The Revolution of the Black Square

Iwona Blazwick

Black Square, 1915. Kazimir Malevich’s small masterpiece is one of the most shocking and influential paintings in the history of art. What does it mean and what impact has it had around the world?

Iwona Blazwick begins the story in the dramatic turbulence of early 1900s Tsarist Russia, where a group of young artists began to rethink the possibilities of art and overturned traditional ideas of representation. The art movements they founded – Constructivism and Suprematism – focused on pure colour, shape and line, and reflected a world undergoing social and political revolution.

Blazwick follows the trail from western Europe to 1950s Latin America and beyond, looking at how Kazimir Malevich’s deceptively simple Black Square reverberated amongst artists in various countries throughout the following decades, creating a universal language that continues to shape art to this day.

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We humans have an anthropomorphic need to see ourselves, we look to art as being a kind of mirror. And so, for two thousand years and beyond, certainly Western Art has been dominated by representations of bodies and faces.

So, Malevich’s Black Square and the whole Constructivist movement is a revolution. This small, rather humble and even rather irregular square was to change the direction of modern and contemporary art. In the early 1900s, Russia was a huge territory stretching all the way from Finland to Indochina and Japan. But it was in a state of crisis. It was making a tectonic shift between a largely rural, agricultural economy and culture to registering the shockwaves of industrialisation. It was still under the rule of the Romanovs who believed in autocracy, nationalism and the power of the Orthodox Church.

However, there was a group of young artists in Moscow who were beginning to hear of rumblings in other parts of Europe. They’d heard about this young man called Picasso, and Braque, in Paris, who’d invented a radical new form of art called Cubism. They’d also celebrated a firebrand from Italy called Marinetti, who’d brought news of a new avant-garde called Futurism. And Futurism encapsulated everything that excited these young people at the beginning of a new century.

Then the catastrophe of the First World War. And it was very clear that Tsarist Russia was in its final days. The energy that that levered amongst these young people manifested itself in a world-changing exhibition, and it was called The Last Futurist Exhibition: 0.10. The zero signified the beginning, a tabula rasa, a springboard from which a new tomorrow could be born, the ten was the number of artists who took part.

One of the rooms of this exhibition has gone into art-historical legend, and it was the room created by Malevich himself. And what was striking about it was that there was not a single image, not one picture, in a display of about fifty paintings. They were all either squares or crosses. So, Malevich’s Black Square is the paradigm shift which changed the whole direction of contemporary art. Why was it so significant?

Well, first of all, there is a sense of a beginning, of a void, the complete absence of representation – there is no picture in this black square. Secondly, it didn’t try and represent the world in other ways, there was no shading, there’s no contour, there’s no sense of a perspective, of trying to render three dimensions in a two-dimensional space. It is about pure colour, and I think we should regard black as a colour, it is about planes and lines and shapes. It released art from what was increasingly a slavish relationship to structures of power. It released art from the pressure to be mimetic, to be a mirror of the world. It made art become immersive, participatory, it created a universal language which could be read by any culture. It wasn’t something that was restricted to the elites.

And this was the beginning of abstraction in art. It was part of a movement which was called Constructivism, although Malevich himself founded another movement called Suprematism. These are the two names that then reverberated beyond Petrograd, across Western Europe and finally around the world. Constructivism takes its starting point from, in a way, architecture. Huge industrial buildings that were driven not by Athens and the legacy of Classicism but by machinery, by engineering, by function. And these new kinds of shapes and forms and materials – steel, concrete, the use of glass – was impacting on the consciousness of young artists.

Suprematism has a slightly different ethos in that it was trying to marry that new functionalism with a sense of transcendence, with a sense of spirituality. So, while one drive was about shaping the future, the other was about something which seemed timeless, eternal, to relate back to the fundamental nature of human existence. And to what separates us, perhaps, as a species, the idea of being reflective and a sense of transcendence. And so, these two impulses come together in Constructivism and Suprematism, and also, I think relate to the fear about Industrialisation – seeing what was happening to the landscape, the dreadful filth, the terrible conditions in which workers found themselves. The idea of the human body as a machine.

