That’s not art, it’s just a big black square!

Malevich

I’ve heard this exclamation many times before when visiting art galleries, and I’m sure you have, too.

“It echoes the feeling of burning toast/it symbolises the conflict between spots and stripes.” Lots of these pieces I believe are conceptual nonsense. But art, like many creative disciplines, is subjective.

Kazimir Malevich, creator of the emblematic painting ‘Black Square’ (1915), is considered by many to be the father of minimal and conceptual art. He was also the writer of the suprematist manifesto – a document described by Professor Alex Danchev as “exhilarating, but also baffling”.

In his manifesto, Malevich called for an art form that has nothing in common with nature. He argued that all figurative paintings are just bad copies of real life – that such work could never be creative.

Although Malevich was a revolutionary artist, he was not the first person with such ideas, with Plato long before him arguing that geometric shapes are “naturally and permanently beautiful”. Abstract and geometric patterns were witnessed in creative disciplines long before they were embraced as art (think quilts, tartans, tiles, basket weaving, flags and stained glass).

Malevich came at a very exciting point in history, which is why his work created such a stir. Russia is huge and incredibly hard to govern: like playing a game of ‘Whac-A-Mole’ as big as a country. As the 20th century gained momentum, the painful conflicts between tradition and modernity weakened the Tsar’s grip on his empire. Tensions were brewing.

Art was brewing, too; Russian artists were involved in the German expression of Kandinsky, the French cubism of Chagall and Archipenko, and in the Italian futurism of Marinetti.

Malevich himself was involved in these movements. In 1913, he designed a theatre set for a Futurist opera, which even now (after having had such an influence on the way we use art and design) is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. These stage sets were the beginning of Malevich’s experimentation with geometric shapes.

The next year, the First World War broke out. Death, machines, conflict, revolutionary art, revolutionary thinking. In Russia, revolution was commonplace, in every aspect of life. As war prevented artistic communication between nations, Russian artists turned to Russian sources for inspiration and identity. Malevich’s ‘Black Square’ was first displayed in the corner of a room, just like the icons that Russian peasants hung in their houses, for worship and for hiding their pots and pans.

But that big black square isn’t just a plain black version of Russian folk art. It is a statement that attempts to reject statements. Malevich aimed to depart from the objective – the social and the political, compressing the whole of painting into a black square on a white canvas.

X-rays reveal that the square is painted over a composition of coloured shapes. That is just amazing, to have made an iconic piece of work over the top of something unsuccessful! It has taught me not to disregard an idea or a piece of work in its early stages, because you might end up with something a billion miles away from your starting point.

Malevich is great, because he had the ideas and the bravery to do something that had never been seen before. His work matters because of what it is, but also where it came from. His work is still seen as revolutionary, even today. People look at it and double take: “is that even art?” Surely that is a sign of an original mind! 100 years on, people are still questioning the appearance and philosophy of his work.

If you’re intrigued, head to the Tate Modern, where a collection of Malevich’s work is on view until October 26 2014.

Words: Phoebe Thomson

Image: Anna Robinson

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