It was the “0.10” exhibition of 1915; a piece many disconcerted critics unpleasantly baptised “a void”, a “dead square”, had occupied the higher corner of the exhibition space in explicit allusion to the “red corner” of Russian Orthodox households and their traditional display of icons. This was, of course, “Black Square” (1915), an antithetically secular icon – the icon of new, progressive art.
As the original statement of Suprematism, it signified both a beginning and an end. It namely marked the genesis of a new pictorial language, but also represented the end of regurgitating insipid artistic tradition. Its dark, stygian surface consequently resembled the ashes of art bygone, in which, Malevich, its ingenious creator, could implore his new artistic system, Suprematism, to arise triumphantly like a phoenix. What was remarkably the site on which artistic traditions were being brutally destructed was at the same time the ground on which new artistic philosophies and theories were being born. It is somewhat appropriate to mention, as I have, two opposites – destruction and creation, as existing simultaneously within this work, as Suprematism is characterised, just like the universe and our perception of reality, by polarities – white and black, light and darkness, motion and rest. Even though the two surfaces within “Black Square” coexist in the same plane, the polarity of black and white, and light and colour formulate a visual effect of distance between them. The majority of people may possibly assume that the white surface merely acts as a background. Nevertheless it is of utmost importance to deem it an equal representational component to the black, as polarities are central to Suprematism, in that they help to formulate its complex yet pure language.
Universally, black has become an ingrained symbol of social rebellion; regard, for instance, the rocker subculture of the 1950s. The rocker, in his rebellious rejection of mainstream culture was invariably, both in reality and
within his on-screen portrayal, clad atypically in black. I endeavor to mention here our frequent inclination to intuitively link black with social rebellion, as “Black Square” was the beginning of Suprematism, a movement that was the climax of the leftist artist’s antagonistic rejection of artistic tradition. One need only consider some of Malevich’s controversially named lecture headings to ascertain the rebellious stance towards traditional art that both he and Suprematism stood for - ‘The Academy and Dead Painting’, ‘The Downfall of the Classics and Aestheticism’, ‘Nero and You’.
Utterly non-representational, “Black Square” manifests Suprematism’s rejection of subject matter. Nonetheless, subject matter was not aborted simply just to spite artistic tradition. It was rejected on account of the fact that Malevich believed that the subject killed colour and texture, which he considered the very essence of painting. Notably, is it through the rejection of representational objects and subject matter that
Suprematism approaches the spiritual in art, as the former inherently represent our physical reality – the sordid material world that diverts us from obtaining spiritual truth. By avoiding them entirely, the artist is perhaps considered more inclined to approach the spiritual in his or her work.
In defiance of its seemingly lugubrious black aesthetic, “Black Square” was an emblem of hope for the future, an optimistic pledge that art could, once and for all, be emancipated from the traditions of past ages and boldly announce itself as l’art pour l’art, rejecting subject matter and nature in favour of total abstraction. Alas, Malevich’s utopian vision of the future collapsed around him by virtue of fascism, the world wars, the cold war and Stalin’s corrupt, Totalitarian rule. The painting’s now mangled surface, unfortunately cracked by the cruel hands of time, serves as both a dispiriting and uncanny metaphor of this relinquishment of hope. In another sense, “Black Square” in its presently damaged state reflects our transition from the Modernist position of having faith in progress, to our Postmodern one of present in which we can see its detriments.
That is not to say, however, that the “Black Square” has literally became the so-called “dead Square” that those it had unsettled all those years back had harshly denounced it. Malevich may have returned to figurative painting but this by no means denotes Suprematism as a blip in art history. Cast your eyes, for example, to the lower corner of “Self-Portrait” (1933) - miniscule, but still nevertheless present, a black square lingers covertly, somewhat constituting the artist’s signature. What it arguably indicates is that although the reduction of painting to a pure language of basic shapes may have lead to Suprematism’s eventual demise, Malevich proudly commemorates it as a much-required stage in the continual evolution of art.