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Supreme Show

Works from a bygone era stand the test of time

Imagine Russia during the early years of the 20th century. In the dark, gilded interiors of its onion-domed Orthodox churches, the air is heavy with incense. Clusters of candles give off faint light as devout babushkas venerate golden icons, repetitively crossing themselves and bending to the ground in an ecstasy of worship. In St. Petersburg, the tsar and tsarina live in a gilded, kitschy, Fabergé-egg world, and they're psychologically dependent on an erratic, mad monk they believe has the ability to stop the hemophilic hemorrhages of their adored son. Vast legions of the abjectly poor offer stark contrast to the Romanovs. In the cities, unrest ferments, and intellectuals, artists, idealists and Machiavellians plot an egalitarian, modern society with new ideas, new government, new religion and new art to change -- and save -- the world.

Kazimir Malevich's Black Square was born from the cultural and intellectual schizophrenia of this environment, a stark and adamant work that heralded new ideas in art and society. He would later term his system and philosophy of art-making suprematism, both to indicate the supremacy of this purely abstract art and his secular quest for the spiritual "supreme." His 1915 Black Square and 89 other paintings, drawings and objects created from 1913 to 1931 are part of the Menil Collection's "Kazimir Malevich: Suprematism," curated by Matthew Drutt. The exhibition brings together a stellar collection of works, some never before shown in the West, as well as recently rediscovered pieces.

Malevich was born in 1878 near Kiev in Ukraine, a region steeped in folk and religious culture. But the artist was also in tune with contemporary movements in modern art; his early works were strongly influenced by impressionism, and as his avant-garde sensibilities evolved, they reflected the artistic sensibilities of the time. Some of his works have a cubist feeling and futurist, anarchistic overtones. There are also shades of dadaism in a 1914 work, Composition with Mona Lisa, in which he defaced Mona four years before Duchamp's 1919 L.H.O.O.Q. Instead of Duchamp's whimsical moustache and risqué, humorous title, Malevich painted adamant red x's over her face and chest.

Malevich's Black Cross is a neatly painted, 
wonky abstraction of the Russian Orthodox cross.
Courtesy of the Menil Collection
Malevich's Black Cross is a neatly painted, wonky abstraction of the Russian Orthodox cross.

Details

Through February 29; 713-525-9400
Menil Collection, 1515 Sul Ross

Malevich, who is frequently characterized as "messianic," ultimately found himself in creating geometric forms that referred to nothing in the visual world but themselves. For the artist, they functioned in the same spiritual sense as Russian Orthodox icons, but they were secular images of belief and devotion dedicated to something greater than the self. In one exhibition, he hung his Black Square high in the corner of the room, the location traditionally reserved for icons. His was a new icon for a new society. Depending on which scholarship you buy into, the black square is intended to represent God or the ultimate aesthetic equivalent. Likening himself to Christ in his mission, Malevich espoused suprematism to other artists and to his student followers.

The artist wrote dense essays explaining his philosophy. Suprematism tied into the Russian revolutionary zeitgeist, which aimed to remake the world through the application of manifestos and agendas -- all of it smacking of an almost religious zealotry. As one of the exhibition catalog's essays reveals, "He dreamed of a global Suprematist environment in which everything would be subordinated to the Suprematist canon: 'All things, our entire world, must be arrayed in Suprematist forms: i.e., fabrics, wallpaper, pots, plates, furniture, shop signs; in short, everything must have Suprematist designs as a new form of harmony.'"

The early years of the Russian revolution were a time of tremendous optimism and idealism for many. The Bolsheviks didn't want to create just a new government, they wanted to create a new way of life, upsetting old orders and replacing them with the new and improved. Artists made work in the service of the people, creating temporary sculptures and murals in the streets and agitprop posters. The collective was emphasized over the individual, and where art once had been used to the selfish ends of the elite, now it would be for the good of the people.

The political tide would keep turning, embracing and then ultimately rejecting the avant-garde. In 1932, socialist realism would become the official art of Russia. In 1930, Malevich would be arrested, interrogated over several months and accused of bourgeois formalism. He spent his remaining years making increasingly representational images, trying unsuccessfully to square the politically mandated change with his own ideas. He was diagnosed with cancer around 1933, and his requests to travel abroad for treatment were denied. In the clichéd fate of the misunderstood and oppressed artist, he died, destitute, in 1935.

Today, revolutionary zeal in politics and art is quaint and passé. Russia is a kleptocracy led by a former KGB officer. Not unlike prerevolutionary Russia, there are the few extremely rich, the masses of the extremely poor and very few in between. Idealism in art and politics, in Russia and just about anyplace else, is extinct.

All of the sound and fury of the suprematist goals of Malevich et al., as well as the broader aims of other early Russian movements, has faded into the realm of historical scholarship, and we're left with the works themselves. The context in which they were created is long dead, as are the artists, many of whom perished under Stalin.

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