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>> Kasimir Malewitsch - an introduction
>> Beauty and Excitation - an interview with the Curator Matthew Drutt
>> Links and Literature on Malevich and the Russian Avantgarde
>> Malevich and Berlin

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Malevich and Berlin
An Approach by Roland Enke

The First Russian Art Exhibition in Berlin, 1922

Immediately following the Russian October Revolution of 1917 and the end of the Great War in 1918, the connections between German and Russian artists formed anew under changed political auspices. It was the large number of Russian immigrants and their activities that turned Berlin into "Russia's third capital city," and it was Wassily Kandinsky who used his contacts to initiate a cultural exchange as a contribution to international understanding.

From the beginning of the 20th century, Russian artists had been orientating themselves along the latest movements in European art: Impressionism, Fauvism, and Cubism (more here and here). Russian artists voraciously took in the masterpieces of breathtaking quality hanging in private collections and created their own versions of these modern artistic styles. Malevich, too, went through an impressionist phase, and even paintings in symbolist and pointillist style can be found among his early works. Starting in 1907, the so-called primitivist paintings followed, influenced by the Fauves and Cubists but evincing many elements of Russian folk art, as well.

Even before this period was replaced in 1912 by his cubo-futurist phase (image), Malevich had the opportunity to show abroad for the first time in 1912, in the second exhibition of The Blue Rider in Munich. His Farmer's Head of 1911 stands for the frequent use of rustic and colorful, in other words typically Russian motifs. Thus, it was not only the rapid developments in Russia, but the Russians in Germany, as well, such as Alexei Javlensky, Marianne Werefkin, and above all Wassily Kandinsky that attracted enormous attention. In 1911, Kandinsky called the artist's group The Blue Rider into being, and with this he founded Modernism in Germany. Kandinsky also had close ties to Herwarth Walden and his exceptional gallery Der Sturm in Berlin. Although Walden exhibited a great number of Russian artists, as well, it hasn't been possible to establish Malevich's participation in any group exhibitions.

During 1914/15 in St. Petersburg, Malevich completed another, this time decisive change in his oeuvre, one which was to secure his key position in art history: in 1915, he painted his famous Black Square on a White Background. Thus, on the eve of the First World War, the artistic ideas of Kandinsky (1912/13) and Malevich (1914/15) culminated almost simultaneously in paintings the world had never before seen: abstract, non-objective images that represented nothing but themselves.

Erste Russische Kunstausstellung, Berlin 1922
Galerie van Diemen
v.l.n.r.: D. Sterenberg, D. Marianov, N. Altman, N. Gabo und F.A. Lutz Berlin,
Berlinische Galerie

At the beginning of 1921, the Ministerium für Volksaufklärung Abteilung Bildende Kunst (Ministry for the Public Information, Department of Fine Arts) vested Kandinsky with an official mandate; in turn, he proposed an exhibition of the latest Russian art. Differing political ideas and agendas as well as a repeated change in organizational personnel, however, delayed the exhibition's realization.

On October 15, 1922, the famous First Russian Art Exhibition was opened in the Galerie van Diemen at 21 Unter den Linden in Berlin, featuring works by Marc Chagall, El Lissitzky (more here and here), Olga Rosanova, Alexander Rodchenko (photographs), Vladimir Tatlin (images), and Kasimir Malevich, who was able to present a number of his paintings to a broad western public. The exhibition's official host was the Russian Ministry for Information, and it was put together by the artists David Sterenberg, Nathan Altman, and Naum Gabo. The constructivist El Lissitzky designed the catalogue's cover. Due to the positive echo in the press and the large number of visitors (ca. 15,000), the exhibition was prolonged to the end of the year, although it had been planned for a shorter period of time. On the initiative of the International Workers' Assistance, it was conceived as a commercial exhibition; the proceeds were to go to "Russia's starving."

Entwurf zum Katalogumschlag für die 1. Russische Kunstausstellung, 1922
Staatliche Tretjakow Galerie, Moskau

A lively exchange took place in Germany during this time, brought about through smaller exhibitions, numerous articles in the press on modern developments in art, and the Russian artists living in Berlin. But the Berlin exhibition offered the first comprehensive view of Russian art: 237 paintings were on show, more than 500 graphic works, sculptures, as well as designs for theater, architectural models, and porcelain - all in all over 1,000 objects by around 180 artists. The main focus was on the art produced shortly before and especially after the Revolution of 1917 (more links here).