All of that rectangular aesthetic around factory architecture and industrial architecture found its way into the canvas. And so, the famous Black Square, which dominated over this one room of the exhibition, has all of those components within it. It’s pure geometry, it is simply four corners, and it’s a shocking image still to this day. A simple black square on a white background.

Both images and paintings, and sculptures, became swept up into this new dynamic of a transformative force that was going to transform not only art but society itself. Many of the artists of this era are drawn to the dynamics of line, for example, and even translating the angularity of a line going off into the future, you can see that also reflected in the photography of an artist like Rodchenko. He photographs masses of people moving on the diagonal, symbolically into a new future. Communication was also the great key to this movement because pure colour and pure line was transcendent of language. Tatlin’s tower, which has become one of the most enduring symbols of the utopianism of twentieth-century Modernism, encapsulated so many of these great principles. It was a huge structure which was envisaged as a radio station, as a broadcaster, so the idea of reaching across all peoples the new message of revolution, and finding a physical form, all of these elements came together.

Many of the great artists, thinkers, writers fled during the Nazi occupation, and in the aftermath of the catastrophe of the Second World War many of them ended up in Latin America and brought their influence with them. In the 1950s, artists in Brazil saw an opportunity to assert their language and they saw the Black Square as offering them a new kind of language, which similarly eclipsed the power of the church, of colonialism and of the elites in Brazil. It also seemed to them that this was a democratic language, with which they could shape a new urban environment and a new kind of sensibility.

An artist like Lygia Clark transformed the Black Square from a two into a three-dimensional form. Her Bichos, which are ‘Little Beasts’, are actual cubes which the public was invited to interact with and to manipulate and transform. And so, the idea of participation also comes out of this protean form. Her contemporary Lygia Pape, for example, staged a street performance where she invited passers-by to join in one huge moving square, a membrane made of cloth through which they put their heads and walked together, so it was a kind of unifying form where people could take to the streets and find themselves in a solidarity, in a movement of cooperation.

By the 1960s, Europe was becoming increasingly covered in advertising. In response to that a young French artist called Daniel Buren thought of a way of offering an alternative to this new form which was invading public space. And he came up with the idea of the stripe rather than the square. And using pure colours, white and red or white and yellow stripes, he launched a billboard campaign across the streets of Paris which coincided with the ’68 uprisings. So, alongside the students, the barricades and the work of the Situationists – another avant garde, politically-radical group – Buren himself was silencing the forces of consumerism and advertising with, again, this idea of pure form.

The American artist Jenny Holzer sees the dark side of the Black Square. Inspired by the Iran-Iraq war and the American intervention in the Gulf, she collected the redacted statements of Iraqi soldiers who were being interrogated by the American army and produced them as canvases, and what we see there is the black square as a form of censorship, it is suppressing speech in these redacted statements were very few words survive, and they’ve been essentially silenced by these big black rectangles.

Malevich’s canvases always bore a black square, that became in a way his signature. And when he died in 1935, his funeral became a kind of Constructivist performance to celebrate this great avant-garde figure as his coffin was taken through the streets of Moscow and held atop was the Black Square itself. And the Black Square is now inscribed on his tombstone.

What is its final great testament is the fact that it can still resonate today in the twenty-first century. A lot of artists are now reconnecting with those utopian dreams as they face a dystopian future. In terms of anxiety about everything from the environment to the impact of a new populist political landscape, again those early Modernists seem to offer a sense of hope, a sense of invention and a kind of dynamic that young artists today want to reconnect with.

With thanks to…

Alison Jacques Gallery

Andrea Büttner

Daniel Buren

David Batchelor

Hauser & Wirth

Jenny Holzer

Lisson Gallery

O Mundo de Lygia Clark-Associação Cultural

Projeto Lygia Pape

Sprüth Magers

Whitechapel Gallery

 

Archive

Alamy Stock Photo

British Pathé

Bridgeman Images

Footage Farm

Getty

Pond5

SCALA Archives

Shutterstock

 

Music

Original composition

9 Lives Music

 

Full list of artworks shown

Black Square

Kazimir Malevich, 1915

 

Man with a Guitar

Pablo Picasso, 1911–1913

© Succession Picasso/DACS, London 2018.

