Saturday, December 26, 2015

The centenary of The Black Square by Kazimir Malevich

Kazimir Malevich: Чёрный квадрат / The Black Square, 1922. © Russian Museum.
At the Russian Museum I mostly focused on representational art, although that museum has also the largest collection of Russian avantgarde, including a lot of pioneering abstract art. During my visits there was also a striking display of key works by Kazimir Malevich in the permanent exhibition.

The Black Square project was a major obsession of Malevich's for some twenty years. His final Black Square (1932) I saw at the Hermitage two years ago. There it was a startling full stop to a giant survey of world art history. The Black Square at the Russian Museum is from 1922, a part of a triptych including also a Cross and a Circle.

For the first time Malevich displayed a Black Square in 1915 (that work I understand is now on display at the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow), a hundred years ago.

The Black Square can be interpreted in many different ways. For me, it is an intervention in the history of art and the philosophy of history.

World War One had started, and the Belle Époque had abruptly ended. In the history of art, key concepts such as the beautiful and the sublime became meaningless for truly creative new art. (They kept their relevance for traditional art and new art produced in a traditional or conventional fashion).

"The end of art" became a relevant question then, and it has never lost its relevance since.

The Black Square conveyed the shock of WWI in a startling fashion. The reverberations of that shock still go on, and we keep reassessing its reflections in art.

Might The Black Square be considered the most definitive artistic reflection of WWI?

The Black Square is also an intriguing work in the discussion about the prohibition of the image, the Judaic-Christian-Islamic issue relevant to the Second Commandment. In that sense there is a direct link from Kazimir Malevich to Mark Rothko.

On my second visit to the Russian Museum I also saw the special exhibition "Russia. Realism. XXI Century" with contemporary artists such as Alexei Belyaev-Gintovt, Ekaterina Gracheva, Vadim Grigoriev-Bashun, Alexander Dashevsky, Frol Ivanov, Denis Ichitovkin, Taisia Korotkova, Kirill Koteshov, Pavel Otdelnov, Olga Osnach, Ekaterina Pestova and Igor Pestov, Vladimir Potapov, Vitaliy Pushnitskiy, Kerim Ragimov, Hamid Savkuev, Victor Safonkin, Maria Safronova, and Mikhail Khazin. The newest works are from this year, 2015.

For me the general spirit of this special exhibition is a profound distrust in the conventions of realism. Many works refer to the realistic tradition of the Soviet Union in an ironic or satiric fashion. There are also giant photorealistic works which highlight the glossily denatured way in which their subjects are depicted. None of the works feels real. All have an alienated approach.

There is a meta-realistic aspect in the exhibition. As if a direct account of reality would have become impossible.

From this special exhibition there is a direct access to the rooms displaying "Socialist Realism" in the permanent exhibition.

I begin to understand that the Russian Museum is not just a place where you can visit the great classics. It is also a place of rewriting and reappraising art history. Among the museum's projects is a rehabilitation of artists who were discriminated and persecuted during the Soviet Union. Entire schools of art are being rescued from oblivion. There will be a lot to discover at this Museum.

Viktor Safonkin: The First Snow, 2014. Oil on canvas. © Viktor Safonkin.

Fyodor Vasilyev: Оттепель / The Thaw, 1871. Oil on canvas. 53,5 x 107. © Russian Museum. Please click to enlarge!

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