Two London Exhibitions: Two Ways of Seeing

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Two Ways of Seeing: Review of Exhibitions by Kazimir Malevich and Dennis Hopper

Tate Modern is currently home (until 26 October) to a major Malevich retrospective, the likes of which has not been seen in Britain before, while at the Royal Academy there is an exhibition of over 400 photographs taken by Dennis Hopper and on show in Britain for the first time. Malevich and Hopper are both regarded as radical figures who challenged convention but their differences outweigh any perceived similarities. This is not down to painting and photography being different art forms but to the uncrossable gulf between someone who revolutionised the nature of art and someone who happened to be around at a time of social change and captured aspects of it with a camera.

Malevich experienced the October Revolution and then enacted it artistically, dramatically tearing down the old canvas and inaugurating a new way of representing reality. But like most such sweeping summaries, it occludes the history that leads up to a significant moment, washing it over with a rhetorical flourish that rinses out a meaningful understanding. What distinguishes the Tate retrospective is its resolve to show Malevich developing as an artist in a particular place, Russia, and at particular times, from pre-revolutionary tsarism through to Stalinism.

Self-Portrait

Self-Portrait

Born in 1879 into a Polish family in Kiev, Malevich travelled to Moscow as a young man, discovered impressionism, saw the work of Van Gogh, Gauguin and Matisse and began to develop his own style of painting while still feeling he had to speak the language of the western avant-garde. This shows in his Self-Portrait of 1908-10 which takes from Gauguin a compositional ploy which positions the image in front of a painting – a just discernible scene of bathers in this case – while presenting himself as dapper and urbane. Room Two of the exhibition shows him as an artist drawn to Russian themes and styles, painting rural workers using simple forms and expressive colours to portray their hard-working, honest lifestyles.  The Scyther of 1911-12 reveals the influence of modernism without sacrificing allegiance to a Russian cultural identity. The figure is barefoot, as poor peasants would have been, set against a warm red background signifying the rye harvest;  the farmer’s form and mass is far from traditional representational art but the word for the colour red in the Russian language also denotes something beautiful (hence, Red Square) and this is also part of the painting’s iconography.

The Scyther

The Scyther

The next room displays Malevich’s obeisance to Italian futurism and Cubism, another stage in his dizzying shifts of style, and the result is a messy hybrid of shapes and colours. He lacked a formal education and did not read a great deal but he began mixing with radical artists, exchanging and absorbing ideas about art and the philosophy of language, warming to the idea of dispensing altogether with pictorial depictions of the world. In 1913 he paints Cow and Violin, writing on the back of it that he is struggling against ‘philistine meaning’, and conceives the idea of what two years later becomes Black Square: a painting that changes the history of art. Standing in the Tate before one of the four versions – two of them are on show here – it is still possible to be moved by its uncompromising,  defiant silence and obliteration of colour (‘I regard white and black as excluded from the colour spectrum’). Simple to describe, being a monochrome black square within a white frame, it is far from easy to analyse its disturbing power. Put negatively, it empties out all traditional meanings of art by renouncing any conventional notion of representation; left like this, however, Black Square (1915) is reduced to a protest work, a piece of anti-art, ignoring Malevich’s own realisation that he was pointing to something positive which until then had not found expression in a painting: ‘This was no “empty square” which I had exhibited but rather the feeling of nonobjectivity’. Lacan plays with the distinction in German between die Sache (the thing), objects of everyday reality, and Das Ding (the Thing), what he called ‘dumb reality’, the Real, prior to representation and exerting a force on the psyche that intrudes between the subject and its perception of reality. Experienced as that which is missing – thus allowing for it being pictured as a representation of nothing – to search for what has been lost is a desire for nothing; Black Square is this nothingness, necessarily framed to control its meaningless non-referentiality. Malevich was well aware of the painting’s nature when it took a prominent position in a ground-breaking exhibition held in Petrograd in 1915 — The Last Exhibition of Futurist Painting  0.10 (Zero-Ten— that unveiled thirty-nine of his works and launched a new approach to art, which he called suprematism. Objectivity was dead; abstraction born.

Black Square

Black Square

Nine out of the twelve paintings whose whereabouts are known today are displayed in the Tate, recreating the original exhibition as closely as is possible, including the positioning of the Black Square in an upper corner, the place traditionally occupied by an icon in Russian Orthodox homes. Mysticism was replaced by metaphysics, an artistic blasphemy, and one of his colleagues chastised him for ‘pouring colour into squares’. For Malevich, colour and form were indivisible and this was what suprematism stood for. In the best examples of his new art he plays with rectangles, quadrangles and trapezoids, using blocks of simple colours to create a new grammar where colour is both the subject and object, coexisting with form in a communist order:

Painting arose from the mixing of colours and – at moments when aesthetic warmth brought about a flowering – turned colour into a chaotic mix, so that it was objects as such which served as the pictorial framework for the great painters …. Colour must pass out of the pictorial mix into an independent unity, a structure in which it would be at once individual in a collective environment and individually independent.

