It can sometimes be difficult to remember that great works of art do not arrive fully formed, that, for example, Damien Hirst did not just walk into an aquarium one day and think to himself ‘yeah, that shark tank would look great in the Saatchi’. Instead we must remember that it takes years of work, including many creative misfires, and that sometimes even utter plagiarism can make up a masterpiece. Arguably, it is institutions like the Tate who perpetuate this view: displaying the ‘greatest hits’ of artists, whilst more often than not hiding an artists’ more formative work. Of course, this is certainly interesting in its own way but not as appealing to the tourists and people who ‘just came here to get out of the rain’ – who arguably make up the bulk of the Tate’s viewing public.
However, exhibitions like the Tate’s Kazmir Malevich retrospective show how fascinating a different approach could be. The curatorial work here can best be seen in room 10 of the exhibition, where the artist’s works on paper are placed along a timeline, and we can see the artist’s signature style develop in a truly thrilling progression that perhaps owes a lot to Tate Britain’s chronological rehang last year. Their decision to show this progression, and how it mirrors the other progessions of art history and Russian politics that were taking place concurrently makes even the artist’s uninspiring early pseudo-Seurat works worth considering. Seeing the development that leads from these to the influential Point Zero of modern art, the ‘Black Square’, is remarkable, and actually adds to the aura of this latter work.
Comparing the monochrome monolith that is this square with the previous work, we can see all extraneous elements being brutally pared back. Naturalism disappears rapidly, but eventually so too do representation, colour, decorative flair and even perhaps meaning, until what we are left with is art as a process laid totally bare. Perhaps in this stripping down we can see the turmoils of the Russian autocracy Malevich lives and works in, which finds itself being treated with equal brutality in the names of openness of form and democracy. After all, after ‘Black Square’, surely everyone can be an artist.
This seminal work (in its second incarnation, the first being too fragile to travel) can be found in a room also featuring a video of Malevich’s cubo-futurist opera, Victory of the Sun. It seems initially strange to pair this stark work with the excesses of this maximalist Dada spectacle, but actually this is key to the curatorial genius of this exhibition. The more we watch of Victory of the Sun, the more we see the elements of the Black Square come together, as Malevich rehearses the themes of geometric juxtaposition and bold contrasting colours that give the later work its impact.
Crucially, however, this laying bare of the works’ hinterland does not lessen the impact of this square. The exhibition compares it to the Byzantine icons of Malevich’s Russian Orthodox upbringing, and it really does have a sacred element to it, an aura that almost singlehandedly belies Benjamin’s assertions about art in the age of mechanical reproduction – all the iterations created by Malevich hold this power, as does the postcard that now takes its place on my wall. If anything, this aura is improved by the insight to this work’s genealogy that this exhibition gives us, from terrible student experiments in pointillism through naturalism, dada and abstraction.