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.
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.