Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Top Ten Pieces Of Art: 9 - 'Black Circle & Black Square' by Kazimir Malevich


Ok, I might be cheating again… two paintings? ...But they were executed in the same year, 1913, and are intended to be seen together. So that counts as a diptych, right? I really like them together – they have serenity, gravitas and are almost ‘Zen’ in their poetic simplicity.

Kazimir Malevich is one of the most important painters in progressing Modern visual arts. He was the founder of Suprematism and the instigator of a new language of form that emphasised emotions and big human concepts, rather than merely attempting to represent aspects of the ‘real’ world through illusions of perspective, figurative symbolism and trompe l’oeil. Along with Constructivist artists, such as El Lissitzky, Malevich innovated the use of abstract geometrics to represent feelings and concepts.

In one of his pieces, Black Rectangle, Blue Triangle (circa 1915, above) the introduction of the dynamic triangle changes the solid and ‘static’ rectangle into a new seven-sided form. The triangle represents a smaller, though more dynamic force that appears to have moved into the composition, its presence changing the status quo that had existed prior to its intervention. El Lissitzky took this idea and ‘ran with it’ in his famous (Beat The Whites With) The Red Wedge (1919, below) poster in which the Red Wedge represents the dynamic force for change that was Communism and the Revolution… The next time you use a DVD player, or your MP3 player you will find Malevich’s legacy: Why do you think the triangle means play, the square means stop, and a red circle represents record? Then go and take another look at the Suprematists and Constructavists…

This development of a completely new language of form begins with experimental Suprematist paintings by Malevich such as Black Circle, Black Square and Black Cross. Here, he is trying to avoid any traditional visual language and established iconography that could be associated with the heritage of Imperial Russia’s history of massive class divide and the exploitation of the peasant population. Art is the badge of a culture and therefore the new order needed its own new art. In his Suprematist paintings he endeavours to find a new way of elevating painting into a state of being that is independent of representation and associated dogma. He does this by stripping the whole idea of composition down to the basics – two tones, black and white, and the simplest of geometric forms. Yet he also strives to make successful paintings in terms of composition and meaning. This belief that art can be revolutionary and also speak directly to the emotion places Suprematism in the Romantic tradition.

One of the first things about these paintings that becomes apparent is that the circle has a sense of movement creating a gentle tension, whereas the square sits solidly on its canvas implying strength and stability… it is unclear whether we are seeing a black square on a white background or a white frame around a black void. Which is positive form and which is the negative space? One is only clearly defined by the presence of its opposite. Often this is the case with ideologies and political agendas – in these paintings there are no grey areas, only clearly defined black and white, yet that balance of two opposites creates a harmony. The two geometric forms are opposed in some respects, smooth and round versus angled and squared, the lifting circle and the static square - they have obvious differences whilst working harmoniously side-by-side. This could be read as a metaphor for many things…

So whilst avoiding colour and representation, Malevich is working towards balance and tension in creating pleasing compositions and at the same time beginning to hint at deep ideological concepts. He also had a belief that art could be transcendental and could deal with pure emotion and speak directly to the spiritual aspects of being human. This belief that art could transcend both politics and religion was shared by his fellow pioneers of abstraction in Der Blaue Reiter, such as Kandinsky, a Soviet compatriot, and Franz Marc.

I like these paintings on an aesthetic level, I enjoy just looking at them – but I also associate them with the exciting and inspiring period of art history when art becomes truly revolutionary. I had included them as slides in my lectures for a few years before I saw them for real at a Royal Academy exhibition. I still recall the journey through that exhibition of Russian art and the moment I entered the room with the avant gard and saw these two on the far wall. They are not large paintings, but their assured simplicity and power dominated the entire room. I was enthralled…

A good biography of Malevich and lots of images of his works can be found at Olga's Gallery

The entry on Malevich at The Artchive has lots of quotes explaining his concept of Suprematism...

These works also feature in my book Evolution of Western Art

3 comments:

  1. Glad you liked the posting - always get mixed reactions when I cover this set of paintings in talks and lectures...

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