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Homage to Kazimierz Malewicz

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author: Janusz Zagrodzki


Malewicz in Poland

"I have not invented anything, only the night I have sensed, and in it the new which I called Suprematism. It was expressed in me as a black plane, which formed a square, then a circle. In them I saw a new colorful world ".
Kazimierz Malewicz

When I wrote an article, which appeared in 1975 in several languages, about Kazimierz Malewicz's stay in Poland in 1927, I was repeatedly warned that referring to Malewicz being Polish was an offense that could induce an 'international incident'. Self-censorship resulting from the fear to offend the dangerous neighbor, was frequent in the Polish art criticism at that time. I am happy to notice a change in the practice of that period, when the authors treated the papers published in the West and in the East with equal reverence, although for quite different reasons. Nowadays, we only stick to the stereotype of over-glorifying the achievements of the West.

In articles published in England, France, Germany, Russia, and the United States Malewicz's pedigree is presented in an identical manner, and his name is transcribed from Russian 'Kazimir Malevich'. The researchers didn't bother to find the quite easily obtainable piece of information that, in the nineteenth and the first two decades of the twentieth century Poland did not exist as a state, and its inhabitants were automatically citizens of three rapacious empires of Austria, Prussia and Russia. In a modest catalogue “Précurseurs abstrait de l'art en Pologne", issued on the occasion of the 1957 exhibition in Paris, edited by Julian Przyboś, the artist's name was published in its Polish version, but nobody paid any attention to it. Yet, in the inter-war period, everything was absolutely clear, even Malewicz's Russian friends knew about his 'Western origin' [zapadne rożdzienie] and to stress his special rank in the artistic community used the Polish term 'Pan Malewicz' [Mr. Malewicz]. Władysław Strzemiński, in an article published in "Zwrotnica" magazine, wrote clearly: “Malewicz – is not the first Pole standing out in Russian art (Orłowski, Wróbel)."


