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RICHARD M. PRICE. Kazimir Malevich and the Art of Geometry. - The British Journal of Aesthetics, Oct 1998 p429(1) (Kazimir Malevich and the Art of Geometry. By JOHN MILNER. Yale U.P. 1996.)

VISITORS TO the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, now fully open in its resplendent new building, experience a shock if they proceed immediately, as I did recently, from the halls of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century art into the rooms now devoted, in the post-Soviet era, to the works of the Russian modernist painters of the first three decades of this century. The two collections seem to bear no relation to one another, and live uncomfortably in the same space. Evidently, a similar contrast exists in western art: a gallery that hung Leighton and Leger on the same walls would cause acute discomfort to the visitor. But the contrast is greater in Russian painting in that the painting of Russian modernism had no Russian roots.

Dmitri Likhachev, the doyen of Russian academics, protested recently at officially inspired attempts to define the essence of `Russianness'; as he pointed out, a particular feature of Russian culture down the ages has been its ability to transform itself under the stimulus of foreign influence. At the turn of the century, this meant French influence--encouraged by the opportunistic political alliance between republican France and tsarist Russia (which produced an immediate transformation in French representations of Russia, as was illustrated by an exhibition in 1996 in the Musee Carnavalet in Paris). In literature and music continuity with the Russian past was not wholly discarded: Rimsky-Korsakov provided a link between the Mighty Five and the new art of Stravinsky and Prokofiev, while the new symbolist school of poetry was endebted to the musicality of Fet and the metaphysical pessimism of Tyutchev. But in art, once we leave symbolism behind and turn to non-representational painting, what we find is, crudely put, the adoption of Parisian fashions.

John Milner, Professor of Art History at Newcastle University and the writer of this latest book on Malevich (1878-1935), the most discussed of the Russian abstract artists, is much concerned to point out the range and extent of French influence. He gives details of the building up of great collections of contemporary French art by such Maecenases as Shchukin and Morozov and of a whole series of exhibitions of French art in Moscow from the 1890s until the Great War, all of which served to expose Russian artists to the immediate stimulus of Gauguin, Matisse, and the cubists. In contrast to their English contemporaries, who thought to detect in French art a superficial brilliance masking a spiritual vacuum, many Russian artists adopted the new French styles with a single-mindedness that was itself characteristically Russian--that `maximalism' that sought to push every artistic or spiritual development a outrance. Particularly significant for Malevich's development was the concern of certain French artists, such as Serusier and Denis, to bring out the mathematical elements in artistic proportion and to link these with metaphysical notions of the ultimate laws of the universe. Milner adds a whole appendix on the relation between French art and theosophy; it is disconcerting to note how in speculation on artistic proportion, in both France and Russia, the pseudo-science of occultism was as respected and potent an influence as the latest advances in mathematics.

Malevich's most famous painting remains The Black Square--a square of uniform black within a border of white. The original version, first exhibited in 1915, is now displayed in the Tretyakov Gallery; carelessly painted over another painting, its surface soon deteriorated and is now a criss-cross of irregular white lines (a particularly ironic fate for picture intended to be the last word in stark simplicity), but it was always the concept of the painting, not its execution, that mattered. Milner brings out how from the first, even in his early figurative stage, Malevich showed an unusual preference for square canvasses, and for canvas sizes relating to the old Russian measurement of the arshin (= 71.12 cm), and even for proportions within a painting that evoke the subdivision of the arshin into 16 vershki; it was Milner's discovery of the relevance of the arshin that (he tells us) inspired his book. The angles naturally generated by the cube and its parts can be seen as the first principles in the more complex mathematics that served to generate Malevich's system of `Suprematism', as he called it, in which geometry forms the logical basis for a wholly abstract art. What was the ideological content of `Suprematism? Milner rightly devotes much attention to the futurist opera Victory over the Sun (with a microtonal score by Matyushin, now lost) for which Malevich devised costumes and sets in 1913. The designer wrote to the composer, `The decoration shows a black square, the embryo of all possibilities, which in the course of its development acquired a terrible power.' Black squares play only a small part in the surviving designs, but in the context of the opera it is clear that the black square was connected to the `conquest' and `imprisonment' of the sun, the sun and its courses symbolizing the repetitiousness of everyday reality, its eclipse the liberation of mankind into a new world of unfettered creativity.

A `new world' of a kind imposed itself on Russia in 1917. While much of the intelligentsia emigrated and most of those who remained went into a form of mental exile, a number of modernists embraced the Bolshevik coup as the expression in politics of the revolution they were attempting in the arts; these included Bryusov in literature, Roslavets in music, and Malevich in painting. It was not simply that a political revolution seemed to assist a cultural one: the obsession of both Roslavets and Malevich with the constructivist possibilities of mathematics made them sympathetic to a movement that sought to transform society according to the `laws' of history. Not that they intended to serve the regime: rather, they hoped, the regime would serve their own artistic ends. Milner (p. 174) quotes the words of a disciple of Malevich that probably betray the dreams of the master: `Suprematism will liberate all those engaged in creative activity and make the world into a true model of perfection. This is the model we await from Kazimir Malevich. After the Old Testament came the New, after the New the Communist. After the Communist there follows finally the Testament of Suprematism.' For a whole decade, under the enlightened patronage of Lunacharsky, the People's Commissar for Education, the illusion of a real alliance between Bolshevism and futurism was maintained. But the victory first of the `proletarian' artists in 1929 and then of `socialist realism' in 1932 spelled the end of modernism in Russia. Roslavets and Malevich, with a readiness to propitiate the ogre that spelt spiritual death, immediately adopted more conservative styles; but their `conversion' was too late, and both were eclipsed and discredited.

The current surge of scholarly and public interest in Malevich has been assisted by the fall of communism but is justified by the sheer quality of much of his work. His pre-war paintings were essentially epigonic, and provide in themselves a history of the impact of new French styles from primitivism to cubism, but from The Black Square onwards he explored his own variety of geometrical art, based on the presentation of a few basic shapes, standing or floating on a pure white ground. His gift was to demonstrate how a small repertoire of such shapes could, through variations in composition, express harmony or conflict, repose or movement, and movement varying from the uniform to the contrapuntal.

The insistence by many Russian futurists on the laws of mathematics, plus the alliance with communist tyranny, invited the satire of Zamyatin, who in We drew a horrifying picture of a society where everything and everyone is reduced to numbers. But Malevich used geometric regularity not as an iron law that was not to be broken but as a norm that gave meaning to its infringement. The black square in the painting of that name is not placed exactly is the middle of the canvas (a point that Milner overlooks), and in later paintings (as Milner brings out well) an extraordinary dramatic tension is generated by the odd collocation or slightly distorted shape of some of the cubes and rectangles; Malevich's geometrical shapes have a touchingly human individuality to them. Such paintings belong neither to the self-advertising experimentalism of some Russian modernists nor to the insistence of the party ideologues on the application to the arts of the laws of scientific materialism. Even as the professed ally of a cruel and philistine regime, Malevich remained true for many years to a style that, despite turning its back on the outward world of appearances, is perceptive and realistic in admitting as its basic premise that human beings need laws in order to break them and conventions in order to give scope for the unconventional. What is new in our century is the need for new conventions. Malevich's expression of this makes his art, after all, akin to the socially responsible individualism of the bourgeois art of the nineteenth century. Perhaps he belongs in the Tretyakov Gallery after all.

RICHARD M. PRICE, Heythrop College, London