Suprematist Painting 1915

Suprematist Painting 1915

Dynamic Suprematism

Dynamic Suprematism

The Tate room devoted purely to Malevich’s suprematist work manages to convey the paintings’ energetic movement, their perfect balance of order and arbitrariness, in a way that goes above and beyond looking at a single one of them. What is equally astonishing is that he was making these works with a world war, revolution and civil war spiralling around him. The question as to how and in what ways the social and political context might have shaped these canvases is an intriguing question to ask. And the last of the eleven rooms of the exhibition, devoted to the final phase of his work, brings up a similar kind of query. By the late 1920s Stalinism was in working order, avant-garde art in disgrace, and paintings like Black Square were taken down and put into storage, embargoed for decades to come. He was himself arrested in 1930, accused of espionage after a trip abroad and held for two months. Malevich, who had abandoned painting in favour of teaching for a number of years, now begins to paint in a new way, mixing his previous abstraction with a fresh kind of figurative art, returning to rural life for subject matter. This was at a time when the first Five Year Plan was resulting in massive dislocation across the Soviet countryside, resulting in mass famines and brutal persecution; scenes of stoic peasants and dignified labour are impossible. What Malevich produces is unique and uncanny: the human figures in his late paintings are farm workers but naturalism has gone out the window, backgrounds are objectless. The program notes for this room states: ‘His inert figures against a pared-down landscape convey a sense of dislocation, alienation and despair. The peasant, long established as the embodiment of the Russian soul, is reduced to a faceless mannequin.’ This may be true of some of them but not of Girl with a Red Pole (1932-3). She may be alert but also featureless, certainly not alienated, and she appears unnaturally apart, her clothes are strange, her face too white; she exists in space but not time. There is no ‘philistine meaning’ given the continuation of the visual language of suprematism that is so evident in the blocks of colour that make up the female form in the painting. Indeed what else but colour is the ‘pole’ — it resembles no piece of agricultural machinery — she is holding and what is that little black square in the bottom left corner doing?

Girl with a red Pole

Girl with a red Pole

A book, Malevich, edited by Achim Borchardt-Hume, has been published by Tate to accompany the exhibition. More than just a catalogue of what is on show, the book has eight chapters by different art historians and they follow the course of Malevich’s life from his earliest known paintings to his mysterious late works. Packed with full-page images of his paintings, the book is superb value for money and is the best introduction to the painter and his works available in English. As well as the hundreds of illustrations there are a number of vintage photographs, including one of Malevich’s funeral parade in Leningrad in May 1935. It shows the coffin being driven through the city in an open-backed truck adorned above the radiator grill with a black square inside a white border. A procession of mourners follows the hearse but the photograph only shows a small part of the crowd and it is not possible to see those who were holding small flags with black squares.

The Dennis Hopper exhibition at the Royal Academy (until 19 October) presents more than four hundred original photographs taken between 1961 and 1967 by the legendary hell-raising actor. The title of a new biography, The Wild Ride of a Hollywood Rebel, sums up the popular image of Hopper and films like Easy Rider, Apocalypse Now and Blue Velvet would seem to fully endorse his radical credentials. Then again, though, Easy Rider is only flimsily dissident  — compare it with Lonely are the Brave, an intelligent film about freedom and insubordination made six years earlier – and looking at Hopper’s photographs only confirms a sense of scepticism about his reputation as an iconoclast.

The photographs at the Royal Academy are those selected by Hopper for his first major exhibition in 1970 and the vintage prints were only rediscovered after his death in 2010. There are undoubtedly of interest because of the era they record, a period of changing cultural norms across America, and Hopper was there to record Martin Luther king’s Selma to Montgomery march. The ‘Hollywood rebel’ moved in hip circles, with access to the likes of Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenburg, David Hockney, hung about with Hells Angels and hippies, saw bands like Jefferson Airplane and The Byrds, and he was on hand to capture major and minor counter-culture celebrities of the ‘60s.  Hopper had the ingredients for a chance-in-a-lifetime outing with a Nikon F camera and 28mm lens, given to him by his future wife Brooke Hayward, but the results are only interesting, only occasionally arresting. It doesn’t help to have them on show in the cavernous galleries of the former Museum of Mankind, where they look diminutive on the large walls, and there is no obvious pattern or theme behind their arrangement. The result is a too-large miscellany of too-small pictures and the visitor passes many mediocre shots, like ones of a hippy dancing – inadvertently capturing the trifling inconsequence of Flower Power — or once famous people posing for a portraiture, before one or two catch the eye and stay in the mind.

©Dennis Hopper, courtesy The Hopper Art Trust

©Dennis Hopper, courtesy The Hopper Art Trust

©Dennis Hopper, courtesy The Hopper Art Trust

©Dennis Hopper, courtesy The Hopper Art Trust

There is one of Paul Newman catching the sun as he sits by some wire fencing, his body crisscrossed by its shadows, but it as much Newman’s impossible beauty as the skill of the photographer that renders it memorable. It would be churlish, though, to deny Hopper’s ability to compose a scene or a moment. His masterful ‘Double Standard’, 1961, is a view of an all-American gas station from the front seat of an approaching automobile, the rear-view mirror of which shows the road and vehicles behind. And there is a small number of atmospheric shots taken in Mexico which look as if they could be stills from a poetically artful Western — but such mises-en-scène are rare. Hopper looked, composed and clicked the shutter release but most of the time the results are historically interesting but artistically banal.

©Dennis Hopper, courtesy The Hopper Art Trust

©Dennis Hopper, courtesy The Hopper Art Trust

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One Response

  1. Gabby

    September 7, 2014 1:27 am

    I think this is a well written and lucid review of two different artists. The section on Malevich’s varied styles or ‘phases’ of art output is put into a historical context. His graphic skills are rightly praised. Don’t his two Suprematist paintings of 1915 echo the style of the Russian Kandinsky, whose large canvasses in that style articulated his love of music among other things? I admired a couple of Hopper’s movies but wasn’t aware of his photographic artistry.

    Sean Sheehan could be invited to write reviews of Irish art shows in this and other sites. His prose style, knowledge of art and impartial engagement with the exhibits under review can appeal to a curious, intelligent readership.