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Vistors at the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg observe Kazemir Malevich’s Black Square of 1913. (DMITRY LOVETSKY/Associated Press)
Vistors at the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg observe Kazemir Malevich’s Black Square of 1913. (DMITRY LOVETSKY/Associated Press)

Russell Smith

One final ignominy for a pioneer of abstract art Add to ...

The logo for the recent G20 summit in St. Petersburg, Russia, was inspired by the formalist abstract art of Wassily Kandinsky and Kazimir Malevich, both fearless rule-breakers and intellectual elitists from the beginning of the 20th century. Malevich, a committed communist revolutionary, is turning in his grave at this co-option by international capitalism.

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But it turns out new Russian capitalists aren’t too keen on heroicizing him, either. About a month ago, it was revealed in Russian media that Malevich’s burial site had been located, but that it would not be turned into a public memorial site; instead, the developers who own the land in the village of Nemchinovka, near Moscow, could go ahead and turn it into luxury condos. The developer has said it will put a memorial somewhere on the grounds of its new complex. But it is a gated community.

There had once been a sort of shrine on Malevich’s grave in 1935, marked with his most famous image, the black square on a white background – the purest expression of abstraction of its time and one of the most enraging examples of I-don’t-get-art for generations of Philistines to come. The gravesite was destroyed in the Second World War.

According to The New York Times, which reported the story on this side of the world, there was some hand-wringing about the lack of public memorial for the artist in this apotheosis of bourgeois success, but nothing could be done. The great cubo-futurist is now a small selling point for a set of elegant material acquisitions.

So there goes an opportunity for a public memorial to one of the most influential and original artists ever to come out of a most artistic country, a theoretician who embodied modernism and who created, with his Black Square, one of the most daring acts of defiance of existing conventions ever in the history of art, up there with Marcel Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel. The local Russian authorities had an opportunity, here, to create glamour and education at the same time, but they left that job to the builders.

We Canadians shouldn’t be shocked – we ourselves have little concept of placing historical markers of cultural grandeur in our cities. We don’t name our streets after our artists, even when a great artist lived there. We don’t even put up plaques on their former houses. Our municipal governments have no interest in turning our dull concrete grids into a series of references to fantasy – as the streets of Paris and London, for example, are; there, you can walk and meet ghosts of both authors and fictional characters; not only can you see who died of consumption in a garret upstairs, but also whose character did. These plaques lay a fictional city over a real one. (Oh well, you might say, Canada is not famous for its art anyway. And I would say, yes, and this is why.)

It’s utterly fitting, of course, that Malevich should find his difficult work embarrassing for the new rulers of Russian society. It was embarrassing to the old, too – it was always unamenable to propagandistic purposes, being just too purely abstract.

Malevich was initially part of the group of early modernists in poetry, theatre and painting who saw experimentation with the ways in which things are represented as inherently progressive. It was 1913 when he painted his first black square, and it still enrages the my-kid-could-do-that crowd; it is still shockingly bizarre. It was natural that such an aesthetic revolutionary would throw in his lot with the economic revolutionaries.

For a while, this worked: In the early stages of the Bolshevik revolution, avant-gardists were feted and given important positions in the administration of official culture. High modernism was, for a brief moment, official culture, and this acceptance of the weird became part of early Soviet propaganda, making the country attractive to oppressed and unloved cubists and Dadaists in the rest of Europe. Malevich himself became director of a state art institute.

As soon as Stalin came to power in 1924, modernism was routed, socialist realism became the only acceptable official art, and Malevich was systematically persecuted. He lost his teaching and curatorial positions and his work was blacklisted from galleries; he even had to start painting in a representational style (in which he buried coded references to his earlier abstractions).

So there is a terrible irony in this more recent ignominy. Malevich was for a while celebrated as an official victim of the terrible repressions of communism, and yet the free-marketeers of the new Russia, despite taking his designs as their banner, are not interested in making a public hero of him. He is still unattractive and unmarketable, no matter what the dominant system.

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