Another unclear issue were Malewicz's intentions concerning the future and location of the collection of his works – the whole of his artistic achievements. In the early 20s, when he was the director of the Petrograd State Institute of Artistic Culture (Ginchuk), his contacts with the Polish avant-garde: Zwrotnica, Blok, Praesens and Forma groups and their magazines, where he published his texts, became for him a window open to Europe. He had a particularly close relationship, supported by frequent correspondence, with Władysław Strzemiński and Tadeusz Peiper. The threat to the existence of the Institute forced Malewicz to make a fundamental decision. The correspondence with the Polish artists didn't survive, we know about his projects from other sources, such as Strzeminski's, Szymon Syrkus' and Henryk Stażewski's letters, and articles by Mieczysław Szczuka and Peiper. In March 1926, Malewicz participated in an exhibition in Warsaw prepared by Blok group and it was probably then that he decided to undertake an artistic expedition to Western Europe, via Warsaw to Berlin and Paris. The most important document confirming these findings is a letter written by Stażewski and Syrkus: "We expect Malewicz's arrival soon. He is to come with his paintings which he most probably wants to leave Warsaw and he is going to give a lecture." This information was clearly linked to the project, initiated by Strzemiński and the Preasens group, of establishing a permanent Gallery of Modern Art in Warsaw. Malewicz's stay in Poland, which I broadly described in another article – “Malewicz, Strzeminski and Others" (1984), was also analyzed by Andrzej Turowski in a newer text (2002), but still it is not clear what directly caused the sudden interruption of Malewicz's artistic journey with Peiper, as early as during the exhibition in Berlin and his rapid return to Russia, which he never managed to leave again. Most likely it was related to closing down of the Institute and the detention of the artist's co-workers. Undoubtedly, the fact that the paintings were left in Germany, and then taken over by the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, protected Malewicz's artistic output from damage, which it would have most likely suffered during the devastation of Warsaw during World War II. And thus, it allowed for international recognition of his artistic achievements.
Malewicz's merit was the discovery of one of the most important ways to look for meaning in creative endeavors, finding core values, enabling artists to recall visualized abstracts into reality. The artist went far beyond the existing schemes. Through continuous expansion of the symbolic imagination, he created hypostases, icons of modernity, signals of spiritual experiences. The "Black" and later the "White Square" are such mystical representations, with an almost religious dimension. They were a trace of what could not be otherwise expressed, and what becomes, due to its inability to be defined, a harbinger of future phenomena.
The basis for the existence of art is the pursuit to find meaning in what surrounds us. All the major ideas fit in there: God, values, meanings. The new spiritual experiences fill tightly the space between art and religion. The pursuit of meaning of life and creation, and of ways of expressing it, so that what moves us is also available to those who perceive our works – listen, read, watch – becomes the next challenge in artistic work. Artists often oppose to standard patterns, question imposed schemes, and naive codes of behavior. Rebellion against mediocrity, against spiritual dullness, and advancing blindness eliminating the possibility of perceiving the deeper levels of feelings and meanings in a natural way, combined with the discovery of new values, allows for retrieval of something not quite tangible, but necessary for the development process. Art in its metaphysical incarnation establishes direct contact with philosophy and often provides the backdrop for a variety of artistic activities. This issue can be also considered from a different point of view. Artists pay attention to the generally underrated way of understanding the phenomena, where spiritual perception becomes the most important part of cognition, substantially exceeding the sensations perceived by eye and hand. The deeper we penetrate the studied issues, the more we can exclude the so-called rationality, allowing to perceive images, sounds and other sensations, but enabling the extension of awareness through extrasensory perception. This way of expanding consciousness allows to combine some extremely important aspects of human nature, the ability to conduct artistic experiments becomes associated with intuitions of mystical nature. The direct relationship between the art work and mystical feelings may seem surprising. However, artistic activities were always a form of meditation, means of expressing ideas, a way of self-realization through intuitively perceived clarity of thought.
For the greatest artists of the 20th century, Kazimierz Malewicz undoubtedly being among them, this kind of inner experience became the basis of comprehensive achievements. A large part of artistic decisions originates from a difficult to determine flash of the moment, when intuition creates an unusual state of consciousness, later transforming into conceptual thinking. The driving force behind the activities of the artist, just as of the scholar and philosopher, can be found in the urge to discover various aspects of the world around us, as well as to explore human nature – the psychology of visual perception. The achievements of art, philosophy and science touch almost the same issues. It is only their language of expression that differs.
An artist penetrating the structure of reality, approaches the same problems as an explorer or researcher of natural phenomena. Sometimes it is a set of works of art, sometimes a mathematical equation, and at other times, a more or less simple way of using the word, especially when the artist-researcher enters the realm of metaphysical experience which can not be expressed in a concrete, strict way. Every method of communication within art is a creation of the mind. Only the experience of the mind (open to both sensory perception and metaphysical acceptance of signals which are impossible to isolate logically), may unclose higher forms of knowledge, commonly defined as unattainable.

The story of three squares – the black, the white, and the red one

"The basis of the existence of new Russian art is the work of Kazimierz Malewicz – artist of immense capacity – a giant, determining the fate of art for centuries. Where Picasso stopped at the very beginning of his path and headed back – Malewicz continued and arrived at Suprematism as a system of putting together abstract elements to create an organic whole, made according to objective law ".7
Władysław Strzemiński

