UKRAINE, EUROPE

I read a lot of non-fiction anyway, but for #nonficnov, and fitting in with the general theme of ‘time’, I finally read in its entirety a fascinating book called Lost Art, edited by Jennifer Mundy, and published by Tate. Informative, often poignant, the book examines artists whose work has been ephemeral in some way: maybe stolen, or destroyed, or lost, or perhaps always intended to be transient, as with Christo’s Wrapped Reichstag, which I discussed earlier this year.

Kasimir Malevich’s lost work appears in the section labelled “Missing” – as has been the fate of so much work produced in the first decades of the 20th century – and inspired me to look into the artist a little more.

Influential pioneer of abstraction Malevich was born in what is now Ukraine in 1875. By 1912, influenced by work elsewhere in Europe, he was painting in a so-called Cubist-Futurist style. Malevich’s focus on the emotional power of art, rather than its representative use, subsequently led directly to the evolution of the Suprematist movement, and its obsession with strong lines and simple shapes. He subsequently went on to produce the works for which he is now most famous, Black Square (1913) and White on White (1918), reproduced here and here.

Tate gives a useful guide to the importance of Black Square (the blackest of black squares on a white background), which was exhibited amid the febrile tensions of the First World War, here.

Trying desperately to free art from the dead weight of the real world, I took refuge in the form of the square.”

With White on White the square has lost any sense of materiality, and merges into the ether, therefore seemingly taking abstraction to its furthest frontier. Later in the decade, other Suprematist works by Malevich increased in complexity, introducing more shapes in more complex arrangements.

Black Square has survived, along with many of his abstract works, even if the paint is now cracked and faded. In contrast, the particular work referenced in Lost Art couldn’t be more different, and shows evidence of Malevich’s early (and consistent) interest in folk art and the rural farmland in which he grew up, as well as his continuing interest in the depictions of the human condition produced as part of the European modernist movement.

The enormous, figurative, by then highly unfashionable painting Peasant Funeral (1911) – see below – accompanied Malevich to Germany in the mid-1920s along with many of his other works, as his art fell out of favour at home, and the artist, who had been appointed Director of the State Institute of Artistic Culture, came under suspicion by the state under Stalin. Malevich was subsequently ordered to return the Soviet Union, where his artistic freedom was restricted and where he died in 1935, having been unable to seek cancer treatment abroad.

Much of his work, however, which he had exhibited in Western Europe, remained in Berlin for safe keeping, and fortuitously survived the Nazi purges of “degenerate” art; however, Peasant Funeral (together with several other large pieces) disappeared, and remains missing, presumed destroyed, its only surviving depiction a poor-quality photograph that accompanied a review of the work in 1912.

[Photo taken from the book Lost Art edited by Jennifer Mundy (published by the Tate in 2013).]

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