The Squares of Malevich

The final result of any drawing should be a painting. This assertion would be true were it not for Kazimir Malevich, who proved its opposite. In 1915, he painted ‘Black Square on White Frame’ and made a shocking revelation: ‘This is not art, it is something else.’

Black square on white frame, by Kazimir Malevich. (1915).

A little later, the artist and theoretician El Lissitsky stated that the Black Square is a complete contrast to everything meant by art, painting and picture. And that Malevich had unified all forms and art into an absolute null.

It is nearly a century since the appearance of the Black Square, but it still dominates the minds and imaginations of viewers, it still engenders debate. A completely black square is painted in oil and framed on a white background. In this scandalous masterpiece of Malevich, there appears nothing of the traditional traits of a masterpiece.

However, as predicted by the painter himself, the picture, made unconsciously or, rather, under the influence of a cosmic consciousness, has become a landmark in the world history of art. He freed the concept of art from all its traditional rules, signified the square as something new, attached to it a null form, and made it the basis of a new art, which Malevich named Suprematism, implying supremacy, domination.

Malevich called the Black Square a ‘naked icon without a frame’, and himself a ‘President of space’. He openly declared his intention to ‘kill the art of the picturesque, and put it in a coffin.’

In 1882, a young French writer and publisher Jules Lévy established a Salon of Incoherents, comprising artists, writers, poets and other representatives of the Parisian bohemia. The union had no political goals; rather, its slogan ‘Les Arts Incohérents’ was invented in defiance of conventional wisdom, in opposition to the phrase ‘Les arts decoratifs’. The salon mocked official values through satire, hour and sometimes rude jokes. The pictures exhibited at the Salon were not pictures in the traditional sense. These were funny caricatures, absurd nightmares, pictures drawn as though by children.

On 1 October 1882, the Salon opened an exhibition in Paris with the fancy title ‘Les Arts Incohérents’. Works by six authors were created, authors who could easily be termed as precursors of Surrealism, presaging it by nearly forty years. Most eye-catching among the paintings was one monochrome, completely black image, painted by the poet Paul Bilhaud, who called it ‘Negroes fighting in a cellar at night‘. This was a black rectangle.

Combat de négres dans une cave, pendant la nuit, Paul Bilhaud. (1897).

There were no statements about any conceptual meanings behind the painting. No hidden meaning emerges from the black rectangle, scrutinise as much though you might. It’s just a comic picture. And the joke is not even in the picture; rather it is in its title. After all, when black people fight in a basement at night, one can’t see anything – everything is dark!

Première communion de jeunes filles chlorotiques par un temps de neige, by Alphonse Allais. (1883).

The artist Alphonse Allais developed Bilhaud’s humorous idea. In 1883, at an exhibition titled Incoherent Shows, he put up ‘First Communion of Anaemic Girls in the Snow‘. This was a white rectangle.

Récolte de la tomate par des cardinaux apoplectiques au bord de la mer Rouge, by Alphonse Allais. (1884)

The following year, he displayed another monochromatic painting – a red painting titled ‘Apoplectic Cardinals Harvesting Tomatoes by the Shores of the Red Sea‘.

After this, Alphonse Allais expanded his collection with Blue, Green and Grey rectangles, and published a book with these works, adding them to a blank musical score which he called ‘Funeral March for the Deaf‘. Admittedly, Allais was a big fantasist and humorist.

In the monochrome works of these French humorists, the concept of absence was diminished by their humorous titles. In the monochrome works of Kazimir Malevich, the same concept was strengthened by a meaningless title. After all, ‘Black Square’  is not really a name, it’s a statement.

Suprematist Composition – White on White, by Kazimir Malevich. (1918).

Most important, though, is the fact that the Incoherent humorists of Paris at the end of the 19th century did not reveal the sacral meaning of their work to the world. Possibly this was because there was none. Malevich was much more serious. He relentlessly sculpted the reputation of his masterpiece, using every possible means. As a result, the name of the Incoherents is known today only to specialists, while that of Malevich is famed across the world.

[This is a translation of a blog post Is the Square of Malevich a Plagiarism? by Notepod, 20 July 2009.]

One thought on “The Squares of Malevich

  1. Pingback: Two Paintings by Alphonse Allais « Tigerloaf

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