The Tormented Square

Kazimir Malevich, Black Square, 1913.

Kazimir Malevich was clear in his intentions to discover the “zero point” of painting; that is, painting that does not represent life outside its surface. He wanted to completely abandon depicting reality and instead invent a new world of shapes and forms. In his 1927 book The Non-Objective World, he wrote: “In the year 1913, trying desperately to free art from the dead weight of the real world, I took refuge in the form of the square.”  When Black Square was first exhibited, the world was in chaos. It was the middle of the First World War and there was continuing unrest following the 1905 Russian revolution that in 1917 would explode into the Bolshevik uprising and October Revolution. 

Before its first exhibition, the Square made an appearance in 1913, not strictly as a work of art but as the design for a stage curtain in the futurist opera Victory over the Sun. Malevich had been collaborating with musician Mikhail Matyushin and the poet Aleksei Kruchenykh on a manifesto which called for the rejection of rational thought and the upending of the established hierarchies of Western society. The characters aimed to abolish reason by capturing the sun and destroying time. The libretto used Kruchenykh’s zaum; a new language of sounds that had no meaning. Malevich infused the spirit of his friend’s experiments into a new painterly language made up solely from shapes and colours which he called suprematism.  

In 2015, after examining Black Square under a microscope, researchers from Russia’s State Tretyakov Gallery, found a handwritten inscription under a topcoat of black paint. It reads “Battle of negroes in a dark cave.” Researchers assume this phrase is a reference to the first modern monochromatic artwork, an 1897 work by French writer and humorist Alphonse Allais, called Combat de Nègres dans une cave pendant la nuit (Negroes Fighting in a Cellar at Night). Art historians speculate that Black Square is in some kind of dialogue with the racist humor of Allais.

In addition to the inscription, two other images were found under the black topcoat. The initial image is a Cubo-Futurist composition, while the painting lying directly under the Black Square, the colors of which you can see in the cracks, is a proto-Suprematist composition.

For the longest time, Black Square stood for the ur-form of Russian constructivism, an international non-icon devoid of language or reference to the world, absent of beliefs, and divorced from the chaotic conditions of his time. As the world reels from the recent wave of Black Lives Matter protests and riots that swept across America, the darkness which Malevich painted now acts as a time capsule for someone who is willing to look at it closely, literally, beyond the color of its forms and what is immediately visible. Did he ever imagine a hyper-aware world when the promise of visual technology would expose white supremacy hiding in plain sight and the darkness that lurks in every one of us?

The following ekphrastic passages (not included in this online version) tell the story of artistic control, inspired by the most famous square in the history of 20th century art, conveying the visions, fears, and dangers associated with this basic geometric form and the audacious means by which these ideas were expressed. It is important to trace the crucial moments of hesitation—the fear of being misunderstood—that must have struck the artist at the point of abandoning an established form of painting to start a new one.

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