Many are aware of the Suprematist masterpiece that is Kazimir Malevich’s ‘Black Square’, but a great proportion renounces its superficial simplicity as lack of aesthetic strength or creative ingenuity. Personally, I consider it a great fortune that it hangs in my home town of Moscow, Russia, in our most famous art gallery – Tretyakov. Its iconic counterpart, the 'Red Square', hangs in relative proximity in St. Petersburg’s Hermitage.
Not being an art student, I was only equipped with my own skills of perception when I confronted the two masterpieces. For me, it was an experience of looking at eternity, and at the same time into nothingness. The 'Black Square', with its boundary between the black and the white, for me, was the West’s response to the familiar yin yang symbol. The careful geometrical proportions, the strict colour scheme, presented itself as ordered and minimalist. Somehow I thought of Adorno’s theory, which is that it is impossible to write poetry after the Holocaust. This painting however, was, I felt, the only adequate response to the drained spirit of the Modern Age, particularly in Russia. Here we are tired of politics, persistent economic troubles, and our personal conflicts. The 'Black Square' is a confrontation and the obliteration of all that we call reality. Somehow, whether through its emotional resonance or technical power, the painting does not demand the viewer’s attention, and yet once captured, it is impossible to look at anything else.
Nevertheless, despite being initially satisfied with the extent of my personal reflections, it was impossible to forgo the breadth of critical knowledge which was available on the piece. After all, most, if not all, works of modern art are deeply connected, and even reliant, on the explanation that the artist leaves with his works. This interaction between the mediums of text and painting, essentially of two languages, is remarkably attractive to those wishing to reconsider epistemological boundaries of personal perception.
Malevich, writing about the painting, said that he desired to reduce everything to the “zero of form”. Tatyana Tolstaya, of the New Yorker, argues that although it could have been drawn by anyone, “it wasn’t”. This breakthrough in art was later recognized as the “fundamental achievement in theory” in its frightening capability to halt the movement of art so that nothing new could be said after it. Much like the First World War, which began at the same time as the painting was displayed among other Futurists, the 'Black Square' was able to predict the decimation, both physical and emotional, that was to come. At the exhibition, it was displayed in the corner, close to the ceiling, where it is customary to hang Russian Orthodox icons. Terming it the “icon of our times”, Malevich deliberately made a statement that for modernity there is a Nietzschian, god-less void where faith used to be.
The 'Black Square', like all great art, calls for our return and each time is reborn in our eyes. Despite the fact that Malevich wrote a Suprematist manifesto, which contains a breadth of theoretical discussion on the work, I believe it is still possible to have access to some understanding of the mastery behind it. Much like Moscow itself, it resonates with cultural wealth, which has not been sampled and appreciated to its full extent.