this issue contains
>> Reviews on the Malevich Exhibition in the Deutsche Guggenheim Berlin

>> archive


Press Reviews on the Malevich exhibition in the Deutsche Guggenheim Berlin

April 1, 2003

While three German museums are busy celebrating the comeback of figurative painting, the exhibition Kasimir Malevich: Suprematism in the Deutsche Guggenheim focuses on the high point of abstraction. The critics are enthusiastic – and surprised! Who would have thought that a black square could have such an effect after decades of abstract painting?

In the NZZ, Ursula Sinnreich admires the "strongly colored forms whose contours swing out freely into the empty expanse of the bright surface or gently flow along one side of a form into the imaginary pictorial space." For Sinnreich, these paintings are not, however, a merely sensuous experience, but also a spiritual one. It seems significant to her that "Malevich didn't refer to his works as paintings, but as experiences. What the Berlin exhibition achieves is making the experience of pure non-objectivity palpable as one that is interwoven with the presence of life itself."

In the FAZ, Ilona Lehnart is amazed at the "continuous stream of visitors to the Berlin Guggenheim branch." In her opinion, this "small and select" exhibition lives up to its pioneering aim: "… whereas the western art world, even as late as the nineties, never grew tired of labeling Malevich as the prototype of the modern apostate who became unfaithful to his own teachings under political pressure," the curator Matthew Drutt is now concerned in this exhibition with "turning the master upside-down by regarding him as the abstract terminator of the religiously rooted traditions of his people." For Lehnart, this thesis is reinforced by "heretofore unknown drawings and paintings from Malevich's Suprematist phase from 1915-1917/18, which the Guggenheim has the Amsterdam-based Nikolai Khardzhiev Archive to thank for."

On the subject of Khardzhiev: in the SZ, Stephan Lohr dedicates another article to the Malevich exhibition, in which he criticizes the "spectacular circumstances" under which Khardzhiev's paintings reached the west. He read about this in "a recent issue of the American magazine Art News." According to the article, the Cologne gallery Gmurzynska allegedly paid the Russian collector, who wanted to leave the Soviet Union and settle in Amsterdam in 1993, 2.5 million dollars for six paintings by Malevich that were worth many times more. "Then as today, Russian commentaries suggest that a scandal was covered up and shady money transactions laundered; we're talking about ‘smuggling' here." More than this, however, Lohr cannot say.

On the other hand, Tim Golden from the New York Times researched the case thoroughly, spoke with numerous people himself, and even dug up a copy of a memorandum from the NY Times' archives written by a certain Putin, then the head of the KGB, in 1998: "Cultural treasures which are illegally taken from the territory of the Russian Federation are subject to return." In a long article, Golden traces Khardzhiev's heroic and tragic story: from the art critic whose friends were murdered by Stalin to the embittered old man who could "get dogmatic about tea." It is left up to the reader to decide whether the moral of this story is that Khardzhiev, who was already well over ninety when he left the Soviet Union in 1993, simply trusted the wrong people, or if the following comes closer to the truth: "‘What happened here is the worst thing I could have envisioned,' one of the art dealers, Mathias Rastorfer, said regarding the scattering of Mr. Khardzhiev's art and archive. ‘But if none of this would have happened, this collection would have been a mystery, and it would have been dispersed by dubious characters all over the place.'" There is one question, however, that the New York Times does not answer for the interested lay reader: Why did Khardzhiev have to "smuggle" his paintings out of Russia in 1993 if they belonged to him?

March 1, 2003

In the taz , Christian Semler asks: "What's a classic? Someone one quotes without really investigating closely again. Kasimir Malevich is a classic of non-objective painting: hence incorporated, finished. And so the impression that arises while walking around the Malevich exhibition in the Deutsche Guggenheim Berlin is all the more surprising. One might have felt obligated to show a quasi antiquated, polite interest in this avant-gardist. Square, cross, circle – we know all that already. And then we're overwhelmed by their immediate effect, by the paintings' grip. One expected to enter a kind of discursive space, where fundamental elements of color and form are introduced in an analytical manner. Instead, we as visitors get a hint of something that Malevich called the ‘spirit of non-objective perception.'"

In the Frankfurter Rundschau, Ulrich Clewing is amazed that Malevich's paintings are "as fresh and modern as they were the day they were made," despite his "muddled and outdated" theories. "In any case, the formal language the artist arrived at back then is still very close to us today. Viewing the rectangles, bars, and thin lines striving from one side of the canvas to another with an interstellar dynamics, one could at times surmise that their effect has prevailed to this day – where they've become imbedded in art, advertising, design, and the general everyday aesthetic in such an enduring way that the viewer takes them to be completely self-evident."

In the Tagesspiegel, Bernhard Schulz sees it similarly: "However one might evaluate Malevich's treatises, which are difficult to comprehend without taking the historical and philosophical context of the Russian art discussion following 1900 into account: what can be seen in the Guggenheim exhibition are wonderful compositions containing an equilibrium of tension made by a painter capable of creating relationships between color and form that had never been seen before." Along with the familiar paintings from the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, Schulz is happy to discover "delightful discoveries from the museums in Krasnodar or Ekaterinburg – or from Japan, where that surprising painting comes from, the upwards-swinging form that's by no means angular and square."

While Michael Diers from the Süddeutsche Zeitung does not completely agree with the exhibition's concentration on Malevich's suprematist phase, he nonetheless does indeed seem to fall prey to the paintings' sheer beauty. "The Guggenheim exhibition prefers the painter cleansed of historical and political waste. Apart from very few references, the apparently inconsistent, inconstant later works as well as their origin in the art of the 19th century have been omitted … as a result, however, the other, more political, evidently less favored side of Malevich's oeuvre, which was in part made parallel to the non-objective works, is left out entirely. What remains is an image of sheer triumph. That's a stylization, even an abstraction that neglects what the artist had to overcome in terms of concrete resistance, what he was forced to adapt to. In this sense, the exhibition is much too beautiful to be true."

In the Welt, Gabriela Walde remarks that the "Guggenheim Berlin has managed a coup again – while the USA are plagued by a decrease in the numbers of visitors, the German Guggenheim branch has picked up enormously. With over 600,000 visitors in only five years, it's worked its way up to become one of the most diversified and international exhibition locations of the capital. And now the current exhibition, with over 80 works by Kasimir Malevich, the pioneer of abstract painting, is a little sensation, as well: many of the works are on loan from Russian museums and are being shown in the West for the first time because cooperation had been blocked for decades by the Soviet regime."

Vera Görgen from the Financial Times is also impressed by the expressive power of the abstract forms: "Square, rectangle, circle. That is the formal vocabulary that the Russian artist Kasimir Malevich reduced his painting to. It is fascinating to see how he succeeds in setting the static forms of his paintings in dynamic movement. The monochrome squares of yellow, red, or blue seem to dance, as though they were jumping for joy or floating on invisible strings like a lightweight mobile."

Anja Seeliger