KAZIMIR MALEVICH AND THE SOURCES OF THE AVANT-GARDE: ICON-PAINTING
by Tatyana Vilinbakhova

St Demetrios, St Paraskeva and St Anastasia
Late 15th to early 16th centuries

The Mother of God Hodegetria od Jerusalem
Early 16th century


St George and the Dragon
Second half of the 16th century


Christ the Almighty
17th century


The Nativity of the Mother of God
19th century

[...]
The real face of the medieval icon was only revealed in the early twentieth century, when the first early works were freed of their later paintwork. The effect on contemporaries was staggering. A world that seemed to have been lost forever was rediscovered, a world of beauty, harmony and artistic revelations. This discovery coincided with the period of glittering cultural achievement at the turn of the century, when, in the words of Nikolai Berdyaev, "Russia experienced a real cultural Renaissance -- religious, philosophical and artistic." [...] Almost all the leading members of the younger generation of the Russian artists -- Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin, Pavel Kuznetsov, Mikhail Larionov, Natalia Goncharova, Vladimir Tatlin, Alexander Shevchenko, Alexei Grischenko, Nikolai Roerich and Dmitry Stelletsky -- turned to the world of the icon, which depicted a different reality. [...]
The artists who studied the Russian icon most consistently were Kazimir Malevich and Lyubov Popova. Malevich attempted to create a new painterly system in his oeuvre, and was naturally drawn towards the artistic system of medieval painting, with its centuries-old laws and time-honoured principles. The distinctly constructed compositions of icons, reduced to or directly containing geometric forms, were continued and developed in Malevich's Suprematist paintings and his desire to create a "modern icon". The artist's attempts to resolve space, in such a way that it seems to be turned towards the viewer, correspond to the principle of inverted perspective employed in icon-painting. This principle helped to create a new space enclosed within the plane of the icon, subordinating everything to its own laws and creating corresponding forms of figures and objects. These forms called for the intensification of the role of contour, open local colours and the rejection of natural light-dark modelling and the correlations of scale encountered in realistic art.
Malevich's Head of a Peasant (Russian Museum, 1928--29) is an excellent example of the direct employment of an iconic image and its transformation. The image of the peasant evokes associations with the icon of Christ the Almighty painted by a north Russian master in the seventeenth century. The head is depicted in close up, occupying the whole space of the picture. Behind is a red cross, the ends of which extend beyond the bounds of the canvas. The cross appears to be superimposed on the canvas, spread out widely and freely against the background of the colourful, abundant and serene earth. The colours are light and intensive, like in an icon, and the symbolics are traditional and clear. The white face is pure and chaste; like the red sun, the light and the burning flame of faith and love, it illuminates the earth with its rays. The figure of the peasant is the alpha and the omega, the beginning and the end, the saviour and creator of all earthly beauty. The image thus becomes a sublime symbol, like the image of the Almighty Saviour.
One of Malevich's favourite motifs throughout his career was figures standing in a row, turned en face towards the viewer. Mostly the images of his peasant cycles, they are similar to the images of selected saints in icons. Patron saints were generally depicted standing next to one another, with identical figures and gestures. Such similarity and unity incarnates their spiritual unity in faith and resolve; the figures are a faithful defence and the celestial shield of man. As one ecclesiastical writer noted: "The saints which follow in the steps of those who have gone before, from generation to generation, in correspondence with God's instructions ... form something akin to a golden chain in which each one is a link, joined in faith, labour and love to the preceding link, symbolising the one, indestructible line to the only God."
The selected saints on Russian icons are like links in an endless gold chain. Malevich likens his peasants to these saints. Their figures are depicted close up to the viewer, as if attempting to defend and protect the world stretched out behind them. Like the links in the eternal chain, they are deprived of individuality. Such images are symbols. The image of man as a "shield" is accentuated by the "metallic" plastics of the figures, which seem to be carved from metal. Such images bring Malevich closer to the spiritual traditions of the past than the attempts of many of his contemporaries to paint in a "Byzantine" style.
One way or another, the painterly system of the icon found a response in the art of many masters of the Russian avant-garde. The influence of the icon, however, was not absolute. In their attempts to create a new reality, the avant-garde artists derived material from various sources, only one of which was the icon.



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