A few years ago I spent a rather surreal (well, constructivist actually) week in Moscow. ‘Culture shock’ would be putting it mildly. Because the Russian capital is without doubt the most dour, grey place I have ever experienced. Which is quite an achievement given the fact that I spent my formative years in t’industrial conurbation that is West Yorkshire.
To prove the point, the highlight of my Russian trip was a visit to Moscow’s State Tretyakov Gallery to stare intently at a 100 year-old oil painting of a black square. It’s by Kazimir Malevich and, to be fair, it is widely considered one of the seminal works of modern art. Incredibly, the gallery was completely deserted except for me and my somewhat reluctant yet patient companion.
A huge contrast to the thronging crowds in front of the same painting last week at the Royal Academy in London. Although that particular canvas is actually on loan from The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg. (Malevich painted four black squares in total – the one in the photograph on the right, for example, was shown at Tate Modern in 2014. I guess he could rattle them off quite easily.)
Yes, a black square. Nothing else. Definitely one for the graphic designers. In fact, Malevich went on to use a small black square to sign his later work, so it was also a logo. But what did it mean? Well of course it represents the break between representational painting and abstract painting. Black Square is supposedly the first time that someone had made a painting that wasn’t of something.
“We can admire and learn from the stunning work on the gallery walls. But isn’t there also a vital lesson here about the ignorance and danger of extreme political ideologies?”
This work has come to help symbolise the intellectual fervour, excitement and optimism of the avant-garde during one of the most turbulent periods in modern history, the years immediately after Russia’s 1917 October Revolution.
The popularity of these paintings 100 years later in London is, however, in stark contrast to Joseph Stalin’s particular brand of art criticism which involved throwing Malevich in jail in 1930. A fate that eventually befell many other artists featured in the wonderful recent Royal Academy exhibition, Revolution: Russian Art 1917–1932.
They’re all here – Malevich’s fellow suprematist El Lissitzky (they fell out with the constructivists – it’s a long story); Alexander Rodchenko’s brilliant photographic experiments; Vasily Kandinsky; Marc Chagal and many others. A brave new world featuring all manner of painting, photography, graphics, ceramics, textiles and film. New art for a new state. Inspiring stuff. This work went on to have a huge influence on European and American art in the 20th century.
But we are then stopped in our tracks by a heartbreaking photographic exhibit featuring seemingly endless mugshots of the artists and intellectuals who were either shot, imprisoned or sent to the Siberian Gulag camps by the Bolsheviks during Stalin’s brutal suppression of creative freedom. Their crime? Creating work that the masses apparently didn’t understand.
I’m desperately trying to not make a gag about research groups here … because I really shouldn’t make light of this monumental tragedy. Sure, we can certainly admire and learn from the stunning work on the gallery walls. But isn’t there also a vital lesson here about the ignorance and danger of extreme political ideologies? Particularly relevant in 2017 perhaps. This really was the most thought-provoking show I’ve seen in a long time. Power to the Royal Academy! Perhaps now we can see who the true revolutionaries were.
Paul Belford is founder and creative director of agency Paul Belford Ltd. See paulbelford.com and @belford_paul