Kazimir Malevich (1879–1935) is one of the founding fathers of Modernism, and as such entirely deserves the in-depth treatment with which this massive new Tate show honours him. But it should be recognised from the start that this is a difficult exhibition, making serious intellectual and emotional demands on visitors, as art enters the realm of pure thought, utterly divorced from the comforting world of appearances. Malevich was one of the first great revolutionary practitioners of abstract art, a pioneer who made work of singular beauty and resonance, but his path is not always easy to follow. Perhaps with this in mind, the exhibition starts with a room of early, mostly figurative work, in which Malevich is shown experimenting with different ways of depicting. These range from the full but softly stated realism of ‘Portrait of the Artist’s Father’ (1902–3), to a more heavily textured and pointillist approach in ‘Church’ and ‘Houses in the City’, to the more decorative and folk art influenced ‘Little Village’ (1908), and the emblematic ‘Self-Portrait’ (1908–10).
This group of paintings is gathered to show the roots of Malevich’s art, but also to demonstrate that he was skilled in various accepted realist styles before he decided to seek what he believed was an alternative and more convincing truth. Two paintings here offer a taste of things to come: ‘Landscape’ and ‘Bather’, both of 1911. ‘Bather’ is a sophisticated version of primitivism seen (and absorbed) through the filter of the modern — specifically Matisse and Gauguin. But it has an unexpected Play-Doh Frankenstein’s Monster awkwardness about it as it flippers its way through an overheated world. Where will this strange figure lead? We follow it through a couple of rooms of avant-garde experiment, mostly in the curved planes and glowing colours of a hybrid called Cubo-Futurism — Futurist dynamism combined with Cubist fracturing — and then into Room 4 which explores Malevich’s involvement with poetry and the theatre. The main example here is a Futurist opera called Victory over the Sun, which was staged in St Petersburg in December 1913.
In this room is one of Malevich’s first abstracts, ‘Black Quadrilateral’, perhaps made as early as 1914, and painted over another design (which helps to date it). This is the beginning of Suprematism, Malevich’s great contribution to the development of Modernism, intended to assert the ‘supremacy of sensation’. Malevich was one of the most spiritually orientated of the Russian avant-garde, not simply obsessed with the heroism of modern life and making a brave new world, but recognising the dangers technology presented to humanity. His art has a mystical dimension, and it’s clear that he used the forms of square, rectangle and cross to invoke religious thoughts and connotations. For him, art was a pure and independent activity, not a practical one, more like philosophy or pure mathematics than (for instance) architecture. He was in pursuit of universal sensations, communicated through form and colour, which were spiritual rather than material, and refreshingly impersonal.
In Room 5 we reach the first in a suite of four galleries which comprise the heart of the exhibition. Here are ‘Black and White, Suprematist Composition’ and ‘Four Squares’, both from 1915, and a later ‘Black Square’ (from 1923) — the image for which Malevich is most famous. The original one is now too fragile to travel, and luckily he painted several versions of this extraordinarily radical image. Why is it so revolutionary? You might object that it is simply a black square painted on a white one, but it is precisely the reductive purity of the image that confirms its potency. Before this, abstraction had meant reducing and summarising the visible world into a pattern of shapes. Now Malevich proposed a variant which had nothing to do with the world’s appearance. With a breathtaking economy of means, he created forms without mass, elements hovering in cosmic space. His aim was to deepen visual experience by making it more general and less descriptive and specific.
Room 6 recreates his 1915 ‘Last Exhibition of Futurist Painting 0.10 (Zero-Ten)’ held in Petrograd, with nine out of the 12 paintings whose whereabouts are known today brought together. This memorable installation is focused around a corner in which a ‘Black Square’ from 1929 is hung high like an icon or a TV screen. Malevich’sabstract vocabulary of angled oblongs, squares and spars, with the occasional circle or wedge, is put to fine use in this group. Room 7 further explores the potential of non-objective art, summoning up through organised colour blocks the seeming trajectories of futuristic spacecraft. Many of these compositions are complex, but to my eye the simpler are the most effective — such as the smallish ‘Suprematist Painting: Rectangle and Circle’ (1915). Room 8, entitled ‘The End of Painting’, ups the stakes and investigates the fading of forms from sight, ultimately in white on white. This is as radical as it gets, and I find it both moving and beautiful.
After this Malevich stopped painting for a while and concentrated on teaching. Room 10, however, offers a mini-retrospective of drawings throughout his career — a substantial exhibition in its own right — that contains too many marvellous things to mention. In the last two rooms we see Malevich returning to figuration with Leger-like simplifications and stylised, often faceless figures. His final works seem to hark back to Renaissance Florence, very far from the revolutionary fervour of his middle years. Radical abstraction was now utterly disgraced in favour of the state art of social realism. Even during his lifetime, Malevich was out of fashion. He was excluded, for instance, from the 1927 Moscow jubilee exhibition entitled Ten Years of Soviet Art, and in 1930 he was accused of espionage and arrested. When his death came in 1935 it must have been in some ways a relief. Subsequently, Stalin banned his work, and the famous ‘Black Square’ was not exhibited again until the 1980s. Malevich’s art may have disappeared, but his influence lived on, as inspiration and catalyst for successive generations. We will not see the like of this vast and impressive exhibition during our lifetimes. Try to visit it now, if only to look at Rooms 5, 6, 7 and 8. For the rest, aim to develop the confidence to browse intelligently — which is not the same thing as skimming — there’s enough here for several days’ intensive study.