 

Still Life with a Caned Chair

Pablo Picasso, 1912

© Succession Picasso/DACS, London 2018.

 

The Revolt

Luigi Russolo, 1911

 

Automobile, Speed and Light

Giocomo Balla, 1914

© DACS 2018

 

Dynamism of a Cyclist         

Umberto Boccioni, 1913

 

0.10 Exhibition

Unknown photographer, 1915

 

Suprematist Composition No.56

Kazimir Malevich, 1936

 

Illustration from ‘The Results of the First Five-Year Plan’

Varvara Stepanova, 1932

 

Radio Station Tower

Aleksandr Rodchenko, 1929

© Rodchenko & Stepanova Archive, DACS, RAO 2018.

 

Klinom Krasnim

El Lisitskiy, 1920

 

Suprematist Composition (Eight Red Rectangles)

Kazimir Malevich, 1915

 

Hieratic Suprematist Cross (large cross in black over red on white)

Kazimir Malevich, 1920-1921

 

Mystic Suprematism (red cross on black circle)

Kazimir Malevich, 1920

 

Linear Composition

Lyubov Popova, 1919

 

Study for “Proun” 8 Stellungen,

El Lissitzky, 1923

 

Projet pour un Sculpture d’Angle

Vladimir Tatlin, n.d.

 

Corner-Counter Relief,

Kazimir Malevich, 1913-14

 

Proun 1 D

Kazimir Malevich, 1919

 

Suprematism / Supremus No.55

Kazimir Malevich, 1916

 

Dynamic Suprematism

Kazimir Malevich, 1916

 

Black and White Suprematist Composition

Kazimir Malevich, 1915

 

Artistic Architectonics

Lyubov Popova, 1916

 

Painterly Architectonic

Lyubov Popova, 1916

 

Photogram with pliers

El Lisitskiy, 1920

 

Columns of the Museum of the Revolution

Aleksandr Rodchenko, 1926

© Rodchenko & Stepanova Archive, DACS, RAO 2018.

 

Monument to commemorate the Third International

Vladimir Tatlin, 1919-1920

 

Akexander Rodchenko paintings in Lyubov Popova’s Studio,

Russian Photographer, 1924

 

Supremus nr. 50

Kazimir Malevich, 1915

 

Suprematist Composition: Airplane Flying

Kazimir Malevich, 1915

 

Soviet Postcard Depicting Parade of Sportsmen on Red Square, Column of Standard Bearers, Moscow

Alexander Rodchenko, 1932

© Rodchenko & Stepanova Archive, DACS, RAO 2018.

 

Pointless Composition Number 86

Alexander Rodchenko, 1932

© Rodchenko & Stepanova Archive, DACS, RAO 2018.

 

Painterly Realism of a Boy with a Knapsack – Colour Masses in the Fourth Dimension

Kazimir Malevich, 1915

 

Soviet Postcard Depicting Teatral’nyi Passage, Moscow

Alexander Rodchenko, early 1930s

© Rodchenko & Stepanova Archive, DACS, RAO 2018.

 

Race

Alexander Rodchenko, 1935

© Rodchenko & Stepanova Archive, DACS, RAO 2018.

 

Sun Worshippers

Alexander Rodchenko, 1933

© Rodchenko & Stepanova Archive, DACS, RAO 2018.

 

Girl with Leica

Alexander Rodchenko, 1934

© Rodchenko & Stepanova Archive, DACS, RAO 2018.

 

Steps and shadows

Unknown photographer, n.d.

 

At the Telephone

Alexander Rodchenko, 1928

© Rodchenko & Stepanova Archive, DACS, RAO 2018.

 

Radio Station Tower

Aleksandr Rodchenko, 1929

© Rodchenko & Stepanova Archive, DACS, RAO 2018.

