September 01, 2016

Malevich's Ukrainian Square

A dispute over “ownership” of one of Russia’s most famous avant-garde artists, has fallen into the chasm of antagonism and mistrust that now separates Russia and Ukraine.

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.

In 2014, symbols of the avant-garde were included in the opening ceremonies of the Sochi Olympics. This year, the Russian sportswear company BOSCO developed a Suprematist black, red, and white uniform for the athletes representing Russia at the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. “The Russian avant-garde, well-known and highly regarded all over the world, sets high standards for all of our athletes,” commented gymnast Alexei Nemov. “In this uniform, you cannot lose,” he added, apparently confusing Suprematism with Sots Art, a movement that glorified the happy, athletic, and triumphant Soviet people.

In addition to transforming the radical and uncompromising avant-garde into an innocuous phantom, the current authoritarian government has been purging from Russia’s cultural space anything genuinely avant-garde and radical, defining them as undesirable symbols of rebellion. And while the world was celebrating the centennial of the Black Square in 2015, the Tretyakov Gallery merely offered a modest exhibition of Malevich’s graphic works that was overshadowed by other heavily promoted events.

In line with this, Culture Minister Medinsky published an article, “Those Who Do Not Feed Their Culture, Will Feed Someone Else’s Army,” in which he stressed that unrestrained art always threatens stability and prosperity, and that in both 1991 and 1917 “the creative elite stood at the forefront of the forces that destroyed the state.” Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill has also suggested that the avant-garde was responsible for revolution in Russia, saying that “the black and scary square truly reflects what was in Malevich’s heart. It reflects not only Malevich, but the spirit of the era.”

Meanwhile, in Russia, the word “revolution” has a new synonym – “Maidan,” referencing the recent wave of protests in Ukraine. By refusing to be the capital of the revolutionary avant-garde, Moscow has yielded this honor to Kiev. And, as part of the war of symbols waged in parallel with the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, Ukraine has been marching toward the European Union under a banner adorned with avant-garde and contemporary art. Ukrainian museums have been exhuming works of artists arrested or killed under Stalin from spetsfonds (special collections) or storerooms; artists have been painting abstract murals on burnt-out Maidan buildings; and art critics have been writing about Ukraine’s contributions to the Russian avant-garde – the vivid colors, the rhythm, and the freedom. As the French historian of the avant-garde, Jean-Claude Marcadé, put it, “Ukrainian hearts beat with the blood of Cossacks, a free people who did not suffer the Tatar yoke as the northern people did.”

While it may be problematic to attempt to tie a free-flowing art movement to a specific point on the globe, the evidence is compelling: the founders of Russian Futurism, for example, were the Ukrainian brothers Burliuk. Aleksandra Ekster, an actress from Kiev, brought a new expressive style to Moscow theater. In one way or another, all the titans of the Russian avant-garde had ties to Ukraine – Vasily Kandinsky, Vladimir Tatlin, as well as the inimitable Kazimir Malevich. There were also many lesser-known names in the Ukrainian schools of art; most, unfortunately, were destroyed under Stalin, with their influence on Russian culture stifled. Thus, Kiev’s attempt to reclaim the Russian avant-garde is arguably a legitimate effort to recover a mis-appropriated cultural space.

And now the Black Square and its creator have become the crux of a conflict: Ukrainian websites frequently call Malevich a “great Ukrainian artist,” making provocative demands to “return” at least one of the artist’s many black squares to their country.

Ukrainian admirers of Malevich reproach Russia for failing to establish a single museum in the artist’s honor. The official excuse is that the main body of Malevich’s work still in Russia is divided between the Russian Museum of Fine Art and the Tretyakov Gallery. Malevich’s works are of such central importance to these museums, that they are unlikely to agree to part with them. Furthermore, building a new museum dedicated to a single artist would be prohibitively expensive.

The funding problem is real, but for many years now there has been a movement afoot to establish a less expensive “apartment museum” in the village of Nemchinovka, where Malevich lived with his second wife Sophia Rafalovich. Yet advocates of this idea have been unable to obtain the necessary funding even for this. Meanwhile, in Kiev, the artist’s name has been a part of the city’s cultural image.

“These walls heard the wailing of baby Malevich,” explained tour guide Tatyana Filyovskaya, as she began the tour, “Malevich’s Kiev Square,” near the Polish church where the future artist was baptized. The church was also the site of his Polish parents’ wedding and was the place where, a century later, researchers found documents confirming that Kazimir Malevich was born in 1879 – not 1878 as earlier believed.