Altogether, Malevich exhibited six works; along with a design for a book cover, he showed five paintings. Knife Sharpener (Principle of Flickering), a painting from 1913, stems from his earlier cubo-futurist phase and shows a man in motion, pumping the pedal of a sharpening wheel with his foot. This painting was bought by the American collector Katherine Dreier, one of the most important patrons of modern art in the US along with Peggy Guggenheim. This makes it Malevich's first work in a Western museum. Altogether, Dreier bought nine works in the exhibition for a sum total of 1,665,000 Reichsmarks; during the inflation at the end of 1922, this was the equivalent of approximately 220 dollars.

Messerschleifer (Prinzip des Flimmerns), um 1913
Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven

In the other paintings, Malevich introduced himself as a Suprematist. One painting is entitled White on White; because several versions of these white paintings exist, however, it remains unclear which one was in fact exhibited in Berlin. The other three merely carry the more general description Suprematism. Only one of these non-objective constructions can be precisely classified today, as it was reproduced in the catalogue. The painting shows diagonally placed colored rectangles of varying size, clearly describing Malevich's aspiration to leave the Earth and strive for (outer) space. He equates pictorial space with cosmic space, setting the systems in a weightless relation to one another. The partially covered circle motif can stand for the Earth or even the sun; the unusual drop-like motif can be read as a transport vehicle between the artificial "planits." Interestingly enough, the painting reproduced in the catalogue, in contrast to the way it is hung and reproduced today, was depicted upside-down. Theoretically, it's possible that today's definition of what is right-side up is incorrect, because the painting is not marked. In any case, however, it shouldn't make any difference, because according to Malevich's theories, there can be no bottom or top in a state of weightless suspension (more about suprematist architecture here, here and here).

Malevich at the Great Berlin Art Exhibition of 1927

In 1927, when he was represented with a large special exhibition at the Great Berlin Art Exhibition, Malevich believed himself to be at the height of his career. The show was put on by the Cartel of the United Associations of Fine Artists in Berlin, opened on May 7 in the National Exhibition Building at Lehrter Bahnhof, and ran until September 30. Malevich himself was in Berlin from March 29 through June 5, which was the very first - and last - time he would ever be abroad.

Malewitsch-Ausstellung im Rahmen der Großen Berliner Kunstausstellung, 1927

Altogether, 73 paintings and gouaches were shown, added to which were a number of graphic works.

In 1926, Malevich was fired from his job as director of the Institute for Artistic Culture in Petrograd, where he'd been working since 1923; the reasons were to be found in the increasingly vociferous opposition to a modern art in the Soviet Union. Now, he was hoping for new impulses from the West, but also for a new appreciation of his Suprematism. The fact that he felt well received in Berlin becomes apparent in his words: "I wish you could see how people are treating me here, in another state. I don't think an artist has ever been taken care of in such a friendly way before… two summer months, hot, everything in bloom. Delicious bananas and pineapple, eels, oranges. Whatever you do, learn German or French!"

In Germany and Berlin, however, art continued to develop; above all, it was now the Constructivists and the Bauhaus that set the tone. Malevich failed to see this when he confidently wrote: "It seems to me that Suprematism is represented here as the final end of Constructivism and as a foundation of life… the work in Germany is good because this will all become known throughout the world now." This tragic misunderstanding became especially clear when Malevich traveled to the Bauhaus in Dessau. He only met very briefly with the director Walter Gropius, however; he expressed his wish to remain in Germany. It's also quite possible that he was hoping for a new teaching job at the famous art school following his dismissal. Malevich had no success on this trip, however, and left. The only thing it yielded was the publication of his essay Die gegenstandslose Welt (The Non-Objective World), 1927/28. The editor Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, however, clearly noted in the foreword: "We are pleased to… be able to publish this work by the important Russian painter Malevich, although it varies from our standpoint in certain fundamental points."

Originally, Malevich had a certain amount in common with the Bauhaus concerning the form of study, whose goals were the scientific reflection of art. The traditional curriculum was opened up, teachers and students worked together, and what they created was supposed to improve the world. Yet while Bauhaus increasingly turned to the functional, utilitarian design of everyday objects, Malevich was tracing the creative act in itself. Artistic practice led to a philosophic system out of which a transformation both in matter and the human spirit seemed possible. Thus, his mystical, non-utilitarian art was irreconcilably opposed to a rational functionalism.

