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Rachel Polonsky

Total Eclipse of the Art

Black Square: Malevich and the Origins of Suprematism
By Aleksandra Shatskikh (Translated by Marian Schwartz)
(Yale University Press 346pp 25)
'Smoker with Pipe (Little Russian)', early 1915

Russian television, notorious for state propaganda, has its civilised side. A recent episode of the weekly debate show Cultural Revolution, hosted by Mikhail Shvydkoy (Vladimir Putin's special envoy for international cultural cooperation), recently asked, 'Is Malevich's Black Square a Big Con?' Almost a century since Kazimir Malevich first hung his canvas, icon-style, in the upper corner of the 'Last Futurist Exhibition of Paintings 0.10' in Petrograd in December 1915, this question still arouses feeling.

Facing an audience of artists, historians and museum curators, the distinguished film directors Andrei Konchalovsky and Alexander Mitta took opposing views. Black Square is not a work of art, Konchalovsky argued, waving printouts of Andy Warhol's Dollar Sign and Damien Hirst's shark in formaldehyde to illustrate his perfect agreement with the early-20th-century art critic Alexandre Benois, who saw in Malevich's painting the 'principle of vile desolation ... the desecration of all that is beloved and cherished, flaunting its desire to lead everything to destruction'. Not at all, Mitta responded: Malevich's work was a new basis for art, divinely beautiful, a great metaphor containing a whole world of meaning.

The voices from the studio floor were impassioned. Another film-maker saw in the painting a vision of the hell that opened up as the Russian Empire was destroyed during the First World War and the Bolshevik Revolution. 'Black Square IS art!' the elderly actress Nina Arkhipova exclaimed, recalling the emotional impact of first seeing it in Moscow's Tretyakov Gallery and the strange sensation of penetrating its blackness. 'Come and see it for yourselves,' the Tretyakov's head curator begged the audience, holding up a book of icons for comparison, and marvelling at the inexplicable matt surface of Malevich's black paint. At the end of the show, the art critic Aleksandra Shatskikh took the microphone to counter Konchalovsky's insouciant philistinism. Seemingly drawing on the limitless energy that she says she finds in the work, she gave a rapid-fire explanation of the paradoxes of Malevich's 'zero of form'. Everything you say about Black Square is true, she told Konchalovsky, but everything that I or anyone else says about it is equally true. It is a beginning and an end, art and not art; it is the absence of perspective, weight and weightlessness, an unfathomable depth combining all colours and no colour. The painting rises from the most profane to the most sacred, she concluded: it is the cosmic abyss and the perfect sign of human civilisation.

Although statements such as this are sparse in Shatskikh's remarkable new study of the origins of Black Square, the book is uncompromising in its underlying insistence on the importance of this single work. Shatskikh believes in the force of artistic inspiration. 'The Russian avantgardist's principal creation', she insists, 'was revealed to him as the result of powerful spiritual tension, in a moment of ecstatic illumination.' Her book is a painstaking labour of restoration. Through close analysis of the work's origins, she powerfully asserts the uniqueness of Malevich's 'discovery of nonobjectivity' and its 'long, hard, and organic maturation'. She reconstructs the history of Malevich's short-lived artistic movement Fevralism, the immediate (and immediately buried) predecessor to Suprematism. She sets out to disprove the views of critics who regard this Russian movement as derivative of Cubism and Futurism, as well as those 'scholars practicing gender discourse' (as she disdainfully calls them) who have convinced themselves that Malevich 'borrowed' the discovery of nonobjectivity from his female colleague the artist Olga Rozanova. Taking apart Malevich's own fictions (among other sleights of hand, he backdated works to 'correct' his own artistic biography), Shatskikh establishes a chronology of the works that led to Black Square, and is able to give, through a feat of scholarly detection clinched by the postmark on an envelope, a precise date for the painting itself: 8 June 1915.

How would Malevich, who was fascinated by the discoveries of physics about the incorporeal energy of the universe (gravitation, electricity and radioactivity), have regarded the recent x-ray of his iconic canvas, which revealed that Black Square was painted at urgent speed over another composition made up of polychromatic geometric forms? With time, these underlying colours have begun to show through the craquelures on the square's surface. The artist had been working on another abstract canvas when he had an overwhelming vision of the black plane. The verbal leitmotif 'partial eclipse', which appears in his Fevralist canvases Englishman in Moscow and Composition with Mona Lisa and which had been nagging at him for months, was suddenly transformed into a 'total eclipse', the world as nonobjectivity.

Although this was a solitary moment of creative intuition, Malevich worked among other artists. Shatskikh analyses his collaborations with avant-garde poets and artists in theatrical productions, exhibitions and the Supremus project, which incorporated a journal (Supremus) and a creative society. Malevich's legacy is caught up in the chaos of the 20th century, which scattered and erased so much historical treasure. The backdrops to his artistic career were world war, revolution and Stalinism. In his years of Suprematist experiment, Malevich was surrounded by brilliant women, among them the 'Amazons of the Avant-Garde', who were celebrated in the late 1990s in an exhibition at New York's Guggenheim Museum: Alexandra Exter, Natalia Goncharova, Liubov Popova, Olga Rozanova, Varvara Stepanova and Nadezhda Udaltsova. While giving these artists their due, Shatskikh also recovers the forgotten biography of Natalia Davydova, a cultured landowner who 'played a pivotal role in introducing and affirming Suprematism', but who later disappeared 'due to her tragic life, mangled by Russian history'. Davydova's Ukrainian estate, Verbovka, was home to an innovative handicrafts artel. Malevich's work on abstract designs for applied artwares that were displayed in Davydova's 1915 exhibition of decorative arts moved him decisively forward on his path to Black Square.

The richest source for Shatskikh's research is the private collection and archive of the Russian scholar of the avant-garde Nikolai Khardzhiev, who died in the Netherlands in 1996. Part of his treasure trove of 20th-century art-historical treasures - the Khardzhiev-Chaga Art Foundation - is now held in Amsterdam's Stedelijk Museum. Some of the hoard, which Khardzhiev jealously guarded for many decades in his Moscow apartment, has been lost without trace. The largest part, which was confiscated at Sheremetyevo airport as Khardzhiev tried to smuggle it out of Russia in 1993, is sealed until 2019 in a state archive in Moscow. The gripping, extraordinary story of the partial preservation of this collection is mainly consigned to Shatskikh's footnotes. It involves allegations of grand theft, multimillion-dollar fraud, the world's top art galleries, missing masterpieces, the capricious destruction of cultural artefacts, secret police and possibly murder. Malevich, who reduced form to zero, has become a commodity of rare price. In 2008, a Suprematist canvas of 1916 broke records for Russian art, fetching $60 million at Sotheby's.

In this light, Aleksandra Shatskikh's disinterested examination of the creative evolution of Malevich's principal work feels redemptive. English-speaking readers with a serious interest in the history of art should take pleasure in her distinctive combination of scholarly discipline and passionate appreciation. Malevich said that as he covered his canvas with black paint, 'fiery lightning bolts' crossed in front of his eyes. In the age of television, his cracked square still has the power to provoke puzzlement and awe.

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Rachel Polonsky is a lecturer in Slavonic Studies at Cambridge University and a Fellow of Murray Edwards College. Her most recent book is Molotov's Magic Lantern: A Journey in Russian History.

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