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Malevich at the Russian Museum

Visitors admire Malevich’s Peasants at the exhibition in the Russian museum in the Tabacalera building in Malaga.
Visitors admire Malevich’s Peasants at the exhibition in the Russian museum in the Tabacalera building in Malaga. / FÉLIX PALACIOS
  • The Malaga branch of the St Petersburg State Museum has opened an exhibition of works by this avant-garde artist

In Russian, 'krasni' means 'red', but also 'nice', 'important' and 'principal'. Nearly every sitting room in that country has an image of an icon on the mantelpiece, an exquisite piece of needlework and a dining table, in what is called the 'red corner'. And there, in the corner of the room where his funeral was held, is where Kazimir Malevich wanted his 'Red square' to be hung, the picture he had painted 20 years earlier in 1915, in the same way others portrayed God. Because for this artist, divinity couldn't be represented as a person. God was beyond that, distilled until only a shape and colour remained, far removed from realism.

Malevich arrived at this point in painting after decades of research and flirting with through other styles. He began as an impressionist, then tried fauvism, futurism and cubism; he arrived at the essence of geometric shape and colour in the trend which he started and christened suprematism, and years later he would return to an always remarkable figuration, stemming from the socialist revolution which he later wanted to silence as he took refuge in painting in Renaissance style.

This circular journey, the squaring of the circle of art of the 20th century, is now featured in an extraordinary exhibition at the Russian Museum in Malaga. This is its most valuable exhibition so far, with works totalling an insured value of 156.6 million euros, but the financial aspect is not the most important. This is something remarkable in the history of the museum, and also in the cultural biography of Malaga city.

Master works

This exhibition will continue in the pavilions of the Tabacalera building until 3 February. It includes some master works of suprematism (the ones that appear if you do an Internet search for that term) and also contextualises it with what came before and after, exhibiting pieces which have rarely been on display before.

The latest exhibition at the Russian Museum is therefore an extraordinary opportunity to explore the whole career of an essential creator in modern and avant-garde art, through a selection of 44 works from the State Museum of Russian Art of St Petersburg. It is a chance to discover Malevich's different creative periods, including 16 works which have never been seen in Spain before.

The 'Black Square', 'Black Cross' and 'Black Circle' are representative of Malevich's suprematism.

The 'Black Square', 'Black Cross' and 'Black Circle' are representative of Malevich's suprematism. / Félix Palacios

Two small landscapes in impressionist style, from the early 20th century, greet visitors to this exhibition, who then pass on through two heavy black curtains into a darkened room for the screening of the opera 'Victory over the sun' (1913), for which Malevich was the stage designer; that experience led him to ruminate on the history of painting.

The deputy director of the State Museum of Russian Art of St Petersburg, Eugenia Petrova, reminded those present at the opening of that: "In the new world which these artists were seeking, the sun couldn't be round and yellow; it had to be square and black. It had to go beyond representation, what the art of the bourgeoisie considered reality. That is where the idea and the term suprematism came from, referring to art which went beyond objects, because for Malevich realism is decorative," she explained.

Two years would pass before this artist took a leap into the dark by taking this image of the theatrical work and making it the absolute protagonist of a painting. 'Black square' (1915), it was called, and it is on display at the Russian Museum accompanied by 'Black circle' and 'Black cross' (1915). A triptych for the new religion of art. An atheist altarpiece for greater glory of painting. Malevich himself described 'Black circle' in that way: "It is not a painting. It's something else. I had the idea that if humanity were to draw an image of divinity using their own image, the black square would perhaps be the image of God as the essence of his perfection...".

A crucial moment

Malevich would take another turn in his search with a series of pictures from the same year which became planetary icons of this aesthetic trend. These works under the heading of 'Suprematism' now hang on the walls of the Russian Museum of Malaga along with 'Red Square'. This corner of the museum sums up a crucial episode in the History of Art, with the leading works of the time.

Like other Russian and contemporary artists, Malevich later moved on to the postulates of the triumphant Bolshevik revolution and from the 1920s and 1930s he cultivated a type of art which was more accessible for ordinary people. His pictures once again probed figuration, but not realism. So we have characters with oval faces but no features, amid landscapes with no depth, cultivated in plain colours.

The way Malevich distanced himself from socialist art is brilliantly evident in this exhibition. There is also the chance to see at firsthand how he portrayed those country people and how it was done in the art most akin to the communist regime, which is the subject of the annual exhibition at the same museum.

The display also includes other portraits painted by Malevich on his journey to an almost Renaissance style, in the mid-1930s. However, he became increasingly isolated, under pressure to take a direction he didn't feel was his own, and that is when he painted landscapes with solitary houses, reflecting himself. There was an inner battle between painting the type of art people wanted and his own desire to be free.

Visitors to this exhibition at the Russian Museum of Malaga can accompany Malevich on his journey, and it is a fascinating experience.