Strolling up a Kiev street rich in history, the tour guide directs the group’s attention to the traditional rooftops of the houses surrounding St. Michael’s Cathedral – one of the city’s most famous churches and where student protesters hid from the police during the Kiev Revolution of 2014. The green rooftops apparently feature in the Suprematist artist’s biography: young Kazimir once climbed up there, picked up the brush of a painter who had left for his lunch break, and began doing his job for him, reveling in the transformative power of the bright green paint.

Malevich’s recollections are full of stories featuring color as the protagonist: “Platoons of girls in colorful clothing moved across the field in rows. It was a war. Troops in colorful dresses did battle against weeds, liberating beets from the unnecessary plants overtaking them.” His father worked in several sugar beet factories, and the family lived in many different regions of Ukraine, including Kamenets-Podolsk in the southwest, near Bessarabia and its two rivers. “The joyous decorative art of those places captivated him his entire life,” Filyovskaya continues, as she shows tourists Suprematist compositions, comparing them with embroidery and classically ornamented Easter eggs that use the three main colors of Suprematism – black, white and red. “You might wonder: Progress, Futurism, Cosmos – what does this have to do with Easter eggs?”

The artist left Ukraine at the age of 17 and wrote that while living there he did nothing but absorb impressions. He was overwhelmed by the sheer beauty of the world around him and yearned to express what he felt inside, but did not yet know how. In his memoirs, Malevich describes “Kievan contract markets,” the town of Konotop, where “everything glistened with salo,” the mills in the rye fields, the “peasant girls crossing the Dnieper River in dug-outs,” the roosters on koniks, cows and storm clouds running across sunset-lit puddles together, “small goatskin boots with copper and iron heels” from a village wedding – all this the artist brought with him when he left Ukraine, along with his first paint set, symbolically purchased in Kiev.* Suprematism itself became a way of finally coming to terms with childhood dreams. For Malevich, to paint such images from nature was impossible, since they had already been moved from nature into the fold of memory. However, capturing and expanding them into a Suprematist painting was possible. It is no coincidence that Malevich’s work commonly known as the Red Square is actually titled Painterly Realism of a Peasant Woman in Two Dimensions.


“When we first discovered the Ukrainian aspect [of Malevich’s life],” said Dmitry Gorbachev, a Kiev-based Malevich expert, “John Bowlt (an American researcher on the Russian avant-garde and a member of Russian Life’s Advisory Panel) told us: ‘We had reached a dead end. There was so much about Malevich we did not understand, and we were unable to solve this puzzle. For ten years, Malevich experts were going around in circles, everything we could dig up had already been dug up – and then suddenly, Ukraine. And so much became clear.’ Why, for example, was Malevich’s work so colorful, despite the fact that he lived in gray Leningrad? Because he returned here, and here he found folk art and memories of his childhood.”

Gorbachev said he believes that Malevich’s “Ukrainian aspect” has not been investigated for political reasons. “There was a point in the USSR when foreign art historians were not even allowed into Ukraine.” Apparently the Bolsheviks feared that unnecessary contact with foreigners would somehow inspire Ukrainian nationalism.

Today, Ukraine’s influence on the most significant figure of the Russian avant-garde cannot be denied, and for the most part no one is trying. Nevertheless, this question continues to be debated. Did Malevich consider himself a Ukrainian? Before his departure, did the young artist study under Mykola Pymonenko (a member of the progressive Wanderers [Передвижники] artistic movement), or was this merely a dream of his? Did he spend enough time in Kiev before the end of the 1920s, such that it might be said he actually lived there?

In December of 2015, previously unknown writings by Malevich emerged in Kiev: the texts of five speeches by Malevich, in the form of notes taken at Academy sessions by his assistant, the artist Maryan Kropivnitsky. They were all given by the artist’s family to Tatyana Filyovskaya. This past April they appeared in her book Kazimir Malevich: The Kiev Period, 1928-1930 («Казимир Малевич. Киевский период 1928-1930»).

“First of all, in many studies, the period 1928-1930 was a lacuna in Malevich’s life,” Gorbachev said. “There were only occasional mentions of the fact that he published in New Generation magazine, or that he taught at the Kiev Art Institute. Yet always in passing and without a full understanding of what he was doing for those two years. Now we know, and this is very important for the international study of Malevich. Secondly, it is important for our Ukrainian sense of pride that Malevich was so involved in this. Third, several articles that were previously unpublished, such as the one on film, are absolutely unprecedented. There is no other work by him of such length and of such a conceptual nature. This is amazing material...”

