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Kazimir Malevich and the pioneering art that fell victim to counter-revolution

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The Tate’s Malevich exhibition combines a history of the Russian Revolution with a rare opportunity to see some truly great art, says Peter Robinson
Issue 2413
‘Total euphoria’: Malevichs Suprematist Painting (with Black Trapezium and Red Square), 1915

‘Total euphoria’: Malevich’s Suprematist Painting (with Black Trapezium and Red Square), 1915 (Pic: Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam)

This is the first retrospective of Kazimir Malevich in Britain, and another triumph for the Tate Modern gallery. 

The Russian artist was born in Kiev in 1879 and moved to Moscow in 1905 to study art. He failed the entrance exams three years running. 

It was taking part in the 1905 revolution that inspired Malevich and many other artists to seek new ways of expressing themselves. 

By 1915 he had developed his own style—Suprematism. He called it “the painting of pure form” and “the supremacy of pure feeling”. 

He had finally separated painting from the need to represent anything real. Malevich took abstraction to its ultimate extreme in the first Supremacist exhibition. 

His painting Black Square is one of the most radical works of art of the 20th century. It is an empty mass, but the artist’s hand is evident in the freehand lines and brush strokes.  

He painted it during the slaughter of the First World War. “Painting died like the old regime,” he recalled in 1919.


The revolutionary modernity of “Suprematism” reflected people’s hope and expectation, and the Russian avant-garde artists embraced the revolutions of 1917.

The poet Vladimir Mayakovsky told artists, “Let us make the squares our pallets, the streets our brushes.”  

They produced posters and decorations for anniversaries, pageants, street theatre and agit-prop trains. For the first time art became like any other working job, like engineering or teaching. 

The revolutionary leader Lenin wrote, “Our revolution has lifted this pressure [to find buyers] from the artists. It has made the socialist state their protector and patron.” This enabled great art to be produced during the revolutionary period. 

But as the revolution declined and Joseph Stalin came to power, art became a banal mockery of revolution. “Socialist Realism” became the new orthodoxy and everything else was regarded with suspicion. 

The Petrograd Museum of Artistic Culture, where Malevich was director, was accused in 1927 of “counter­revolutionary sermonising and artistic debauchery” and was closed. 

He was later arrested and imprisoned for two months. Malevich’s later work was more representational, but it remained stylised and geometric recalling his earlier radicalism.

This exhibition is an important history of Russian Revolution—and as a rare opportunity to see some truly great works of modern art it is thrilling. 

Malevich: Revolutionary of Russian Art Tate Modern, London SE1 9TG. Until 26 October 2014. Adult £14.50/concession £12.50

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