Magazine article Artforum International

Kasimir Malevich

Magazine article Artforum International

Kasimir Malevich

Article excerpt

KUNSTHALLE BIELEFELD

Why did Kasimir Malevich, whose name has become the very embodiment of abstract painting, end his life's work with figure paintings and portraits that strike admirers of Suprematism with pure honor? Why this treason against the square? Not even this exhibition of works from the collection of the State Russian Museum in St. Petersburg, the largest show to date of Malevich's late period, can offer an answer. But what if it was not treason at all? What if this development was inherent in the painter's work from the very beginning?

The exhibition contained many depictions of peasants, whom Malevich (following a prerevolutionary usage) referred to as "krestjane" ("baptized ones"). In 1912, when he and the poet Velimir Khlebnikov were looking for a name for their art, they decided on "Budetjane," coined from budet (it shall be) and jane, the suffix taken from krestjane. So it means something like "the ones to come." The art of the future, Malevich predicted, was to be the art of the peasants. And peasant art was the art of icons. Indeed, Malevich approaches his peasants frontally, the way icon painters depicted saints. And his palette points up the same connection. At the Dacha, sometimes dated around 1910 but at Bielefeld as 1928-29, is painted in red, blue, and yellow on a background in which green and pink predominate. The figure in Peasant Woman, dated at Bielefeld to the early '30s, is painted as a group of flat, unmodeled surfaces in white and black, the colors of Malevich's squares, against a background of yellow, blue, red, pink, and green--in other words, the seven colors typical of icons. A coincidence? An abstract painting from 1928-29 called Suprematist Construction of Color displays precisely these seven colors.

Icon painters work from the premise that reality cannot be captured. They renounce mimesis, the dominant western concept of art since the Renaissance, which had come to hold sway even in Russia, at least among the educated. Throughout the course of his life, Malevich tried to reconcile these two interpretations of art with his peasant paintings--borrowing the peasant from reality while at the same time placing him outside of reality through color and the modeling of light and space, as in an icon.

He acted even more radically in 1923, when he participated in the Unovis exhibition in Petrograd. There Malevich showed two "empty" monochrome canvases that he called Suprematist Mirrors, 1923. …

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