Iconology provides many interpretations of color symbolism in different cultures. Black is seen primarily as the embodiment of occult forces, darkness, evil, fear, hatred, disaster, destruction, sorrow, grief and death. However, examining its significance in the historical perspective, as Kazimierz Malewicz did, we come to the conclusion that a black plane, just as the white one, symbolizes absolute, both express the fullness of life, as well as the total lack of it, they open up the depths of limitless space. The infinite black is close in its expression to infinite white, both embody all that is most important. Black in this perspective symbolizes eternity, wisdom, and sometimes a secret, seriousness and dignity. It may be a closure, a union, a summary of all human knowledge. White is the color of light, a sign of refinement, purity, perfection, illumination, the strive toward clarity, the unification of the beginning and end. White and black are therefore unique – philosophical, sacral – colors. Combining all the meanings together, we find in them the same concept of perfection, which was contained in Malewicz's squares – the "Black" and the "White" one.
Translations of poems and theoretical texts by Malewicz have been a major problem for linguists. Even Wiktor Woroszylski, the eminent expert on the nuances of the Russian language, could not find the right words to convey the essence of Malewicz's poetics. He did not accept his own translation of "O nowych sistiemach w iskusstwie. Statika i skorost. Ustanowlenije A" [On New Systems in Art. Statics and Velocity. Beginning with A]; it has never been completed. The Polish version of the articles published in avant-garde magazines such as: "Block" – On Art, "Praesens" – The Non-objective World, "Zwrotnica" – Deformation in Cubism, "Forma" – Suprematism, are rather distant from the author's intentions. Adam Pomorski, translator of the recently published "Poems and texts", confirmed that "attempts to correct Malewicz's freakishness yet deepen the stylistic cacophony". Malewicz's prophetic improvisations, written in free verse, based on a semantic game, made use of the resonance and harmony, as well as of absurd combinations of words. The a-logical principle that characterizes most of the artist's writings may be taken as yet another form of counter-culture attitude, opposing conventional 'academic' meanings. It seems that the best solution, not diminishing the achievements of Malewicz's translators, is to refer to the original wording of the texts, and to find the artist's fine puns revealing new meanings. The translators of "Poems and texts" are trying to convey the precise arrangement of words, however their explanation of the frailty of their accomplishments by "grotesque cacophony of Malewicz's style", of the virtually untranslatable poetic prose, seems unnecessary. Malewicz's style did not result from "lingual paresis," but from the author's intentions. Words are transformed into sounds, often deformed, they create a rhythm of symbols that can be compared to a composition, similarly to both music and art. Any attempt to convey the elusive atmosphere of his texts in another language, with different sounds, is doomed to failure. And the desire to "preserve an essential element of sense in the translation," as opposed to the author's programmatic a-logical attitude also does not create a chance for ideological agreement.
Malewicz introduced the assumptions of Suprematism, which in its essence was a scientific approach on unity, only after he discovered its visual equivalent, the “Black Square" (1915). He communicated in it the concentration of 'pure feeling', a symbol of limitlessness – 'a naked unframed icon of our times'. At the avant-garde exhibitions the squares became an individual signal in a space filled with color; they led art through a 'red route' to the 'white perfection.' "The three Suprematist squares are the establishment of specific world-views and world structures.” – wrote Malewicz. "The White square, in addition to the purely economic movement of the whole new form, the white structure of the world, provides an incentive for identifying that structure as 'pure action', as self-knowledge in the purely utilitarian perfection of the 'pan-human being'. In everyday life the three squares got also the following meanings: black as a symbol economics, red as a signal of the revolution, and white as a symbol of pure action ".
The use of the term 'economics', derived from the social laws governing the production and distribution of goods, and even making it a 'dimension' for evaluating developments in contemporary art, had its profound reasons. Economical persuasion exerted by Marx, Engels and Lenin, through thousands of edicts ('ukase') and brochures, was the theoretical basis at all levels of Soviet power. The introduction of political phraseology into the language of art was a tactical move, and also an educational one facilitating the understanding of so far obscure issues by the 'leaders of the nation,' by using familiar terms. Malewicz wanted to suggest the inclusion of pure art into the process of construction of a new state, to complement the rationalism of action by modest construction principles, as “economy is contained in the simplicity of expression, in the geometry of solids, surfaces, lines and curves".
Despite these strategic moves Malewicz's attitude was rather negatively assessed by the party apparatus. "I pointed frequently that Suprematism is the fiercest reaction under the banner of the revolution, a doubly harmful reaction" – wrote Boris Arwatow, the theorist of utilitarianism – "even the short-sighted will notice the black face of the old art under the guise of the red square". Malewicz was aware of the associations induced by the apotheosis of white. In his collection of Suprematist 'commandments', published at that time, he explained, "when I mention the white I do not refer to it in a political sense, as it is understood today". However, the public destruction of the "Black" and then "White square" was treated as a symbolic victory over the opponents of post-October change. Nikolai Kolli's project, intended as a decoration of the Red Square in Moscow (1918), depicting "The Red Wedge" stabbed into a white square on a black square pedestal, is a perfect example. A consequence of Malewicz's reflections on the reaction to the "White square", was the transfiguration "The Spirit of Suprematism ', made by him at the end of 1919. The "Square" replaced the figure of Christ on the cross. At the same time Eliezer Lisicki (El Lissitzky), working with Malewicz in the Vitebsk free workshops, seemingly a devotee of the Suprematism theory, made a poster "Beat the White with the Red Wedge" (1919), with a meaning similar to Kolli's work, and later, already at the time of his – supported by the state – stay in Berlin, published "The story of two squares" (1922). In this Supermatism-stylized comic book for children the artist proclaimed the victory of the red over the "Black square" fleeing into the sky.

