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Stunning Malevich Exhibition at Tate Modern

28/07/2014 10:58 BST | Updated 24/09/2014 10:59 BST

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In this first ever retrospective of Kazimir Malevich's work for almost 25 years, the Tate Modern has brought together a stunning collection of his work that offers not just an expansive view of this influential Russian artist's career - but also puts into context how radical and revolutionary Malevich was.

Malevich's Black Square is definitive not just for the artist but also for the evolution of art. Yet Malevich is so famous for his terrifying, distressing Black Square that it's hard to believe that you are greeted with a riot of bright colour as you step into this exhibition - but you are.

In his early years, Malevich was heavily influenced by the European impressionists and post-impressionists, and this was reflected in the beautiful figurative and landscape paintings he completed in his twenties.

The rich colours and sensual forms in Bathers Seen From Behind, 1910 and the bright, idealised Seurat-inspired pointillism in Church, 1905 and Village, 1906 may seem a world away from how we remember Malevich but they are ample proof of his incredible talent when measured alongside the work of his peers.

Born in Kiev in 1879, Malevich travelled to Moscow in 1904 where he studied original paintings by Monet, Cezanne, Picasso and Matisse, and it's clear from these early pieces that he completely absorbed their styles.

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Yet even in these early days, Malevich's desire to find a specifically Russian approach to art could be seen in his interesting take on religious icons in Assumption of a Saint, 1907-8 and Woman in Childbirth, 1908, whose stunning gold images draw heavily from the Russian Orthodox religion.

But at the turn of the twentieth century, these rosy bold images did not reflect life in Russia where riots and uprisings were routine, and were often suppressed by ruthless, brutish violence. The Tate's chronological approach in hanging this exhibition therefore shows not just how Malevich's style developed, but also how it was influenced by the turbulent politics of the time.

As Malevich pursues his desire to develop a uniquely Russian form of modernism, fusing the avant-garde with simplified forms, there's a sharp change in Malevich's style as the romantic pastel palette gives way to bold reds and browns, and lines and images become simpler and stronger, as can be seen in Self Portrait 1908-1910.

Malevich soon turned to cubism, but rather than focusing these fractured perspectives on industrialism and machinery, he chose to reflect traditional Russian scenes such as the rural lives of peasants.

And still Malevich developed his style. His cubist period became a stepping stone as he wrestled with logic and rational order in art, a battle that reflected the revolutionary chaos on Russia's streets.

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"Logic has always placed a barrier against new subconscious movement" he said, and Malevich's work demonstrate this battle with pictures such as Cow and Violin, 1913, where two objects that do not match are brought together.

Of course this battle culminated in the "zero hour" of modern art - Black Square, 1915.

The original Black Square remains in Russia, it is way too fragile to move. But Malevich painted four versions of this extraordinary piece of work and two of these versions, painted in 1923 and 1929, are on display here.

They really are just extraordinary paintings, phenomenal in their intensity, bleakness and anger. Even Malevich recognised how revolutionary his own painting was, referring to it as the "face of the new art ... the first step of pure creation". Malevich even went so far as to give his new style a name - suprematism.

Figurative art or landscapes had no place in suprematism. As Malevich said, "the artist can be a creator only when the forms in his picture have nothing in common with nature."

Malevich's suprematism vision can be seen in the large number of paintings that fill the next few rooms in this vast ten-room exhibition. Pieces such as Supremus No. 55, 1916 perfectly reflect the style of his work at the time.

However Russia was involved in a disastrous war in these years, which was only to be followed by a year of violent revolution, which was only to be followed by a civil war. Inevitably, given the turmoil, Malevich could only work intermittently during those years. Indeed the dozens of miniscule drawings and detailed preparatory sketches reflect the fact that paper itself was a scarce, precious commodity at this time.

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In the late 1920s, as Stalinism brought the valour of the Russian peasant front and centre, there is a return to including figures in Malevich's art - though they are in simplified form. However the bright colour palette also returns, such as in Woman with Rake 1930-32.

However the 1930s were dark years for Malevich. He was arrested in 1930 and held for 2 months, accused of espionage. Soon after, Malevich developed cancer and he died in 1935, aged 56.

But his work had already suffered at the hands of Stalin. Not only had the espionage fears removed him from favour, but his style had been rejected by the State in favour of the more socialist realism (which you can see in the Tate's Revolutionary Posters display elsewhere in the Gallery).

His work disappeared from public view, slowly rehabilitated only after Stalin had died. However such was the power of Black Square that this piece of work remained hidden, only re-emerging in the 1980s in the era of glasnost and perestroika.

This exhibition at the Tate is an extraordinary, stunning reflection of one man's influence on the whole of modern art, how his philosophy developed and how the violent, revolutionary politics of his own country not only fed into that, but almost destroyed it. To walk through these galleries is exhilarating, inspiring and incredibly rewarding.

Tate Modern, London to October 26, 2014

Image Credits:

1. Kazimir Malevich, Self Portrait 1908-1910 © State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, Russia

2. Kazimir Malevich, Supremus No. 55 1916 © Krasnodar Territorial Art Museum

3. Kazimir Malevich, Black Square 1929 © State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

4. Kazimir Malevich, Woman with Rake 1930-32 © State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, Russia