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A new world after the Russian Revolution: Malevich, Suprematist Composition: White on White

Kasimir Malevich, Suprematist Composition: White on White, 1918, oil on canvas, 79.4 x 79.4 cm (The Museum of Modern Art). Speakers: Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

We're in The Museum of Modern Art looking at a painting by Kasmir Malevich. A type of painting that is called Suprematism. Suprematism was born during the years of World War I and the period of the Russian Revolution which overthrew the absolutist Tsar and ultimately replaced it with a communist government, quite a tumultuous time in history. This painting was made in 1918, one year after the October Revolution. The Tsar had represented not only corruption and autocratic rule but also an ancient tradition. The hundreds of years of Tsarist rule and the art that supported that is upended This was a really utopian painting, which is hard to see right now, because Soviet history is so discredited It's hard to regain the optimism that existed in 1918 among the intelligentsia including painters like Malevich. So utopian meaning that artists and art could pave the way and help support a better future, and part of the idea was that painting like this would sweep away the naturalism that had been so much a part of bourgeois society in the 19th century and would point to a future where everybody could participate, not only the wealthy. And if you want everyone to participate and you want everyone to understand art, then you need to remove those culturally specific references that appear in still lives and genre paintings and landscapes or in religious painting and go back to pure geometric shapes. Malevich believed that pure geometry was an expression of scientific rigor that was also spiritually based, that could move every man at a fundamental level. He was appealing to feeling, which is hard to understand as we look at this painting of a square slightly askew within another square. It couldn't be more reduced, except if you look at it closely you see the warm white of the outer square and then that cooler blue. And you'll notice that the blue and the white don't really touch is a reserved line that is the blue white and the warm white are painted close to each other but not next to each other. So it asks us to look closely, but in some ways it also doesn't reward us all that much because this is so pared down. It's so conceptual that this painting was an embodiment of ideas. One of the ideas that Malevich was interested in at this time was ways of representing the three-dimensional that were not reliant on the Renaissance tradition that had ruled painting for hundreds of years. So for example, when we first look at the canvas, it looks flat It looks like two squares but then because of the tilt of the inner square it might actually seem to be moving towards us. I also get the sense of one flat object lying on top of another. So we have this idea of two dimensions then three dimensions and perhaps even a fourth dimension. The idea that the smaller square is moving either in or out over time. This moment of optimism and utopia for artists is really brief because, when Stalin comes in, there'll be a demand for a new kind of art, an art that rejects this radically utopian abstraction and instead calls for a realism that celebrates the state, that celebrates labor, the working classes that were supposed to benefit from the Communist Revolution. I think for me the lesson with Malevich is that we really need to go back to that historical moment, the sincerity of the early 20th century of artists who with all their heart wanted to aid in a revolution that would transcend an old and corrupt order and give us a new world. That ambition, that desire, cannot be doubted.