Malevich superstar

Malevich in the Russian Museum, Malaga.
Malevich in the Russian Museum, Malaga. / SUR
  • Remember, "You are the icon"

On the day I braved the rain to see the Malevich retrospective at Malaga's Russian Museum - hesitating between catching a number 3 bus on the Plaza de la Marina and unearthing the new number 7 stop amid the metro excavation works on the Alameda Principal - Frédérique Deleuze, a French artist hailed for her cool portraits of 20th and 21st century heroes, had shared a striking likeness of David Bowie on internet. Emblazoned with the slogan "The Icon Is You", it stopped many of her Facebook followers in their tracks, as they scrolled through their breakfast notifications. I, for one, hit the share button. Then, as the morning rolled on, both her drawing and its engaging message stuck in my head, like a catchy tune.

Perhaps this explains why I walked away from the Malaga branch of the St Petersburg State Museum, a few hours later, not exactly Singin' in the Rain, but at least filled with a glorious feeling - Yippee! Could this be the real thing? The kind of cultural thrill art historians experience, when they uncover a missing masterpiece, or shed new light on a well-trodden theory?

I wouldn't go so far, but... I had already visited the brilliantly refurbished Tabacalera building, in the Huelin area, on several occasions and, upon reflection, none of the diligently documented historical exhibitions staged there had struck me as relevant to who we are now. By contrast, what I had just seen displayed on the bright-hued walls of Malaga's former tobacco factory was something else. I couldn't take my eyes off Malevich's faceless semi-abstract figures representing listless peasants set against stark backgrounds, barely suggesting boundless landscapes. Somehow, they reminded me of us here and now, of what we are fast becoming: not so much icons as avatars, heralding the advent of an algorithm-driven era.

Merci, Frédérique...! If not for that impactful image advertising your skills as a portraitist, key aspects of the museum's current homage to Kazimir Malevich (1879-1935) would most likely have escaped me. I might not have figured out the link between Russian icons; this pioneer of abstract geometric art's iconic black square; post-Warholian personal branding; and (what could be more to the point than an umbrella topic, on a rainy afternoon...?) human identity - past, present, as well as virtual.

Although amazingly modern, Kazimir Severinovich Malevich's brazenly unorthodox iconography did not come out of nowhere. How and why this revolutionary artist, the founder of Suprematism - a movement advocating the supremacy of nonrepresentational visual sensations - reinvented the icon is rooted in the religious mysticism and popular folklore of his rural childhood. He replaced the sun with a black square and twirled it into a cross, prior to opting for multi-coloured shapes with a cosmic dimension, eventually revisiting figurative painting, and bowing out of the artistic arena with a nod to his Renaissance predecessors.

When he unveiled his emblematic Black Square in St Petersburg (by then renamed Petrograd), two years before the October Revolution, at an avant-garde event pitched as The Last Exhibition of Futurist Painting 0.10, he chose to hang it in the place traditionally reserved for sacred icons in Russian homes: nestled in a corner, high up on the wall.

"Remember, you are the icon," would be an apt motto or meme for this trailblazer, who added a mini black square, similar to present-day web icons, and the words "the artist" to the signature of his later works. An introductory video, strategically presented at the entrance, is a perfect preamble to the show. For some reason, I found myself thinking of another superstar as I watched it.

The author of a radical manifesto entitled "The Non-Objective World" (1927), Kazimir Malevich invented a brand-new mode of expression, which he described as "the zero of form". Though not exactly a household name, not sufficiently familiar to the general public to feature on tubes of oil paint or stain-whitening toothpaste, he is a leading light of abstraction. Revered by minimalist artists to this day, he is their hero; their Vermeer, their... Rembrandt.

Not unlike the universally acclaimed Dutch master, Malevich left a legacy of self-portraits, reflecting his rise to fame and gradual fall from grace. Initially considered a hero, saluted for his bold urban projects and costume designs, he was subsequently rejected by the Soviet regime. His final years were marked by illness, poverty and political harassment, and his paintings were banned from public view for decades. A compelling story remarkably told by this time-transcending curatorial tribute, to be seen till 3 February.