Black Square is a painting by the Kasimir Malevich, a leading figure in the Russian avant garde in the early 20th century. Malevich was a Pole born in 1879 in a small village near Kyiv. He began his artistic career drawing peasants, and quickly received critical acclaim. As he matured as an artist, however, Malevich began to develop a preference for the abstract and for the absurd, and by 1914 had moved to what he called Fevralism, a an artistic movement marked by a desire to destroy concepts of traditional art, which for him were instruments of a “dominant rationalist worldview”[i] that had already run its course through history. Malevich’s “struggle against reason” prompted him to experiment with “reasonless, trance-sense forms” unbounded by depictions of reality. Malevich experimented with various styles, even poetry and “word-art”, but began to increasingly focus on geometric planes and forms. He tired of fetishizing anti-reason, and grew towards what he would later call Suprematism.
Malevich had been for months obsessed with the phrase “partial eclipse” to describe his works.[ii] In the summer of 1915, while in the middle of a painting, he had a sudden revelation as to why – in his Fevralist canvases, “irrational planes had only partially eclipsed elements of the objective world, but the details and fragments of it still showed through.” A black square would then represent a “total eclipse” by blocking out totally the light of reality from shining through. This revelation took Malevich by storm – he quickly painted over his existing canvas with furious brushstrokes. He immediately recognized the revolutionary significance of his work and, although Suprematist ideas had already taken hold by the time he created it, Malevich re-dated the work to 1913 [iii], and attempted to destroy Fevralism from the collective memory, so that Black Square would clearly be the genesis of his new movement, which by omission of Fevralism, would then appear to be the logical conclusion of Western art’s journey from Impressionism to Cubism to Futurism to Suprematism.[iv]
Black Square began as a visual manifesto whose goal was to cause a shift in Western art and evolved into becoming the symbol of an aesthetic and philosophical movement that survived at the whims of Soviet authorities. Black Square and related paintings debuted to the public at the end of 1915, at the “0-10” exhibition, touted as the last Futurist show. Black Square was listed first and foremost in Milevich’s exhibit, and was prominently placed in the top corner of the room – a place usually inhabited by religious icons. The painting quickly took the art world by storm, where it was frequently misunderstood. Critics looked into the square’s dark abyss and saw a social provocation that sapped the foundations of culture – they took away the work’s original, more all-encompassing name Quadrilateral, and dubbed it the more limiting Black Square. In short, critics heard Malevich’s call for the death of existing forms of art but ignored his calls to make new ones. Malevich spent a lot of time fleshing out the philosophy of his new movement in order to better explain his quadrilateral.[v] Suprematism was based on the idea of the “suprematism of pure artistic feeling” rather than on depiction of visual objects.[vi] The message tied to Suprematism is a tricky one that frequently evaded critics, who frequently thought that the movement advocated for depiction of an objectless world distinct from the world of nature, and then proceeded to describe Malevich’s world as mystical, unreal, and otherworldly. But Suprematists were firmly tied to the real world, just in ways different from the norm – Suprematist canvases might accurately be described as “’living models’ of the new conception and sense of space”.[vii] Rather than draw inspiration from objective forms and the human world, Malevich drew inspiration from “cosmic space”[viii] and nature unconstrained by objectivity, like “the sensation of magnetic attraction.”
The message of Suprematism was initially well received by the state. The October Revolution in 1917, the overthrow of the Tsar and the dawn of the Communist age reinforced the idea that the old forms of living had become obsolete, and that new forms of living, architecture, and culture would have to arise as replacements. It was within this fertile landscape that the Russian avant garde, and by extension Suprematism, thrived. A state exhibition in Moscow was dedicated to Suprematism and non-objective art,[ix] Malevich accepted various posts given to him by the state, including as a teacher of art at Vibensk Practical Art School, the Leningrad Academy of the Arts, and the Kyiv State Art Institute, and much of his work, including Black Square, was placed in state museums like the Tratyakov State Gallery. Yet as the Soviet government matured, different, more conservative factions rose to power. More radical styles began to be condemned as bourgeois, and Socialist Realism began to flourish. In 1927, Malevich travelled to Warsaw and then Berlin for a retrospective on his work, and met with influential modernists like Gropius and Le Corbusier.[x] Sensing the changes in Russia, he left much of his works behind. His suspicions, unfortunately, proved correct – upon his return he was arrested most of his works were confiscated by the state – Suprematism was condemned in favor of more realistic styles of art. Malevich was pragmatic and chose to accept the changes that were taking place rather than to be persecuted as a martyr, and died of cancer in 1935, just after the total banning of non-realistic art forms from the Soviet Union. His paintings, including Black Square, were put in storage by the state, and he remained out of the public eye until the dawn of perestroika in the late 1980s.
Black Square is in many ways emblematic of foreign and domestic perceptions of Russian-ness. Its creator’s repudiation of rationalism and embrace of the heavens is in line with centuries of Russian religious thought, and indeed Black Square was in its first exhibition displayed as if it were an icon. Malevich is also very Russian in his bombast – his desire for greatness was one shared many other members of the avant garde and by Russia as a whole – like Malevich himself, Russia emerged from the beginning of the 20th century as a descendant of peasants with a desire to pursue her own direction and overtake her Western colleagues. Malevich’s posing Black Square, and more broadly, Russian Suprematist art, as the logical conclusion of the Western artistic tradition, has much in common with the Eurasianists, who believed that the cradle of civilization was for centuries moving toward colder climes and had finally settled in Russia. Black Square also is emblematic of a foreign depiction of Russia as a mysterious land of isolated brilliance – Milevich was working with ideas that were decades ahead of his time – ideas that were not covered in Western art until the advent of Abstract Expressionism in the 1940s – but his artistic legacy was compromised by the social upheaval taking place in Russia that would ultimately lead to most of his work being put into storage, not unearthed until the late 1980s under perestroika. The fact that Milevich has a legacy in the West at all rests on his whim to have an exhibition in Berlin and leave much of his art there – without it he would have vanished into obscurity.
[i] Shatskikh, 5
[ii] ibid, 44
[iii] ibid, 47
[iv] ibid, 52
[v] Nakov, 75
[vi] Zhadova, 50
[vii] ibid, 50
[viii] ibid, 53
[ix] Andersen, 8
[x] ibid, 9
Andersen, Troels. Malevich. Amsterdam: Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, 1970. Print.
Nakov, Andrei. Malevich: Painting the Absolute. II. Burlington, VT: Lund Humphries, 2010. Print.
Shatskikh, Aleksandra. Black Square. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012. Print.
Zhadova, Larissa. Malevich: Suprematism and Revolution in Russian Art 1910-1930. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1982. Print.