Kazimir Malevich (1875-1935)
was represented at both ends of an exhibition of works on paper at the Staedlichmuseum in Amsterdam, so Marysia and I, entering the gallery from opposite doors, were each greeted at once, she by two of his early figurative works, I by three of his magnificent later abstractions.
Peasant Woman With Buckets, 1912
Peasant Women in Church, 1911-1912
The heads in these two paintings are elliptical ovals, more or less the look you'd get by fusing two parentheses. The faces they frame are nut-brown, black hair (to the extent its visible under brightly coloured scarves) black eyes. (Ochi chornya.) They're not at all bad paintings (I don't recall any bad paintings in this exhibition) - they have their own force and emotive power, but nothing like the scope and sweep, the sheer giddy pulse and beauty of the later abstractions.
White Suprematist Cross
Suprematist Composition With Eight Red Squares }1915-1920
Suprematist Square (Yellow Square on White)
(The yellow square is in diamond shape.) These titles probably describe the works as well as I could - even the curious poetry they acquire by precise dry description is an analogue to their potency as formal design. Can't express how vibrant and alive the column of red squares is, pirhouetting like an end bracket en pointe in the white space of the canvas where it's suspended. It's no wonder Arkady Renko admired him so much. I'd have to look it up to be able to tell you whether Stalin rewarded him for all this astounding, visionary beauty with death or exile - or whether his death at sixty was of natural causes and occurred at home.*
There's a far profounder connection than is generally suspected between bad taste and human atrocity. It's a fact especially underlined by the number of major artists from Russia and Germany among the marvels we wondered at in this small room crammed copiously with masterworks. Years ago I read a paean of praise to the artists of Soviet Russia at its dawn, which by omission gave the impression the creative floodtide of those years was never suppressed and driven underground, its future peremptorily liquidated. Malevich? Kandinsky? for one brief spring they were part of a torrent upwelling in every direction in all the arts - poetry, theatre, dance, music, painting, sculpture - that socialist realism capped and extinguished with sudden, then long-reverberating force. (I wanted to say social realism came down on that scene like a curtain whose lower edge was a guillotine or a scissored pattern of razor blades. I decided the image worked too much against the flow I've been establishing (Hadn't noticed there was one eh?) Changed my mind again though; think it has just about the right Dada force. Scissoring razors, yes. Blood everywhere. Family members segmented from each other, some released back into the general population as harmless (for now), some sectioned off and despatched (behind the scenes) to the perpetual midnight of work camps for indefinite stays or until work, cold, or inhuman treatment killed them. A best case scenario of course: people sometimes returned from Siberia; from the bulldozer haste of mass graves pitted and patted down, not so much.
Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944)
Bild mit hausen/Schildering mit hausen/Painting with Houses (1919)
This might not have carried with it a prison sentence at all, though on second thought. . . the charming pixie quality of the colours: deep violet, hot pink and lemon yellow houses and fields. . . a base of earth brown to ground it but still . . . hardly realistic is it? Then again, I can't see where it could really do too much harm, like something out-and-out formalist . . . what do you say comrades ? a token two years? We can hardly send him away completely unpunished if the central committee's seen fit to bring him forward. What kind of slackers would they judge us to be? do any of you, comrades, have enough warm clothes to risk such an outcome, supposing they'd let you take them? Very well - two years, with a recommendation for leniency in the re-education sessions. (Bear in mind that a two year sentence could grow, through vindictiveness of the warders or simple forgetfulness, to twenty.)
Improvisation 33 (Orient 1)?
In the first place the title mimics the bourgeois destructuralism of jazz, in the second place what have we here? content to advance the struggle for proletarian rights, to boost the morale and whip into line the moral fervour of the people in their advance to ever greater social integration? content of any kind? no, a black canvas across which play streaks and glimmerings of neon starlight-pink, fluorescent green, red, violet, amber and colours we have no name for, comrades, because who but a rank unrepentant formalist like Kandinsky could ever imagine any need of them? I hear there are even metaphysical implications to these apparently formless daubs of admittedly gorgeous colour - I can't see them but suppose they exist all the same? what kind of example is that to set in the first nation on this earth setting forth proudly on a godless course, nothing but human genius, brotherhood and cunning to guide us from here on, no spooks of any kind from beyond, only the here and now. I'll tell you what I think! it's a giggly perverse exposition of the way light flashes through the hissing bubbles of a decadent bottle of champagne! Twenty years to life if we can keep this monstrosity out of Stalin's sight until Wassily's safely Gulag-bound. Because if Uncle Joe ever laid eyes on this can you imagine how the moustache would bristle as his upper lip quivered in rage? "Guilty, you lunar jackass! the sentence is death." No comrades, we must shield Kandinsky this much at least, twenty to life is lenient in the circumstances, the most lenient sentence that (in good conscience) we can impose.
If he was looking for a haven in which a masterpiece, incomparable and unrepeatable, wouldn't be a capital offense, let's hope Kandinsky didn't flee from Russia to Germany, in those years when the war clouds were gathering blacker than the base colour of this exemplary canvas, across which such wondrous tracer beams of light fiercely, freely play.