by Giorgio Cortenova

Black Square
circa 1923

Black Cross
circa 1923

St Cyril of Alexandria and St Athanasius of Alexandria
15th century

Black Circle
circa 1923

Royal Gates with the Annunciation and Two Saints
late 15th to the early 16th centuries

Christ in the Dungeon
18th century

Head of a Peasant
early 1930s

Two Male Figures
early 1930s

Looking more closely, Malevich's great revolution can be summed up in this stubborn conviction: for him form was neither a problem nor an analysis, and it was not even the fruit of a synthesis. Rather, it was an enigma, a mystery made manifest in creation. "The three Suprematist squares", he wrote in 1920, "are a wholly precise stabilization of the visions and constructions of the world [...]. In everyday life these squares have acquired another meaning: the black square as a symbol of economics, the red square as a sign of revolution, and the white square as pure movement".
It would be superfluous to point out how difficult it is to imagine a form more hostile to movement than the square, but it is useful to recall the endless series of misunderstandings that marked the visit made by the Futurists to Russia. This was not so much a consequence of the clash between their respective nationalisms that raised sparks during the meetings of the two "delegations", as of an underlying divergence that immediately brought out the difference in their view of things. This was all the more true in the case of Malevich, who certainly did not fail to point out that "if we take any point in a Futurist picture, we will find an object that is coming or going (...). But we will not find an independent, individual pictorial surface (...). The Futurists propose, as if it were essential, the dynamism of pictorial plastics. But as they do not destroy the figuration, all they obtain is the dynamism of the object" (1916).
It was not a question of capturing movement in the essence of its form; nor of forcing the form to open up to dynamism; nor even of an alchemical process designed to lighten the material, rendering it spiritual through speed. For Malevich the only form and the only time possible were the form and time of "life", which were turned into the form and time of the "world" through painting. In this the passage became hyperbolical and absolute. In this, moreover, the Russian artist was mounting a challenge to the creative models of the Western historical tradition that went far beyond the bold primitivism in vogue at the turn of the century. Up until that time the European movements of primitivism were constrained by the principle of form as a dialectic between presentation and representation, reality and its simulation in the language of painting. They drew on African modes of expression rather than Oceanic ones, Egyptian rather medieval ones. They were indeed bound together by a sort of "mysticism", as the great Lionello Venturi did not fail to point out, but this was in fact a principle of expression that set out to regain an authenticity of gaze, an innocence as opposed to the rhetorical artifice of knowledge. Thus the reestablishment of a link with the dawn of humanity made it possible to look at reality with the clear eye of childhood, cleansed of the "dross" of history and its cognitive stratagems.
The fact is that Malevich shifted the barycentre away from the individual and his or her relationship with the world, be it visible or invisible, and toward the manifestation of the time of life in the time of the world, the primitive coincidence of "power" and the "action" in which that power is revealed. It was in this sense that Malevich carried out the second great revolution in language after Cézanne's. If the master of Aix pointed his finger between his eyes to indicate a new way of looking, Malevich simply had the daring to avert his gaze, to deliver form from its dominion and vice versa. [...]
It is true that Malevich's art could not and cannot be homogenized with the progressions, returns and cyclical ruptures of the modern tradition of Western art with which constructivism was gradually allying itself. His was a language in which life and death were identified and made manifest in the absolute, the unique and irreplaceable source of the identity of being. Malevich transcended the course of time and history at the very moment in which he gave a tangible and visible concreteness to his thought; a thought that, as form, could not but subsist in the relativity of the panorama of objects, but, as epiphany, was located outside the dialectics of the contingent, outside the "production of the new". The Russian artist was not at all in tune with the logic of progress that characterized the twentieth century and formed the backdrop to the modern Western movements. On the contrary, he pointed out its uselessness and futility.
From his point of view progress represented the devastating advance of transitoriness and relativity. For it is necessary to have something to stand on in order to bring the ruinous collapse of the modern cycle to an end, and traditional forms are certainly not capable of constructing a suitable barrier. So what was needed was an essence outside time and history in which to drive a solid and definitive spike. No one did more than Malevich to delegitimize the Western idea of progress, which had taken the place of nature, seizing hold of it through artifice and science. No one did more than him to combat the ephemeral forms of the "new", to fight against the game in which creativity is turned into the production of novelty.
In fact the delegitimization was total and absolute. The forms of the new were considered perishable, and the subjective creative presumptions of the individual futile. Chiara Cantelli is right when she says that "if an ontological value was claimed for the works, released from the function of imitation and duplication, this value did not lie in appearance for its own sake, but was immanent to a world that was to be explored in its archetypal dimension, which found its own regenerative and palingenetic principle in the Apocalypse".
And here the link with icon painting becomes indissoluble, so deeply rooted in those aspirations as to propose a total revolution, and a far more exciting one than the glamorous short circuits of the Western avant-garde, far more definitive and dramatic than the advances in modern poetics. Like the icon painter, who neither represents nor simulates visible reality, Malevich strips the veil from our gaze, removes forms from form: in short, he "reveals" the archetype, or rather raises the image to the level of an archetype, and vice versa. For Malevich there were no routes to consciousness, but there was the door of consciousness: that one, and no other. It goes without saying that consciousness, which is potential, has to be won through action. But either one is conscious or one is not. For him consciousness was a true "state of grace", attainable only through the filter of sensitivity, the maximum of sensitivity possible and imaginable as he put it. So form is not deduced or deducible from reality, but takes shape as the icon unveiled on the threshold of consciousness. [...] It should be made clear for once and for all that Malevich's Suprematism was in tune with this culture, and not with the parallel experiences in the West. In the light of this fact, the question of whether Malevich was iconic or Suprematist in his abstract phase and narrative in the previous or the final figurative phases becomes pointless. There could be nothing more absurd than such an interpretation, pardonable only by the relative ignorance of the artist's entire course of development, something which the exhibition itself, and this essay, should help to rectify.

Licenza SIAE no 01 (CGCAOO/01) del 22/10/99
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