Foot Soldiers of the Russian Avant-Garde

Article excerpt

IN 1917 when Russia's brave new world called for a brave new art, painters Kazimir Malevich and Liubov Popova figured as important members of the Russian avant-garde - a cadre of innovative modern artists. These artists ascended under the aegis of the Bolshevik regime only to slide into obscurity when that government's idealism fossilized into repression.

Two retrospectives, Malevich at the Metropolitan Museum and Popova at the Museum of Modern Art, give us illuminating career overviews of artists who forged their art in the eye of this political tempest. Both artists responded uniquely to those pressures with heroic and authoritative work.

For a short-lived moment before and after the Russian Revolution, the interests of the artistic avant-garde and the new socialist regime marched in perfect step. Citizen and artist were linked in a nationalistic vision that sought new art for a new social order. Malevich and Popova were zealous revolutionaries; in turn, politicians had a healthy respect for the power of the image and the written word.

Of the two, Popova is the lesser-known. She was younger, died at an early age and faired better under the vagaries of state-sponsored art. Her retrospective handsomely traces an inspired if short career, leaving to speculation how Popova's art might have developed during the brutal repression of the Stalin years.

Malevich on the other hand is a seminal if poorly understood icon of modern art. His stark geometric canvases open every art history book's discussion of geometric abstract art.

Malevich laid the theoretical and formal foundation for just about all the hard-edged abstract painting we see and puzzle over today.

The show treats us to a healthy sampling of the geometric art for which Malevich is remembered and respected, but almost as important, it introduces viewers to the sweep of the artist's eccentric and chameleon-like creativity. We see him exploring - with innate Russian passion - at least four mutually exclusive styles, carving an almost schizoid body of work with an ease and elegance that awes and befuddles viewers.

Malevich was born in 1878 to a rural working-class family. As a mature artist, he would say that it was not art but nature that inspired his work. He said that his earliest, most moving experiences came from the sensations, colors, moods of nature - shifting clouds, sunlight passing over puddles. These ties to the land and to Russian folk roots would fuel collisions of spirit and intellect. Folk art meets Futurism

There's a touch of inspired, if crude genius in the provocative, bizarre hybrids he came up with. A brooding self-portrait of a handsome young Malevich combines Matisse's color with the edgy, psychological tension of expressive styles in Northern Europe. Cezanne and Russian icons blend oddly in images of thick-limbed peasants with enormous red hands who gaze out at us or somberly tend gardens.

Works in the style Malevich called "Cubo-Futurist" depict peasants, trees, villages painted as if they were broken shards of metal, softened by the rich hues, emotional directness, and the homey warmth of folk art. In a beautiful, strange painting of a violin, a cow, and curious crazy marks, we sense an artist struggling to balance his innate humanism, his respect for modern progess, and his sense of outrage against the technology of war.

These early works are harbingers of the unchartered artistic ground he was to break: Every figure, every object is formed with simple masses of bright sharp color contained by rhythmic lines that defy gravity and have a life on the canvas that goes beyond description.

In 1915 Malevich made the quantum leap into the world of the unseen, inventing the movement of abstract art and aesthetics he called Suprematism. …