This wave of interest in Malevich’s heritage is part of a new Ukrainian reality. Only recently the architect Dmitry Antonyuk, an Academy of Arts alumnus and now professor, did not even suspect Malevich was so closely tied to the Academy. When the information came to his attention, he was so impressed that he began to promote the Academy’s Suprematist heritage, later creating a sculpture, For Kazimir Malevich, unveiled in Kiev in 2006.

Initially, there was talk of the creation of a small museum to honor Malevich, which Antonyuk hopes will come to fruition. “We have named it ‘the world’s narrowest gallery.’” He said. “It consists of a single elevated wall, only three meters wide, since we wanted to preserve the sidewalk and the trees, sort of extending the building out along the walkway. But the city wavered, and failed to make it happen, so it just hastily hung this memorial plaque as a temporary measure.”

The plaque hangs next to the street where the artist was born. While the house itself has not been preserved, Dmitry Gorbachev initiated a campaign to rename Bozhenko Street Malevich Street, which met with success in 2012.

Here it is worth noting that Moscow does not have any streets named after Malevich, and that his house in Nemchinovka has not been preserved. There once was a village there, but now Nemchinovka is home to upscale housing, beneath the asphalt of which, activists have confirmed, lies Malevich’s grave. And, to be fair, the situation in Kiev is also far from ideal. Not all of the street signs on Malevich Street have been changed, and most passersby do not realize it even exists. One of them even said, “I do not understand why we should be naming a street in our Kiev after some Jew...”

There has been much discussion about Malevich’s nationality – the artist underscored his personal connection to Ukraine on numerous occasions, and sometimes wrote in Ukrainian. Russian art historians emphasize, however, that Malevich also knew Polish, and approach the issue with scholarly impartiality: “his speech contained both Ukrainianisms and Polishisms.” Meanwhile, Ukrainian experts persistently cite evidence of his Ukrainian identity. On the cover of his 2006 book, Malevich and Ukraine, Gorbachev quotes the phrase – “he and I were Ukrainians” – something Malevich said about a particular artist while describing their mutual admiration in his memoirs.

The Second Peasant Cycle, which is almost as enigmatic as the Black Square, has prompted a fascinating discussion. At first glance, these are cheerful, colorful works that seem to mark a return from the Suprematist cosmos to Malevich’s native fields and open spaces. Yet, if one looks more closely, the open spaces seem less open then empty, transforming the pictures into a rural dystopia, where people are immersed in some sort of lifeless milieu.

Many have attempted to analyze the works, claiming that the cycle contains an encrypted dialogue with the government on the shifting situation in the country, which was rapidly rolling toward totalitarianism. In Kiev, however, one can hear the most radical of interpretations: in these paintings Malevich was addressing the theme of the Holodomor (the Great Famine of 1932-33).

While this may sound plausible and telling, Russian art experts note that the massive famine began in Ukraine, as well other parts of the Soviet Union, in 1932, after collectivization was forced on an unwilling peasantry. The majority of the paintings in the cycle, however, were created between 1928 and 1932. On the other hand, the artist’s small village suffered famine much earlier, and many Ukrainian historians include the smaller famines that occurred during the late 1920s to be part of the Holodomor. Furthermore, during this period Malevich was teaching at the Kiev Academy of Arts.

Many of the most controversial aspects of Russo-Ukrainian history come out in discussions about the cycle. What did it represent? Just what was the Holodomor? The Ukrainian government’s official position is that the famine was an act of genocide against the Ukrainian people. The opposing side claims that the Holodomor, as a purely Ukrainian phenomenon, did not exist – in other words, the famine was merely a part of a nationwide agricultural catastrophe.

According to Konstantin Rozh­destvensky, who was a student of Malevich and went on to become a rather famous and esteemed Soviet-era artist, while Malevich was aware of the atrocities committed during collectivization, there is no proof that he made any overtly political statements about it. One leading Malevich expert, Irina Vakar, warns against jumping to conclusions: “Malevich was not inclined to have hard and fast convictions – he was always ambivalent. For him everything that happened, all of life, including politics, was merely a medium through which art created a mysterious sign, into which anyone could invest his or her own meaning.” That was why the crisp, colorful figures in Malevich’s paintings, oddly enough, were suitable for the covers of books about totalitarianism, she explained.

It does not take an art expert to understand that the works in one way or another reflect the gruesome effects of collectivism, while also foreshadowing greater horrors. Evidence for this can be found in the title of Complex Presentiment, a painting dated 1932. Other works in the series contain more concrete images of tragedy – for example, figures with stigmata in the form of a hammer and sickle, or a large cross on a blank face.