 

Diver

Alexander Rodchenko, 1934

© Rodchenko & Stepanova Archive, DACS, RAO 2018.

 

Soviet Postcard Depicting Parade of Sportsmen on Red Square, Moscow

Alexander Rodchenko, 1932

© Rodchenko & Stepanova Archive, DACS, RAO 2018.

 

Rhythmic gymnastics on Red Square

Alexander Rodchenko, n.d.

© Rodchenko & Stepanova Archive, DACS, RAO 2018.

 

Red Square (Painterly Realism of a Peasant Woman in Two Dimensions)

Kazimir Malevich, 1915

 

Monument to the Third International

Kazimir Malevich, 1919-1920

 

Model of the Monument to the Third International, at an exhibition in Moscow in 1920, with Tatlin in the foreground holding a pipe

Unknown photographer, 1921

 

Parade with a model of Vladimir Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International

Unknown photographer, 1925

 

Poster for the Fourth Centenary of São Paulo

Geraldo de Barros, 1954

 

Planos em Superfície Modulada No. 5

Lygia Clark, 1957

 

Concreto

Geraldo de Barros, 1953

 

Vermelho cortando o branco

Hélio Oiticica, 1958

 

Sem título,

Hélio Oiticica, 1959

 

Metaesquema (Dois Brancos)

Hélio Oiticica, 1958

 

Hélio Oiticica

Jorge Lewinski, n.d.

 

Bicho (maquette),

Lygia Clark, 1960

© O Mundo de Lygia Clark-Associação Cultural, Rio de Janeiro.

With thanks to Alison Jacques Gallery

 

Divisor

Lygia Pape, 1968

Performance at Museu de Arte Moderna, Rio de Janeiro, 2010

© Projeto Lygia Pape

Courtesy Projeto Lygia Pape and Hauser & Wirth

 

Daniel Buren: PILE UP: High Reliefs. Situated Works

Installation view

Lisson Gallery, London, 2017

© DB-ADAGP Paris and DACS, London 2018.

 

Photo-souvenir: Affichage sauvage,

work in situ, Paris, April 1968.

Daniel Buren

© DB-ADAGP Paris and DACS, London 2018.

 

Photo-sourvenir: Affichage sauvage,

work in situ, Ratingerstrasse, 4, in “Position – Proposition”

Düsseldorf, Germany, 30 September 1969

Daniel Buren

With thanks to Lisson Gallery

© DB-ADAGP Paris and DACS, London 2018.

 

Photo-souvenir: Affichage sauvage,

work in situ, Paris, May 1969

Daniel Buren

With thanks to Lisson Gallery

© DB-ADAGP Paris and DACS, London 2018.

 

Photo-souvenir: Affichage sauvage,

work in situ, Paris, April 1968.

Daniel Buren

With thanks to Lisson Gallery

© DB-ADAGP Paris and DACS, London 2018.

 

Top Secret 32 U.S. Government Document

Jenny Holzer, 2010

With thanks to Sprüth Magers

© Jenny Holzer. ARS, NY and DACS, London 2018.

 

Endgame Black U.S. Government Document

Jenny Holzer, 2011

With thanks to Sprüth Magers

© Jenny Holzer. ARS, NY and DACS, London 2018.

 

Top Secret 24 Black U.S. Government Document

Jenny Holzer, 2011

With thanks to Sprüth Magers

© Jenny Holzer. ARS, NY and DACS, London 2018.

 

Self-Portrait

Kazimir Malevich, 1933

 

Untitled (Paintings)

Andrea Büttner, 2011

Photo: C. Dario Lasagni

With thanks to Andrea Büttner

© DB-ADAGP Paris and DACS, London 2018.

 

Cogito, Ergo Sum

Rosemarie Trockel, 1988

© DACS 2018.

 

Monochrome Archive, 1997–2015

no.19, Islington, London 10/04/1999 

David Batchelor

With thanks to David Batchelor

 

Yellow Versus Purple

Olafur Eliasson, 2003

 

Coats of Asbestos Spangled with Mica

Liam Gillick, 2002

 

Strangers

Amalia Pica, 2008

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