Malevich Exhibition

Having finally made it to the Matisse cut-outs at Tate Modern (don't miss!) I thought I might look in on the Malevich exhibition too, knowing that it has been highly rated by the critics and also knowing absolutely nothing about Malevich. This is not a particularly large exhibition, a fact that allows you to focus on the historical background which is integral to understanding the artwork. The great political upheaval in Russia though which Malevich lived his working life deeply influenced the outlook and behaviour of the artistic community of which he was a part.

To quote 'The Guardian' -'To see the paintings in this intensely moving restrospective - the first in Britain since the artist's death in 1935, isolated, impoverished, purged by Stalin - is to realise just how romantic the painter's dream of art could be.

Before 1915 Malevich tried out everything from impressionism to cubism to futurist machines out of which arose a style of his own where peasants and villages emerged from cylindrical steel-like shapes. After 1915 everything changed. In this momentous year we see a switch to rectilinear shapes in brilliant colours which give a sensation of movement - soaring upward, marching forward etc. without any hint of figuration. Geometry and colour are all Malevich needed to speak of freedom. He called this 'suprematism', a radical reduction of painting to nothing but shape and colour. Paintings would depict nothing, state nothing and resist all aesthetic conventions. This movement would spring free as the Russian Revolution itself. The gallery reproduces the Petrograd exhibition of that year where nine of his paintings are displayed amongst his contemporaries. High in one corner hangs the famours 'Black Square'. This is a modern icon hanging where a true icon would be in a Russian home. It marks a zero hour in Russian art. At a time when the word 'iconic' is misused over and over again, this painting truly is, because a Russian artist saw it as all that could be left of a true icon.

1917 led to a total collapse of the old regime. Through the next two years Malevich's artwork became even simpler with single planes of colour often fading away the edges and, in the end, almost colourless. He wrote "Painting died like the old regime, because it was an organic part of it." Poverty stricken he took up teaching posts until in 1927 he took up painting again. You need to visit the exhibition to see how he fared in his final years under Stalin. It's worth a look.

Christine Richards