Few artists suffer from the “I can do that” syndrome more than Kazimir Malevich. Born February 26, 1878, Malevich toured the many styles en vogue in the early twentieth century, from Post-Impressionism to Cubism before arriving at the style of Suprematism in his famous/infamous first work in that style Black Square (above, from 1915). Suprematism sprung from Malevich’s head almost fully formed, an aesthetic of pure color on color, devoid of the busy designs of the earlier styles he had toyed with. Such icons of modern art as Black Square represent an iconoclasm of sorts—a dismissal of design in a search for pure spirituality as expressed in painting. Looking through a gallery of Malevich’s pre-Suprematist works, you realize that Black Square is not the work of a man who couldn’t paint, but rather the work of a man who could no longer paint the same way and remain honest to himself.
Noah Charney’s novel, The Art Thief, imagines Malevich’s White on White (above, from 1918) stolen. (My review of The Art Thief is here.) Charney uses Malevich’s work to examine the nature of representation in art versus the long history of realism. Malevich’s goals are revolutionary—the Russian Revolution, to be precise. Living in that same utopian dreamworld inhabited by other Russian avant-garde artists, Malevich saw other artists such as Alexander Rodchenko celebrate the materialist renovation of their country through photography and ran the other way, seeking a spiritual language to reflect the tenor of the times itself rather than its embodiment in architecture and technology.
Like so many other artists of the Soviet period, however, Malevich’s work was first misunderstood and then severely punished. In his Self-Portrait (above, from 1933), Malevich paints himself like a prophet, speaking a new gospel to the Russian people. Like most prophets, unfortunately, he was honored in his own country with both ridicule and imprisonment. Just three years before this self-portrait, Malevich’s incendiary writings on art and society earned him months in a Soviet jail. Friends burned many of his works to avoid further punishment. Just two years after this self-portrait, Malevich dies from illness borne of the toll that prison had taken on him. Malevich’s rejection of the standard subject matter of art made him seem dangerous to the Soviet regime, which saw all modern art as bourgeois and elitist. In reality, works such as Black Square and White on White deny all elitism in their simplicity, reaching out to even the most unstudied viewer and asking them to look, to think, and, perhaps, to believe.