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Malevich's Ukrainian Square

Author: Natalya Beskhlebnaya
Translation: Elizaveta Shkurina and Nora Seligman Favorov

Sep/Oct 2016
Page 46   ( 8 pages)

Summary: A century-old work of art by an avant-garde artist has become a symbol for the growing rift between Russia and Ukraine, just as more is being learned about its famous artist.


In April 2016, the Moscow exhibition center VDNKh unveiled “The Always Modern Art of the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries.” The Ministry of Culture supported the exhibition, and its title reflects the thinking of Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky on the question of what art should be labeled “modern art.” Medinsky has repeatedly expressed doubts about the value of what is generally referred to as modern art, suggesting that all contemporary art deserves to be called “modern,” and not just “some baffling, crooked cube that looks like a pile of bricks.”

So what is “The Always Modern Art of the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries”? The exhibition includes a large number of propaganda paintings from the Stalin era, as well as paintings from the first half of the twentieth century – for example, the Suprematist Composition by Ivan Klyun, a student of Kazimir Malevich, and works by contemporary artists, including variations on the theme of the Black Square. The fact that all these works have been brought together, the exhibition’s titles, and the entire context appear to suggest that the revolutionary art of the twentieth century, social realism, as well as later movements, are part of a whole – namely, the national style of Russia’s majestic culture. The cynicism of such a statement lies in the fact that the totalitarian state not only opposed the avant-garde’s ideas, it murdered both avant-garde art and avant-garde artists.

Nonetheless, one hundred years after it first emerged, the Russian avant-garde stands proudly somewhere between vodka and matryoshkas among the country’s top cultural exports. Not only are avant-garde-related souvenirs sold in the Tretyakov Gallery gift shop, large-scale undertakings have used the movement’s symbols as well.

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