and the Russian Avant-garde
8 March to 22 June 2014
As a revolutionary thinker and radical reformer of the arts, Kasimir Malevich (1879-1935) is seen to be one of the most formative personalities of the early 20th century. In the west the artist, theorist, and teacher is primarily known for his abstract art. Instead of attempting to represent visible reality, his Suprematism aims at conveying and depicting an immaterial world. But above all, Malevich’s oeuvre must be viewed with regard to the contrasting sphere that evolves between abstraction and figuration. In the course of his career, the artist covered an impressive range of Modernist styles and forms of expression. To different degrees, Impressionism, Symbolism, Fauvism, Cubism, and Futurism had a distinct impact on his artistic approach and its visual implementation.
The exhibition Kasimir Malevich and the Russian Avant-garde presents the whole scope of the work of this Russian Avant-garde artist. Over 300 paintings, graphic works, and sculptures, but also designs for costumes and excerpts from his revolutionary opera “Victory over the Sun” provide insights into the impressive range of his oeuvre that continues to pose a both artistic and intellectual challenge. Although Malevich’s work can be described as a complex mental exercise that oscillates between abstraction and figuration, it is not a chronology that reaches its intellectual peak in the formal negation of the depicted subject. However, a reduction to this formula would not do Suprematism justice, as Painterly Realism of a Peasant Woman in Two Dimensions implies, the title of the famous red square from 1915 which is a key work in the exhibition. Kasimir Malevich’s artistic approach is defined by the universal concept of humanity and the declared intention to create a new world with artistic means. Ultimately, Suprematism enabled him to visualise matters of the mind with the means of art.
Kasimir Malevich’s work is characterised by expansive stylistic heterogeneity. In this context, it is significant that changes in forms of expression are only to some extent chronological which makes it difficult to divide his oeuvre into artistic “phases”. The coexistence of styles directs the focus onto the conveyed contents and the theoretical framework of his art. Seen in the historical context of his time, Malevich was definitely a revolutionary artist and thinker. His representations of farmers, for instance, are a recurring feature that cannot be appreciated without taking the political events in Russia and the nascent Soviet Union into consideration. This connection is especially relevant with regard to Malevich’s figurative late work and his return to a figurative pictorial language – after all, he did not make this transition in favour of the representational form of expression applied in Socialist Realism. Instead his late work is largely defined by a use of forms that seems to combine Suprematism with figurative motifs. The main objective was clearly not a mere reproduction of visual reality. In point of fact, Suprematism evolved thus integrating representational forms and, above all, their symbolic meaning into the pictorial concept.
This also explains Malevich’s many allusions to traditional Old Russian icon painting. His Suprematist compositions with their utter concentration on the arrangement of geometric shapes show distinct references to the pictorial structure of religious icons. Classic elements such as the nimbus or the cross, but also the use of certain symbolic colours show the Avant-garde artist’s close connection with Russian tradition. Moreover, these motifs are proof that this is the work of an artistic thinker. His extensive influence – both as a theorist and an artist – is also conveyed in the works of important contemporaries. The show juxtaposes Kasimir Malevich’s art with contemporaries such as El Lissitzky, Mikhail Larionov, Vladimir Tatlin, Ilya Chashnik, Gustav Klutsis, Mikhail Matyushin, and Olga Rosanova.
Many international lenders have contributed to the exhibition, among them are the State Russian Museum in St. Petersburg, the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, the Centre Pompidou in Paris, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, the State Museum of Contemporary Art-Costakis Collection in Thessaloniki, and also the Stedlijk Museum Amsterdam and the Chardschijew Foundation in Amsterdam. For the first time, extensive groups of works from the Nikolaj Chardschijew and the George Costakis Collections have been united in an exhibition. Both were pioneering collectors of art of the Russian Avant-garde and created impressive collections during a time when abstract art was forbidden in the Soviet Union.
Furthermore, several works by Malevich and three Old Russian icons from the State Russian Museum in St. Petersburg that represent highly interesting reference points with regard to Suprematism could be obtained especially for the exhibition in Bonn.
Rein Wolfs, director of the Art and Exhibition Hall of the Federal Republic of Germany, explains the significance of this exhibition as follows: “In this retrospective exhibition, the special focus on his late work takes Malevich’s radical development towards Suprematism a step further. The outstanding loans from St. Petersburg are proof that non-figurative pictorial elements also play an important role in the artist’s figurative late work. Even in retrospect, these insights modify the notion of a purely abstract Suprematist period. The three Old Russian icons in the show underline Malevich’s intermediate position in the contrasting realm between realism and abstraction”.
An exhibition by the Art and Exhibition Hall of the Federal Republic of Germany in cooperation with the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam and the Tate Modern, London.
Video to the exhibition
Supremus No. 55
Oil on canvas
F. A. Kovalenko Regional Art Museum of Krasnodar, Krasnodar (RU)
Landscape with Three Red Houses
Gouache on paper
Private collection, courtesy of Schroder Trust SA
(with Black Trapezium and Red Square)
Oil on canvas
Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam