely court painter to a privileged bureaucracy than Malevich, the founder of ?Suprematism.? Malevich became known through his pure abstractions such as a square or a circle. He placed, for example, his ?Red Square? provocatively on the site of a religious icon. The name ?Suprematism? was derived from the Latin supremus, ?the highest,? signifying for him, the surmounting of every ?Lie in the world of will and representation? through abstractions. Malevich, who contributed actively in the building of new structures of art and culture in the young Soviet state, fell into disfavour under Stalin because of his ?formalism,? was arrested for a time, contracted cancer, and died in isolation in 1935.

The exhibition?s notes hardly refer to the bitter conflict between the major artists and the Stalinist bureaucracy. Instead, in the case of Malevich, for example, it states: ?In the late 1920s many of the Russian avant-garde artists began a gradual transition to pictorial portrayal of people?above all the longed for ?new men.? This involved the transition from the early avant-garde abstractions to figuratives and the photographic character of ?socialist realism.??

However, when Malevich in his later works again turned to painting, his work in no way represented a transition to socialist realism. So the depiction in the exhibition of strapping ?Female Harvesters? with their flared skirts and blouses set in a sunny landscape appears rather as an ironically distant reference to a no-longer-existing idyll.

And more: Malevich $17 Million Sale Finally Buries Stalinism By Hilton Kramer:

Who, then, was Kazimir Malevich? This hero of Russian modernism was actually of Polish-Ukrainian origin, and it may truly be said of him that of all the pioneer creators of abstract art in the 20th century, none was more extreme in his artistic ambition, none more alienated from the world that produced him, and none, in the end, more thoroughly compromised by the circumstances that marked the demise of all his hard-won accomplishments.

It is not a historical rarity in the modern age for artists to entertain megalomaniac illusions about the importance of their work and its power to transform the world in which they live, yet even by the standards of his age and milieu, Malevich stands out as a special case. For in the final analysis, this charismatic artist, mystic and revolutionary set himself up as a rival to no less an adversary than God, and with a demonic confidence in the occult power of the avant-garde movement, which he founded in 1915 and gave the name Suprematism, he entertained the delusion that he might finally triumph over death itself. Compared to Malevich, Mondrian was a pietist, and Kandinsky, an artist-intellectual of modest ambition.

The era in which Malevich came of age as an artist in Russia was one of the most extraordinary in the annals of the modern avant-garde-an era in which talent abounded, innovation was the watchword, and audacity the measure of all accomplishment. It was also, of course, a period of political tumult in which the rudiments of a bourgeois democratic system were attempting to take root in a society bounded by a failing autocracy and the dream of a total revolutionary upheaval. Here, too, theosophy and other schools of mystical thought flourished among artists, writers and intellectuals, and produced in the figure of Peter Demianovich Uspensky the mystical philosopher whose own variation on occult doctrine would be crucial to the development of Malevich?s-and Suprematism?s-art and theory.

All theosophical doctrine embraces as a fundamental tenet an unquestioning belief in immortality and reincarnation. It was Uspensky?s distinction that he carried this belief to a further extreme, propounding the notion that there was a ?fourth dimension? to existence that allowed the spiritually elect to overcome the bondage of death in the material world and enter the timeless universe of the spiritual life. This mystical doctrine was outlined in two books, The Fourth Dimension (1909) and Tertium Organum (1911), writings that enjoyed an enormous vogue in Russian artistic circles at the very moment Malevich was making his way, as an artist, through the succession of styles-from Impressionism to Art Nouveau to neo-Primitivism and Cubo-Futurism-that led him to the frontiers of abstraction.

It was another special feature of Uspensky?s philosophy that it specified that ?a cube, a sphere, a pyramid, a cone, a cylinder, may be projections or cross-sections of four-dimensional bodies unknown to us.? In Uspensky?s mystical cosmology, geometric form was thus believed to signify the victory of the spirit over death. It was with this metaphysical warrant that Malevich, in 1915, created the art of Suprematism, a mode of pure abstraction based on the use of the square, the cube and the cross-forms on which he conferred first a religious and then a political significance.

Exhibition in Bielefield, Germany?Kazimir Malevich: The Later Work By Sybille Fuchs:

During this difficult time in his life, Malevich started painting in a new style without, however, distancing himself from the artistic insights he had gained during his earlier period. In the few years left to him (he died of cancer in 1935) he clearly waged a struggle for recognition at the very highest level of artistic achievement by returning to objective painting, and in a certain sense even re-creating his early work prior the Suprematist period, while at the same time seeking new forms of expression.

As in his youth, he began once again to paint in the style of late Impressionism, following the tracks of Bonnard and Matisse and back-dating his canvases to 1908 or 1909. Other paintings are closer to C?zanne or are reminiscent of Fernand Leger's plump geometrical shapes and Picasso's work. Malevich appears to have passed through all the earlier stages of his artistic development again at a furious pace?Impressionism, Fauvism, Cubism and finally non-objective painting. He actually painted some of his early work (for instance, Washerwoman) a second time. In fact, several of the pictures displayed in Bielefeld have only recently been established by means of precise scientific examination as belonging to his later work.

Parallel and subsequent to these paintings with their clear reference to the artistic movements of the early twentieth century and to his own early work, Malevich struck out in a new direction with paintings of usually faceless people positioned in a given space. These paintings are clearly reminiscent of Suprematism in their colours and shapes, but their abstractness has nothing more to do with the philosophical simplicity of the Black Square. It is not easy to interpret this return to objectiveness. It would certainly be wrong to see an adaptation to the demands of the bureaucracy or resignation in them. But nevertheless Malevich, as an artist, was reacting to the changes in society with the instruments of art. Perhaps one should see it as an attempt, by means of moving "one step back" aesthetically in leaving aside the formal severity of non-objectivity, to move one step forward in a new direction by placing the old into context to the new, to what could not as yet be realised.

UPDATE: Why am I interested in this subject? Much like Picasso, Malevich was aware of the popular notion of the art dialogue as if it were teleological, that it serves a purpose or end. But they both embraced earlier iterations or evolutions of form and content, returning freely to forms that they had pioneered along the way, in effect shuffling and equating and therefore negating the usual narrative of objective figuration evolving to non-objective abstraction (cue the Mondrian slide show). In other words, the territory of painting and art is bigger than either representation or abstraction. The answer is both representation and abstraction. In an epoch of space/time and particle/wave, could it be any other?

Posted by Dennis at December 28, 2011 7:58 PM

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