Malevich’s Black Square
We’ve all heard the snide comments before: I don’t get it. Is this a joke? My kid could’ve made that! That’s art?
That’s especially common when you’re faced with an abstract painting. Without figures or a still life or a landscape, what is it about?
Today I want to talk about Kazimir Malevich’s Black Square.
It all started in 1913 when Malevich was asked by a friend to design the production’s sets and costume for a Cubo-Futurist opera, Victory Over the Sun.
Cubo-Futurist opera, if you didn’t know, was an avant garde, anti-establishment production that was incomprehensible, filled with nonsensical words, offbeat plots, and a jarring score.
In late 1920s Socialist Russia, Malevich believed that non-objective art was the future, but art was forced to go backwards and become figurative. Thus, with his buddies, they decided to destroy the object entirely.
Now the show mostly annoyed their audience, but amoung the flamboyantly colorful and futuristic costumes, there was one pivotal backdrop near the end of the opera: A single black square painted on a white backdrop.
It wasn’t until the second staging in 1915 that Malevich realized what he had created: a genuinely original form of artistic expression.
He called it Suprematism. It was a pure abstraction, removed of all visual cues so that, he said, the viewer will have the “experience of non-objectivity… the supremacy of pure feeling”
These painting are freed from any object. They don’t mean anything more than what it is. It is not a depiction of an object that isn’t really there. It is exactly what it is: “Black Square” paint on canvas. Nothing more, nothing less.
Now, his paintings were definitely difficult to swallow for many, as is with any art that challenges our preconceived notions of art. But that’s precisely what Malevich and his friend aimed to do.
As a viewer we are trained to recognize symbols and signs. this is a person. That’s a house. Yes, they’re stick figures, we know they’re not actually a person or a house, but we recognize them as representations of them. In Black Square, Malevich removes these references that we know, but we still try to look at it and rationalize it.
For many this is what get on their nerves. They’re looking for a signal that isn’t there.
At least for some abstract work, one can reason, there’s visual interest. You can look at the colorful shapes musically arranged across the canvas of Kandinsky. Follow the contours of Pollock’s drip paintings, their sudden bursts of energy, the slow, the skinny, the stepped on. Maybe even look for his name in them. But in Malevich’s we are given none of that. There’s nothing pretty or seductive about it.
And that’s precisely the point. Why can’t art be something more than just a pretty picture on the wall?
Malevich launched Suprematism at “The last Futurist exhibition of paintings: 0.10” in Petrograd (now St Petersburg) in December 1915.
The title, refers to the ten participants (through 14 ended up showing) who were all seeking to determine the “zero degree,” the irreducible core, the essential minimum of painting or sculpture.
Black Square was the start of the show, and was given a very special spot in the room. It hung high, practically touching the crown molding of the ceiling, across the right angle, where the two walls meet.
This location, in Russian Orthodox homes, in reserved for religious iconography. By replacing what is often the head of Christ, this cheeky placement of his work can be read as his way of exerting independence from Western European traditions.
So his work isn’t just a black square. His work was created from a set of social/ historical situations, culture values and. He wanted to make art that responded to his country’s political state. To the global predominance of Western European art. It’s value lies in not only the paint on the canvas, but the historical significance of the work.
So no, I’m sorry, but You or your kid probably couldn’t have made it. :P
Feel free to submit a question on my page, or in the YouTube comments and I’ll try my best to answer them!
I love this video, and I love The Black Square, I hate trying to explain it to a friend of mine who says it is not art. So frustrating!