The ‘Black Square’ by Kazimir Malevich

Modern art is often difficult to appreciate, at least for those people who display interest in visual arts such as graphics or paintings. It does not mean though that either modern art is meaningless, or that people who cannot see further than some stains on canvas are stupid (although, both of these options should not be completely neglected). It is rather that modern art is extremely dependent on context, an author’s intentions, and the idea underlying it. Sometimes the meaning is no deeper than just “visual candy,” so to say, a masterful combination of colors; sometimes it is something profound. However, one fact is undeniable: modern art is most likely the pinnacle of what humanity has been able to achieve with paints and canvas.

Speaking of modern artists, the name of Kazimir Malevich is probably among the first ones to pop up in one’s head. The inventor of suprematism, a devoted and thorough researcher of the theory of visual arts, a tireless experimenter, Malevich’s influence on visual arts as we know them today was, and still is, colossal. His most famous work, his cultural legacy for which he will be always remembered for, is the “Black Square”—a painting which continues to bother and blow people’s minds, though it was painted more than a century ago.

Malevich was not the first artist to experiment with pure geometrical shapes. In 1617, Robert Fludd—an outstanding Englishman, knowledgeable in philosophy, astronomy, and medicine—painted a picture he later called “The Great Darkness.” Although we do not know whether it had any conceptual and theoretical background behind it, the fact it was painted shows that artistic people started searching for new art forms a rather long time ago. In 1843, the French artist Bertall introduced his “Vue de La Hogue.” Paul Bilhaud was famous, in particular, for his painting “Negroes Fighting in a Tunnel at Night.” Paul Gustave Dore, another famous artist, used a black square as a symbol to illustrate dark times in the history of Russia. As we can see, there have been numerous examples of using pitch-black-colored minimalism in art; we can even call some of these attempts suprematist, but it was Malevich who fully researched and embodied the principles of suprematism—in particular, in his famous “Black Square.” Describing the painting itself would be rather difficult, considering the fact that it is nothing but an actual black square, about 80×80 cm, painted with oil on linen. The surface of the painting is somewhat shabby, although the rest of the three black squares are in good condition. Yes, there is more than one Black Square: four of them, to be precise. The original one was done in 1915, the next one in 1923 for the Venetian biennale. The third Black Square was painted by Malevich for the exhibition at the Tretyakov Gallery in 1929. And finally, the fourth square was discovered in 1993, when an unidentified person tried to use it as a collateral to receive a banking loan in a Russian city. And there were not only black squares after all—apart from the Black Square, Malevich also created a red and a white one (The Kompass).

There exist multiple ways to interpret the painting. It has been said the first square was painted in 1915, although Malevich himself claimed it to have appeared in 1913. Indeed, the square’s first appearance occurred in 1913—it was Malevich’s design for a stage curtain used in a futurist opera “Victory over the Sun.” Back then, Malevich worked on a manifesto calling to reject rational thought, together with his friends Mikhail Matyushin (musician) and Aleksei Kruchenykh (poet). “Victory over the Sun” depicted characters who aimed to capture the sun and destroy time, and used a new language, zaum, invented by Kruchenykh and consisting of sounds unrelated to meaning. This must have influenced Malevich a lot; curator Achim Borchardt-Hume says that “Malevich, infused with the spirit of his friend’s linguistic experiments, invented at breath-taking speed a new painterly language made up solely from shapes and colours. He called this language suprematism” (Tate.org.uk).

There are also rather nihilistic opinions which, however, also must be taken into consideration due to the enigmatic nature of the painting. In particular, according to Robin Greenwood, an art expert, the “Black Square” is “a regrettable artistic gesture without content, a piece of conceptual art second only to Duchamp’s urinal in terms of the damage inflicted upon the direction and health of painting and sculpture.” At the same time, his colleague Dan Coombs thinks of the “Black Square” as an attempt to break through obsolete artistic techniques. “Black Square represents an audacious attempt to push painting beyond the heightened plasticity of cubism, into the realm of pure fact. In it, painting and what it describes become the same thing. The picture is absolute—it no longer represents, it simply is [...] Malevich’s paintings, whilst made of simple elements, are extremely complex in their internal relationships. Black Square is no exception, in the impossibility of separating the square from its ground. [...] The Black Square is still in a state of becoming, yet to be perfected. There’s something tantalising about a wonky square. Its imperfection establishes a human dimension to what would otherwise be a cold, abstract ideal” (Abstract Critical).

Yet another way to interpret the “Black Square” is to see it as a revolutionary symbol. Malevich himself claimed the square to be the new starting point in art, a sort of a zero from which other new art forms will emerge (and, surprisingly, he was right: suprematist influence can be easily noticed in a large number of modern conceptual artworks). The title of the exhibition where the painting had first been introduced—“0.10”—only supports this thesis. The “Black Square” was, at the same time, a typographic dot, a period at the end of a long sentence of traditional visual arts that conveyed meanings through objects; it was a sign of a new era in art. Probably, Malevich even saw his own style of suprematism as obsolete as well; a suprematist composition was discovered under the black layers of paint, which might be a clue to understand the square. Anyways, the historical period during which the first square appeared was rather unstable: the middle of the World War I, the aftermath of Russian revolution of 1905, and the new revolutionary spirits floating in the air caused unrest, anxiety, and evoked the search for new forms and ways in almost every sphere of life, including art. Perhaps, the square was initially Malevich’s response to (or rather a continuation of) the revolutionary moods gradually filling the minds of Russian citizens back then. Anyways, Malevich did start his own revolution—the artistic one.

The “Black Square” is indeed an enigmatic and influential painting. There will probably be no end to the debates about it; maybe art critics are simply overthinking the subject, trying to see meaning where there is none, and the “Black Square” is nothing more than a black square—as already stated by many art experts such as Robin Greenwood. At the same time, many of the respected and knowledgeable art critics continue searching for the true and hidden meanings of Malevich’s masterpiece. And, who knows, perhaps one of their interpretations will someday prove true.

Works Cited

  1. “The Hidden Meanings of Malevich’s Black Square.” The Kompass. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 Oct. 2016.
  2. “Five Ways to Look at Malevich’s Black Square.” Tate. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 Oct. 2016.
  3. Coombs, Dan, and Robin Greenwood. “The Black Square.” Abstract Critical. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 Oct. 2016.
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