Suprematismus (Supremus Nr. 55), 1916
Regionales Kunstmuseum F.A. Kowalenko, Krasnodar

In the beginning of June, 1927, Malevich suddenly had to return to Russia; he received a letter whose contents remain unknown to this day, and hence the reasons for his sudden departure have remained obscure. He entrusted his paintings to the Berlin architect Hugo Häring in his function as treasurer of the exhibition; on the one hand, he was hoping for additional sales, and on the other that he would return to Berlin. They embarked upon an odyssey, however, and never returned to Russia again. In 1929, the paintings wound up with Alexander Dorner in the Provincial Museum in Hanover (today: Niedersächsisches Landesmuseum). In 1935/36, he had to send them back to Häring in Berlin, because they were no longer safe from the National Socialist actions against "Degenerate Art" (english site here). Häring was able to keep the paintings in Berlin until 1943, and saved them from the bombings by fleeing to Biberach in the south of Germany.

Of the 73 paintings exhibited in Berlin, 18 works are today considered missing, 11 are in public and private collections, including the Guggenheim in New York and Venice and the Museum of Modern Art, New York. The Amsterdam Stedelijk Museum bought the largest part from Häring in 1958, and thus constitutes the third-largest collection of Malevich paintings following the collections in Petersburg (Russian Museum) and Moscow (Tretjakow Gallery). The Amsterdam collection also includes a large part of Malevich's written estate.

Reception in the West

Malevich's return to Russia interrupted his contact to the West. This had a considerable effect on the reception of his work: hidden as he was behind the "Iron Curtain," we only began finding out about the artist's further development after around 1980; the Amsterdam paintings, of course, had all been made before 1927. For the Berlin exhibition, however, Malevich had already carefully brought the paintings into a new chronological sequence that did not entirely correspond to the actual dates of creation. According to this version - which also corresponds to a general Western belief in the artist's noble development - the impressionist and cubist phases necessarily had to lead directly to the climax of his creative work: abstract Suprematism.

Malevich, on the other hand, having lost a great part of his work, ended up in considerable economic, artistic, and political trouble in Russia. It isn't difficult to understand that his works had little to do with the narrative, illustrative style of Socialist Realism (english site here), which increasingly became the only legitimate one. Despite this, Malevich began working figuratively again. Moreover, and this makes the scope of the tragedy all the more clear, he pre-dated these works back to the time preceding his Suprematist phase, apparently in order to further solidify his own artistic development. In 1930, El Lissitzky remarked: "He's getting old; it's a very difficult situation. In the fall, he's supposed to go abroad again, and he's painting, painting representational art and signing it 1910, etc." When these paintings arrived in the West for the first time, the confusion was great: they were initially held to be unknown early works of Malevich's, until they were gradually and with great astonishment dated to the time following 1927.

It becomes apparent that the city of Berlin held a fateful significance for Malevich: at the First Russian Art Exhibition in 1922, Suprematism as championed by Malevich was made known to the West and confidently laid claim to a leading role. Only a few years later, Berlin unwittingly marked the turning point in Malevich's creative work with his one-person exhibition in 1927. Even if Malevich never experienced unequivocal appreciation during his lifetime, he certainly secured a place in art history's hall of fame with his radical work. In particular, he earned late fame as a source of inspiration for modern, abstract art following the Second World War - art that would have been inconceivable without Kasimir Malevich.

Further Literature:
Catalogue Kasimir Malewitsch, Werk und Wirkung, Hg. Evelyn Weiss, Museum Ludwig, Köln 1995
Catalogue Kasimir Malewitsch, Werke aus dem Staatlichen Russischen Museum, St. Petersburg, Hg. Ingried Brugger, Joseph Kiblitzky, Kunstforum Wien 2001
Catalogue 1. Russische Kunstausstellung Berlin 1922, Reprint Köln 1988, darin: Horst Richter, Kommentar Larissa Shadowa, Kasimir Malewitsch und sein Kreis. Suche und Experiment, Dresden 1978
Troels Andersen, Malevich, Catalogue Raisonné of the Berlin exhibition 1927, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam 1970
Kasimir Malewitsch, Die gegenstandlose Welt, 1927/28, Reprint Mainz, Berlin 1980

Roland Enke is an art historian and cultural organizer; he has published essays on the history of art and architecture.

Translation: Andrea Scrima