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Malevich Exhibition – Review

Written by Sam Skelding

A detailed and extensive retrospective, the Tate Modern’s Malevich: Revolutionary of Russian Art exhibition is a brilliant showcase of the one the 20th century’s finest artists. 

The first retrospective of his work in thirty years and the first ever in the UK, the Tate boasts an incredibly vast collection of his works from all periods of his life. A radical artist who broke down the contemporary conventions of art, Kazimir Malevich’s influence on today’s art world is undeniable. A forefather of one of the most essential avant-garde movements of the 20th century, this is a unique and unmissable opportunity.

‘Suprematism’

Split into twelve rooms, each is a gradual exploration of his life’s work set against the back drop of the changing political scene in early 20th century Russia. The exhibition is tied together by his 1915 painting, the Black Square. One of the most iconic creations of the last century, it shook up the artistic world, paving the way for a whole new approach to art. A simple black square with a white border, it was a revolutionary step declaring that art could be nothing more than shapes and colours. Marking a zero hour in modern art, for Malevich this was the beginning of something new, which he called ‘Suprematism’.

Showcased at the ground breaking 0.10 exhibition in St. Petersburg in 1915, which included thirty-five abstract pieces by Malevich, it marked a new era that hoped to radically alter the art scene. He originally placed the piece at the top corner of the room, a bold move which replaced the conventional religious icon painting in the ‘holy corner’ that could be found in Russian Orthodox homes. An iconoclastic move, it was a shock to contemporary audiences, becoming a startling replacement of the old with the new. The curators of this current exhibition have managed to retrieve nine of the original pieces (many of them have been lost or supressed) and have attempted to faithfully replicate the original exhibition. It’s a great dedication that shows a willing attempt to bring the audience closer to the artist, creating a natural link with the past.

What’s interesting is that the Tate have made it so you can observe this gradual change in chronological order. With the cultural, artistic and social importance of the Black Square, it receives considerable attention, serving as a bridge in the exhibition between his more conventional earlier work and his later foray into a more experimental style. Found in Room 5, you will notice a dramatic change in style and mood in the exhibition, enhanced by the screening of his collaborative 1913 opera Victory Over The Sun, which is sure to keep your attention due to its unusual and strange nature.

Diversity

As you venture further into the exhibition, you’ll notice an increasingly abstract and simplified style, but one that remains ever fresh and full of exciting new ideas. Each room presents something different; persistently keeping you transfixed and expectant for what is to come. Whether its ‘Suprematism’, his modernist work, his architectural work or his impressionist style towards the end of his life, it truly reveals the diversity and innovativeness of this artist. The social context of his changing style is equally as important and serves as a key to appreciating the pieces. The Tate have provided enlightening and concise information throughout the exhibition, which truly helps break the sometimes difficult wall between audience and artist.

Most of the work on display has a political undercurrent, despite it not openly favouring any political positions. Born under Tsarist rule in which 80% of the population were classified as serfs, the beginning of the exhibition demonstrates a fascination with the rural class. As the Russian Revolution began to unfold, his work was embraced for its forward thinking approach and became closely associated with the revolution. This however changes dramatically under the leadership of Stalin and the exhibition poignantly reveals how this affected Malevich’s work. The last room reveals this shattering change as his work becomes much closer to the state sponsored realist painting of the time. It’s a tragic side to the exhibition, as his work disappeared from the public due to Stalin’s regime and his many manuscripts were destroyed out of fear.

This exhibition simply conveys why Malevich was so much more than just a painter. An innovator, a thinker and a visionary, his influence on the artistic world has been hugely evident. Much of his work was overshadowed throughout the existence of the USSR, with only a few of his more conventional works still on display. It wasn’t until the 1980’s that such paintings as the Black Square were even shown in public again.

Despite the piece being unavailable to the public, it continued to inspire a broad range of artists to innovate and redefine the principles of art, helping to shape some of the most important artistic pieces of the last century – there is no greater legacy. 

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