Das Platforms / Contemporary Art

no one could remember whether the physical motions were accompanied by any kind of speech

by Amelia Groom

11 Jun 2014

This blog post is a postscript to Amelia Groom’s essay about movement and cracks in Kazimir Malevich’s artworks, and in their histories, which was published in issue 30 of Das Superpaper



Here is a picture of Malevich’s Black Square from 1915, alongside an X-ray photograph that shows the ghostly presence of a different composition. Over the last 99 years, this earlier picture has been gradually revealing itself, as the black cover has started to crack up. It’s unsurprising that Malevich would have recycled his canvases, given the sparseness of materials in Russia at this time, but the underlying composition is significant because it tells us that that the more colourful and compositionally complex Suprematist style that was once thought to have come after the Black Square’s black square in fact came before (and underneath) it.



Here is a “video fantasy” featuring music by the Ukrainian band Foa Hoka. It was posted on YouTube by a user called Sampled Pictures in 2010. And here is an anecdote that appears in Aleksandra Shatskikh’s book about the legendary Vitebsk Art School (Vitebsk: The Life of Art, published by Yale University Press, 2007), where Malevich taught from 1919 until 1921:


“Malevich gave a striking example of his talent for attracting attention during his very first appearance at the school, the details of which have been independently confirmed by many of the students. The entire school had gathered in the school’s main hall, which was always used for general assemblies; a large open staircase led from this hall directly up to the second floor. Following Marc Chagall’s announcement that the school had a new instructor, a figure appeared on the landing of the second floor stairway. Looking up, the audience saw a round-faced, sturdy-looking man who slowly began descending the stairs, waving his arms in wide circles as he moved. Reaching the bottom of the stairs he ascended the podium and, still without speaking, continued his gymnastic-like exercises; with his compact, thickset body he resembled a wrestler or athlete. The effect on the audience was staggering; in the minds – and memories – of these youths, the very way in which Malevich introduced himself expressed ‘Suprematist motion’. Everyone lucky enough to have attended the assembly spoke of this strange, affecting theatrical scene – no one, however, could remember whether the physical motions were accompanied by any kind of speech.”


Here is a Suprematist painting by Malevich, photographed in 1997 after the Russian performance artist Alexander Brener spray-painted a green dollar sign on its surface, in Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum. The original painting has a white cross hovering over a white field, so the superimposed dollar sign appears in the position of crucifixion. The green pigment was quickly removed without causing any damage to the older painting. Brener claimed that his attack was a work of art; he asked for it to be seen as “a dialogue with Malevich,” and a protest against “corruption and commercialism in the art world.” He was sentenced to ten months in prison.




In the decade that followed Brener’s intervention on the surface of this painting, one of Malevich’s other Suprematist compositions sold at Sotheby’s for more than US$60 million – a record price for any Russian artwork ever sold. Also during this decade, the first of the twenty-fir$t century, many brand new Malevich works appeared on the market, despite the fact that the artist had been dead for some time. In 2009, ARTnews conducted a six-month investigation into “the faking of the Russian avant-garde” which found that “inauthentic works now outnumber authentic ones.” It’s actually extremely difficult, or impossible, to differentiate between “inauthentic” and “authentic” Suprematist and Constructivist paintings, but it should come as no surprise that as soon as swarms of oligarchs – with more money than expertise – wanted to decorate their homes with these pictures, the market was flooded with fakes.



Meanwhile in St Petersburg, Dmitry Ozerkov, head of contemporary art at The State Hermitage Museum, was recently asked what he would like to do after the Manifesta Biennale that is scheduled to open at the Hermitage later this month. Here is his answer: “I would love to organize an art fair. The most pleasant thing about art is that art can be bought. You buy some weird thing for 100 bucks and then your kids will sell it for a fortune.”

(This translated quote comes via the Facebook page of Chto Delat?, a St Petersburg collective who announced their withdrawal from Manifesta 10 earlier this year, in solidarity with those who were protesting against the Russian military intervention in Crimea.)



Here is a picture of Malevich’s grave, near Moscow, in 1935. He wanted his ashes to be buried under this oak tree, and his friend Nikolai Suetin designed the cube with a black square on it to mark the spot. The monument was destroyed during WWII, and the site was forgotten for decades. Then, in August last year, Sophia Kishkovsky reported in The New York Times that the lost gravesite had finally been found – under blocks of concrete at a new luxury housing development in a gated community in Nemchinovka. Here’s an excerpt from the article:


“The development company responsible for the housing complex, called Romashkovo, says there is nothing to the dispute. A statement posted on the development’s Web site on Thursday said that Mr. Malevich would be honored and that he was an inspiration for the complex, but insisted that the urn with his ashes had been removed decades ago. ‘Although the artist’s grave has been irrevocably lost, the residents of Romashkovo and Nemchinovka have not forgotten about the importance of these places in the history of Russian art,’ the statement said. ‘In designing the facades, the creators of the Romashkovo housing complex were inspired by Malevich’s famous paintings. They have succeeded in conveying the brevity of his sharp lines with the freedom of space and combined them with dashes of color that are pleasing to the eye.’”


As a cartoon of the capitalist-lifestylist cooption of radical aesthetic projects, this would have been hard to script. An exclusive, shiny housing complex superimposed onto the lost site of Malevich’s remains, which allegedly no longer remain, while proudly purporting to absorb the appearance of his “famous paintings” (which, in 1930, had led to the artist’s imprisonment under Stalin’s regime, after “formalism” was renounced as bourgeois). Here’s a picture of the planned site that was published by the development company:




With Malevich’s burial site buried underneath this improbably scintillating structure, let’s recall the buried picture that is gradually unearthing itself through the cracks that inadvertently creep across the surface of the Black Square. Fractures, fissures, faults, openings: instead of moving things irreversibly from an original wholeness towards a final negation, there are splits and breakages that can bring out new possibilities, and, just maybe, change the directions we are moving in.




Amelia Groom // ameliagroom.com