This week’s New Yorker includes an interesting – and, in one respect, somewhat unusual – review of a new show at the Guggenheim featuring the work of Kazimir Malevich, the father, if that’s the term, of suprematism.
Normally the story of the early 20th Century Russian avant-garde is told as a fairly simple morality tale (I wrote on a related topic here). These artists were, we are told, the heralds of a new world, who found themselves allied with Lenin in a brave, doomed, attempt to build Utopia. Ultimately, the legend goes, the revolution was betrayed by Stalin. With the ideals and the idealists of 1917 dead or dispersed, the free spirits of the avant-garde found that they were no longer acceptable to the regime. And it wasn’t only their art that was in danger of annihilation. Dull socialist realism (all those farm workers, factories and Red Army men) replaced innovation, and the squares, blocks and jagged montages of those adventurous early years were consigned to the scrap heap, final proof that the once bright Soviet dawn had turned dark.
The truth, of course, is very different. Stalin didn’t betray Lenin’s legacy, he enshrined it, enforced it and enabled it to endure. And as for those freethinking artists? Well, they were content enough to collaborate with communism amid the corpses and jailhouses of the early Soviet state, and they were also quite prepared to shut out those artists who did not conform with the ‘progressive’ notions of the revolutionary era.
Malevich was a genius, but the fact of that genius should not be allowed to obscure his role as a propagandist for, and accomplice in, a system that was barbaric from the beginning. He was no more “just an artist,” than Leni Riefenstahl “was just a photographer”. The New Yorker’s reviewer (Peter Schjeldahl) at least begins to touch on the awkwardness presented by the (all too often ignored) historical record:
“Artists who transformed all given modes of visual art …could hardly avoid hubris. They had an unfortunate habit of scheming against one another, as well as against any artists whom they deemed outmoded….”
And then here:
“The Revolution was dining on its children, just slowly enough to make them, in desperation, compromise their principles one by one.”
It’s a start, but it still lets Malevich off too lightly – as he himself would well have understood. For me, his finest work dates from the late 1920s (and is not, alas, featured in the Guggenheim show). A native of Kiev, Malevich knew about the havoc that was descending on the Ukranian countryside. His response was oblique, in code as, almost certainly, it had to be. He painted a series of images of peasants. So far, so Soviet, you might think, but look more closely. Beneath the bright colors there is a sense of unease or something even worse. The images themselves are faceless, haunting. These are portraits of the doomed, anonymous, archaic, finished, victims of a system that Malevich had once served all too well.