Lissitzky's art stemmed from the achievements of his professors. Before Malewicz's arrival in Vitebsk, he was heavily influenced by Marc Chagall. The theory of Suprematism and the emergence of "Unovis" radically changed the direction of his artistic activity. He drew the idea of his images, as well as the very concept of "Proun" from Malewicz. "Proun" is an abbreviation of the the slogan "Pro Unovis" (For Unovis), used at that time, the full text of it being "To consolidate the new in art." On his way to Berlin, during a short stay in Poland in 1921, Lissitzky published an article "Defeating the Art", with a message suggesting that "Malewicz's art is defeated." He introduced the ideas of Suprematism partially, seeing an alternative for it in his own program, close to Constructivism: "Malewicz believed that with the square he completed the path of painting, that he led it to zero. However, when we examined our subsequent work, we said: Yes, the path of painting has become narrower, it came to the square, but at the other end a new culture emerges." "Proun – this is the route through which we move towards the new work" – sums up Lissitzky. He continued to understand his role in the avant-garde of the world as outstanding, when drawing the dynamical propaganda poster in which he divided the tasks between three artists, from three different culture capitals: "Lissitzky – Moscow", "Mondrian – Paris", "Man Ray – New York". Lissitzky obviously gave himself the highest rank. Time did not confirm the projections of the author of this propaganda, Malewicz still becomes a challenge for artists around the world. The matter of art, which he stimulated by his works, is still floating in space, lasts beyond time, leads a discussion about infinity, is a 'perception of the universe.'
The Suprematist space has no beginning nor end, it exists beyond time, pervades and encompasses all the objects suspended in it, determines their positions, allows energetic compounds. It makes use of the unity of opposites, becomes the supreme law over the whole of nature, symbolized by complementary forms. It is the ultimate law, which includes eternal intelligence and wisdom. The number of entities that are created is unlimited. Each of them transforms according to cosmic principles of dynamic equilibrium and is reborn in new forms. Everything depends on the energy of the particular forms. The cycle can be repeated infinitely. This continuous rebirth is caused by youthfulness of life, by permanence, by eternity. "We set again New banners on the fields of art cleared of things" – wrote Kazimierz Malewicz – "we announce that henceforth a new era of the culture of Suprematist Art, void of things, begins.”

Polish avant-garde artists on Kazimierz Malewicz

Władysław Strzemiński:
Malewicz – is not the first Pole standing out in Russian art (Orlowski, Wróbel). He made his mark by Cézanes-like works from between 1907-1909, paintings representing objects composed of elementary geometrical volumes, but in contrast to Picasso's acts from that period – intensified by the crazy tension of the color... Following the progress of art, he worked as a cubist and futurist, extruding from every art movement mainly the construction scheme (of putting elements together) and properties typical of painting... [He chose] a path – of clearing art of foreign means, a path which is non-objective and focused on construction. On this path S u p r e m a t i s m emerged as the first and until now the most serious eruption of constructivist art. The content of Suprematism: dynamic and cosmic events, in infinite space, the harmony of the universe of organic forms in its geometrism.

Katarzyna Kobro:
Boccioni in his futuristic sculptures showed us the way of liberating sculpture from the burden of the solid. Archipenko opened the inside of the solid, while preserving its closed perimeter. Vantongerloo, sensing the need for harmony of dimensions and of modern classicism, constructs the sculpture as a relation between several cubes closed within the more general cube of the perimeter. Van Doesburg in his few experiments combining painting and architecture, announced spatial solutions in building sculptures of plains and solids, but what he announced was neither painting nor architecture. Malewicz in his dynamic and spatial structures and in his theoretical considerations, raises the issue of balance of masses weight distribution in space. He has been the prophet of abstract painting, and now in his architectural sculptures, he announces a new era of architecture growing out of contemporary sculpture.

Henry Stażewski:
Malewicz's Suprematism is a formal system in painting, resulting from the metaphysical philosophy of the author, who believed that sometime in the future, man will leave the Earth and immerse in the infinite space. Suprematist painting was a metaphorical expression of this spatiality. Geometric shapes of rectangles, squares, lines in motion, yet in the empty space of nothingness, are in a state of weightlessness. But the mutual interdependence of shapes shows the presence of gravitational energy of attracting smaller forms by the larger ones and the sustained equilibrium.