The Prophets of the Russian Avant-Garde

February 11, 2019

Romantics, like Turner and Friedrich, created art in response to technology purposefully meaning to remind mankind of a superior power.  Less than a half century later, Russian artists, Kazimir Malevich1 and Wassily Kandinsky would take up this same theme but in a surprising, new way. Both artists would continue to strip their paintings of representational content until they reached a particular conclusive end point in their artmaking. Malevich’s end point being The Black Square and Kandinsky’s being Composition No. 7, and in doing so would also raise the status of abstraction, putting it on an equal plane with the religious icon, literally2 and figuratively.  

In 1911, Kandinsky published the treatise, Concerning the Spiritual in Art3 which echoes the Romantic’s warnings by asserting that “the reign of materialism, (has lead our souls to) harbor seeds of desperation, unbelief, lack of purpose.”4 Malevich reprimands the viewer in a pamphlet written to accompany his “0.10” art show, “you put birds in a cage…for pleasure. And for the sake of knowledge you keep animals in zoological gardens,”5 wanting to demonstrate the ‘ignoble’ pursuit of representation in art.  Though Malevich denigrates the academies likening them to the Grand Inquisition5, Kandinsky’s academic reproach is that it doesn’t feed the soul, comparing the illusionist renderings to the mime-play of apes. “The ape will sit… [reading a book], leafing through with a thoughtful expression on its face, but the inner meaning of these gestures is completely lacking.”4

The convictions of these two artists are both the set-up and defence for creating new works that defy the previous standards.  Malevich wishes to destroy past works completely, “only with the disappearance of a habit of mind which sees in pictures little corners of nature, madonnas and shameless Venuses, shall we witness a work of pure, living art.”5 One can hear him angrily postulate from the pulpit of Suprematism even against his artist brethren. “Futurism [is] a loop-hole through which those left behind, will pass. We have abandoned Futurism; we…have spat on the altar of its art. But can cowards spit on their idols…I tell you, you will not see the new beauty and the truth, until you make up your minds to spit.”5 Whereas Kandinsky compares the creation of representational work to a period of purgatory. “After the period of materialistic trials to which the soul had apparently succumbed, yet which it rejected as evil temptation, the soul emerges, refined by struggle and suffering.”4

Both artists reach their ‘apotheosis’7 in pursuit of elevating abstraction by taking out all recognizable form.  Kandinsky painstakingly edits his sketches leaving nothing but line, form and color remaining in Composition No. 7.  The painting is saturated with intense primary colors, the secondary colors playing a supporting role like the bass clef does for a melody.  Kandinsky used the connection between color and music to define his role as artist. “Color is a means of exerting a direct influence on the soul. Color is the keyboard. The eye is the hammer. The soul is the piano…the artist is the hand that purposefully sets the soul vibrating.”4  Malevich strips color out of his work, reduces form to a square and is concerned with just the surface, “any painting surface is more alive than any face form…But the surface lives, it has been born.”5

Both artists end up so infatuated with their newborns that they cannot help boasting. Kandinsky quips that “every work of art is the child of its time, often it is the mother of our emotions.”4  Malevich takes his labor pangs even further, “I have overcome the impossible and formed gulfs with my breathing,” he concludes that “the square is not a subconscious form. It is the creation of intuitive reason. It is the face of the new art. The square is a living, royal infant,”5 and by its elevated corner position in the 0,10 exhibit, the work could be interpreted to be on equal status with the iconic holy child. 

Where our prophets fail is the conclusive ideal that all art must and should be made in one particular way in order to feed the soul. Though Kandinsky did have the foresight to realize that his artmaking would be challenge by future artists7, it’s not likely that Malevich shared that viewpoint. How could he have known that in 1932 he would be censured into creating Socialist Realism under Stalin, with an over-optimistic view of soviet life.8

Endnotes

1.  Though Malevich is often cited as being a “Russian avant-garde artist” it would be remiss not to mention that he was of Polish descent and couldn’t leave the country after 1932 when Stalin nationalized Social Realism. This information is based on the youtube video talk given by Aleksandra Shatskikh, Black Square: Malevich and the Origin of Suprematism, YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, 13 Mar. 2014.

2.  Tolstaya, Tatyana. “The Square.” The New Yorker, The New Yorker, 19 June 2017, www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/the-square. Though I originally heard that Black Square was placed on the same level as Russian Religious icons in a documentary on youtube, I found further validation in Tolstaya’s article citing it specifically “the painting is displayed in the corner, under the ceiling—right where it is customary to hang Russian Orthodox icons.”

3.  Der Blaue Reiter was an avant-garde group of Russian and German artists who came together after one of Kandinsky’s paintings was rejected by the Neue Künstlervereinigung München (Munich New Artists’ Association) based on information from “Der Blaue Reiter Movement Overview and Analysis” The Art Story- Theartstory.org

4.  Kandinsky, Wassily. “Concerning the Spiritual in Art.” Art in Theory 1900-2000: an Anthology of Changing Ideas, by Charles Harrison and Paul Wood, Blackwell Publishing, 2014, pp. 82–89. Originally published 1911 by Kandinsky in German as “Uber das Geistige in der Kunst.” **These writings are just excerpts from the original.

5.  Malevich, Kazimir. “From Cubism and Futurism to Suprematism in Art, to New Realism in Painting, to Absolute Creation.” Art in Theory 1900-2000: an Anthology of Changing Ideas, by Charles Harrison and Paul Wood, Blackwell Publishing, 2014, pp.173-183. Originally published as a pamphlet to accompany the exhibition O.10, 1915.

6.  I mean this as both the culmination of the artwork created and as the elevation of these artists to divine status, because the word ‘Apotheosis’ means both high point (as in career goals) and deification. 

7.  In his treatise, Kandinsky discusses at length the notion that it is the artist’s’ purpose to take what he has learned and transform it as have the generations before him, so one can naturally conclude that he knew this would also be done to him. I found the entire book for free just through googling but after I had already written this document.

8. I think it is ironically funny that Malevich having written so harshly about historical art and his contemporaries that he ends up having to create work for Stalin… is it fair, no.  But it reminds me of payment for hubris, something which the Greeks did their best to warn us about in all of their myths…challenging the gods by stating that your child is prettier or smarter than they is a sure way to end up with hair like Medusa, or being sacrificed to a sea monster like Andromeda… lucky Abstract Expression came about like Perseus to recognize and continue Suprematism through works like Elsworth Kelley, et cetra.Post-Script. It would be very easy to trace Malevich’s work through to Rothko and Marden.  I have more than hunch he also inspired quite a bit of Donald Judd’s writing on “Specified Objects” 1965. I see traces of Kandinsky more in the works of Japanese artists, Yayoi Kusama being a possible synesthesia candidate and in the compositions of Makoto Aida.