THE ART WORLD: Kazimir Malevich and Ukraine

By Prof. Myroslava M. Mudrak, Interim Chairperson and Associate Professor

The Department of History of Art, Ohio State University

Rarely can we, as Ukrainians, make a claim on a modern artist of such art historical importance as Kazimir Malevich. Malevich was not only one of the principal abstract painters to emerge in the early 20th century, but by taking abstraction to its pure, non-representational end, he irreversably changed the course of modern art.

Indeed, as controversial as was his work, this was an artist not to be ignored during his lifetime; even more impressive is the evidence of his enduring influence: well after his death in 1935, the spirit of Malevich could be identified in the minimalism of the 1960s and 1970s and continues to linger in post-modernist orientations around the world today.

That Malevich's life began in Ukraine, and that he was reared in the aesthetics of Ukrainian folk art, argues for the importance of attaching Malevich more closely to Ukrainian culture than has previously been acknowledged. His abstract visual language and non-objective (non-figurative) art called Suprematism (which he invented in 1915) drew on the simple values of peasant life.

The Suprematist style, represented by the "Black Square on a White Background," was defined by free-floating geometric forms occupying a seemingly infinite white field. It was the result of an artistic process that distilled form into its most basic elements in order to create an uncomplicated and direct language of visual communication. Suprematism was rooted in the simple values and aesthetics of peasant folk.

For Ukrainians, it is easy to understand how Malevich could have derived his essentialized shapes from the ubiquity of black-and-red cross-stitch embroidery and the striking rectilinear facades of pristinely white-washed village houses and stuccoed hearths. As Malevich's father, a sugar mill worker, moved his family from one sugar beet plantation to another, the rural way of life in Ukraine became deeply imbedded in the consciousness of the observant young Malevich.

In his autobiography, Malevich describes in vivid detail how much he was taken with village handicrafts and the adornment of simple houses. His childhood experience in Ukraine established a strong foundation for his peasant paintings of the 1910s, eventually culminating in the pure geometries of Suprematism. In the latter part of his life, as Malevich undertook what has come to be known as his "second peasant cycle," Malevich would once again return to these colorful folk art traditions, this time derived from the frame-in-frame motifs of native weavings (kylyms) and the stripes of solid hues in woven cloth.

The recent conference on "Rethinking Malevich," held in New York in early February, occasioned a consideration of what other Ukrainian influences may have operated on Malevich during his extremely varied and productive life. It is possible to identify several phases of critical Ukrainian influence on Malevich's development beyond his childhood immersion in Ukrainian folk culture.

Before moving from Kyiv to Kursk in 1896, and well before entering the Studio of Rerberg in Moscow, Malevich had also come under the influence of Kyiv painter (and academician) Mykola Pymonenko (1862-1912), Malevich's first formal art teacher who taught at the only school for artists in Kyiv - the Murashko Drawing School. As a painter trained in the naturalistic tenets of 19th century academism, Pymonenko's genre subjects and plein-aire methods of painting predisposed the young Malevich toward subjects that would occupy him throughout his life - the peasant engaged in some form of outdoor activity.

From a formal standpoint, Pymonenko also taught Malevich to take stock of the way that sunlight isolates color in nature, and how nature, illuminated by the energy of the sun, can create the illusion of reality. In 1913, as Malevich was turning more decisively toward abstract art and shedding all illusionistic devices cultivated by academic painters, he collaborated with fellow avant-garde artists and poets on a performative project in Petrograd, a Futurist opera whose central theme was to capture and imprison the sun. Malevich's sets and costumes for the production of "Victory Over the Sun" were created in the new cubo-futurist style of flattened planes, angled shapes and bright colors.

Cubo-futurism, in the way that Malevich adapted it to his art, was explored in Ukraine primarily by two Kyiv painters: Oleksandra Exter and Oleksander Bohomazov. Exter was the premier catalyzer of avant-garde activity in Kyiv art circles. She organized exhibitions and an art school, and drew young Kyiv artists into her progressive circle. Continuing Malevich's enduring interest in peasant culture, Exter probed the cottage industry of Ukrainian folk arts, conducted at various art colonies outlying Kyiv as a way of preserving the folk arts in the face of industrialization. There Exter discovered the potential of appliqué fabric motifs to define an indigenous abstract art. Where Malevich's inspiration from Ukraine was more conceptual and "spiritual" in nature, Exter succeeded in establishing a practical link with peasant art - one responsive to the current cultural and technological demands.

In the years of civil strife and early independence in 1918-1919, she brought together some of the best artistic talent of Kyiv, including Anatol Petrytskyi and Vadym Meller, to work for the theater. The designs of these artists represented a forceful blend of cubist-inspired collage, swirling futurist-derived dynamic rhythms, and an exuberant color sense that enlivened the stage. The marriage of Exter's avant-garde scenographers and Ukrainian theater in the 1920s (the most experimental being Les Kurbas' Berezil) contributed to the revitalization of Ukrainian culture during the 1920s.