One of Malevich’s minor works illustrates the degree to which the artist was compelled by this theme. In 1929, a Kievan artist, Lev Kramarenko, participated in a contest to create sketches for the conference hall of the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences. Aware of Malevich’s modest financial situation, Kramarenko invited the artist to participate in the contest. The image that Malevich contributed was unlikely to be appreciated in those days, due to its openly critical nature. A large black cross with the red figure of a faceless woman next to it stands against a background of an open field and houses with black squares for windows. In the late 1970s, Kramarenko’s wife, the artist Irina Zhdanko, gave the work to Gorbachev. He placed it in the National Art Museum of Ukraine, where it is displayed to this day.

In the spring of 1930, Malevich exhibited works from the second peasant cycle in Kiev. The artist hoped that the Kiev Gallery would buy some of his works, but that did not happen. By that time, no one spent money on the avant-garde. Soon afterward, a wave of oppression hit the arts, and the following summer, the Academy’s rector was fired. The new rector, of course, did not encourage experimental art. At that point, Malevich’s Kiev history came to an end, and he left Ukraine for good. That same year, now in Leningrad, the Suprematist was arrested on charges of espionage (in the catalogue of arrests, under the column “Nationality,” Malevich wrote, “Ukrainian”).

He spent two months in detention and was then released. The rest of his life, however, was unlike the one he led in Leningrad in the 1920s, when he was director of the Institute of Artistic Culture, surrounded by students and admirers. Now Malevich was stripped of his duties, he was short on funds, and hardly in demand. In 1933, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer, from which he died two years later. While some say that the illness was provoked by the torments of prison, most often when speaking of Malevich’s death, experts note that he was lucky to have died in his own bed rather than surviving to see the mass oppressions of 1937.

The tour “Malevich’s Kiev Square” ends near the entrance of the Academy of Arts. If Professor Antonyuk is there, Tatyana brings her groups directly into his class, where he informs them that the walls of the auditorium may well have heard lectures delivered by Kazimir Severinovich Malevich.

In reality, there is no way to confirm this, but Antonyuk is trying to instill an interest in the ideas and history of Suprematism, something extremely relevant to the new Ukraine that today’s Kievan intellectuals dream of.

While those in Kiev seek to capture and immortalize every breath taken by the king of Suprematism, and are even discussing renaming Borisopol Airport Malevich Airport, Russia continues to dismiss opportunities to commemorate the artist.

In April, in the city of Kursk, where the artist lived for several years prior to moving to Moscow, the walls of the Malevich House have literally come tumbling down. The scandal surrounding the building began a year earlier, when the house began to be demolished. Activists managed to halt the demolition, and to gain official recognition for the house as a cultural heritage site. During legal proceedings with the construction company, it was revealed that they may have had the wrong house – Malevich lived next door. Either way, there was no talk of building a city museum for the Suprematist at the site.

Despite the Russian government’s indifference to the artist’s memory, it is unlikely that Ukraine will ever get its hands on even one of the black squares. For one, the pieces (there are four in total – two in the Tretyakov Gallery, one in the State Hermitage Museum, and one in France’s Pompidou Center) were painted in Russia. Given relations between the two countries, such a friendly gesture seems unlikely for some time to come, and it appears that there will be a tug of war over Malevich, as was the case with Nikolai Gogol, whom each country seeks to claim as their own “property”.

Nonetheless, to anyone familiar with the ideas of Malevich, one thing is obvious. As a person of the revolutionary era, as well as a Suprematist, the artist was unlikely to have assigned much significance to national identity.


So, who was Kazimir Malevich? As Filyovskaya puts it: “I believe that he was neither Ukrainian, nor Polish, nor Russian. I would rather call him an Earthman – that is what he called the people of the future. The open fields of Ukraine, where he spent his childhood, helped him to conceive of the world as limitless and wonderful. But yes, of course we want to designate Malevich as not just a Soviet and Russian artist, but a Ukrainian one as well. Perhaps that will motivate Russians to also take action.” RL

* Salo, a kind of fatback, is a stereotypical component of the Ukrainian diet. A konik is a special shelf built on to the side of a large stove for the master of the household. Presumably the roosters referred to are ornamental carvings.

What is Suprematism?

Suprematism (Супрематизм) was founded by Kazimir Malevich in or around 1913. The term refers to art that is abstract and based upon “the supremacy of pure artistic feeling,” instead of on the accurate or visual depiction of objects. The movement’s main exhibition took place in 1915 in St. Petersburg and included 36 works by Malevich and 13 other artists. The “grammar” of Suprematism was based on basic geometric forms, and the centerpiece of the show was his Black Square.

Suprematism is anti-materialist and anti-utilitarian, and so was in direct conflict with Constructivism or materialism, the reigning post-revolutionary art movements in Russia, in which the object and artist-as-engineer held sway.

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