Exter's pedagogic influence was most demonstrably asserted in the life and work of Oleksander Bohomazov. During 1913-1914, as Malevich worked on "Victory Over the Sun," Bohomazov, living in the outskirts of Kyiv, was writing a treatise analyzing the function of the component parts of painting. His theoretical tract, "Painting and Elements," was never published (the manuscript is currently housed in the Ukrainian State Museum Archive of Literature and Art), but belongs to a genre of modernist writings generated by artists themselves. These artists-theorists - among them Kandinsky, Mondrian, Malevich and Bohomazov - addressed both the philosophical necessity and the new thought processes in the making of modern art. Common threads weave through the plethora of writings to emerge at this time, making for a compelling case of zeitgeist.

The overlapping ideas between Bohomazov and Malevich, and especially their shared commitment to the square as the totality of all visual form, makes their kinship all the more pronounced. That both of them would go on to teach at the newly established institutions for artistic training in the post-Revolution period, reinforces the concordance between the two.

However, Bohomazov's and Malevich's paths wouldn't actually cross until Malevich was hired to teach at the Kyiv Art Institute in 1928. The institute evolved out of the Ukrainian Academy of Arts that was formed in 1918 by Mykhailo Hrushevskyi with an appointed core faculty of illustrious artists, including Hryhoriy Narbut and Mykhailo Boichuk. In 1924, its name changed to the Kyiv Art Institute.

Malevich was given artistic refuge at the Kyiv Art Institute during a time when his situation in Russia was untenable. For the three years (1928-1930) that he was associated with the institute, Malevich published 13 of his essays on modern art in the Ukrainian avant-garde journals "Nova Generatsiia" and "Avangard-Almanakh."

From his correspondence during this time, it was clear that Malevich identified with the Kyiv-Kharkiv literary vanguard lead by Mykhailo Semenko. Yet, his stylistic turnabout from abstraction to a representational style also indicates a keen awareness of Boichuk's monumentalism.

Boichukism's emphasis on rounded silhouettes of toiling figures in flattened landscapes that weave up the picture surface, could not be discounted by Malevich, for it shared in the very principles that structured Malevich's entire evolution - from depicting devout peasants at worship to the placement of the "Black Square on a White Background" in the "icon corner" of the exhibition gallery when Suprematism was first unveiled. Boichukism was based on the principles of traditional iconography, whose message was never verbal; rather, within an array of mute figures, the word (logos) and spiritual content is delivered by the image itself. Despite being derided for its conservatism by Malevich's "leftist" colleagues, Boichukism must have carried some appeal for Malevich. That Boichukism synthesized principles of the Italian Renaissance with "primitive" local icons, must have struck a chord with Malevich who rendered his own self-portrait in the guise of a Quattrocento patron. Finally, the bulky, flattened silhouettes, and three-quarter poses typical of such Boichukst portraits as Vasyl Sedliar's treatment of the "Portrait of Oksana Pavlenko," find direct resonance in Malevich's portrait of both his wife and his daughter.

Although there are more questions raised by Malevich's association with Ukraine then is possible to answer definitively, there is no doubt that Malevich's dramatic shift from abstract, non-representational art (begun with Suprematism) to a highly figurative art depicting peasants once again, coincides directly with his period of teaching at the Kyiv Art Institute.

Malevich's "second peasant cycle" - a series of paintings that were relatively macabre in subject matter and ominous in spirit - have been long interpreted as a personal compromise by Malevich, suggesting that he succumbed to the pressures of the mainstream artists who never abandoned representational art and who, by then, were laying the foundation for Socialist Realism. Indeed, Malevich's somewhat tentative handling of faceless, hieratic figures, with unnaturally exaggerated limbs and provocative hand gestures would seem to confirm that the artist was vascillating between a kind of proletarian literalness and iconic transcendence, wavering perhaps in his conviction about the avant-garde. Some have argued convincingly, moreover, that the change in mood between his earlier peasant themes and the later works set in the vast swaths of untilled agricultural land, augurs for a time of famine and depravity suffered by many under collectivization. That his figures are mostly situated in timeless zones banded by stripes of solid color, certainly points to a change of environment for the artist which harkens back to the peasant kylyms that he held such an attraction for from his youth. That these paintings take on the qualities of traditional Orthodox icons at a time when Malevich's Suprematist theories were being criticized for promoting mystical and monastic tendencies (a charge equal to treason in an increasingly atheistic society under Stalin) makes this body of work even more confounding.

As we celebrate the 125th anniversary of Malevich's birth in Ukraine, it is timely that we also take a closer look at the history of Ukrainian modern art and what it had to offer its own native son. By considering Malevich's art in line with the activities of contemporary Ukrainian painters, we are able to add yet another layer of understanding to the creative processes of this complex figure of modern art.

Prof. Myroslava M. Mudrak

Interim Chairperson and Associate Professor
The Department of History of Art at The Ohio State University

Copyright © The Ukrainian Weekly, April 11, 2004, No. 15, Vol. LXXII