In September of 1920, Sergei Eisenstein was on his way back to Moscow from the Western front of the Russian Civil War, where he had been involved in the work of the agit-prop trains. He passed through ‘a strange provincial town’, around 250 miles west of Moscow in what is today Belarus.
Red brick, like many other towns of the Western region. Grimy and depressed. But this town is particularly odd. The red brick of the main streets is covered here with white paint. Green circles, orange squares and blue rectangles swarm over this white background. This is Vitebsk 1920. K. S. Malevich’s brush has travelled over its brick walls.
Kazimir Malevich had arrived in the town in 1919 to teach at the art school alongside Marc Chagall, and rapidly acquired a following among the students, whom he soon organized into an avant-garde grouping called unovis—Affirmers of the New Art. Vitebsk was at the forefront of artistic innovation in these frantic, pitiless years. Malevich’s transformation of its architectural fabric—‘Suprematist confetti scattered along the streets of a dumbfounded town’, in Eisenstein’s words—provided a foretaste of the invasion of Petrograd and Moscow by geometrical forms during the third anniversary celebrations of the October Revolution.
Eisenstein and Malevich met in person in the summer of 1925, in the village of Nemchinovka just outside Moscow. By this time unovis had long since disbanded, and the momentum had shifted away from Suprematism and other avant-garde tendencies, in favour of groups advocating a return to conventional figuration. Malevich was battling to keep his job at ginkhuk, the Petrograd Institute for Artistic Culture. Eisenstein was working on a script entitled 1905—it would later become Battleship Potemkin—and in his memoirs recalled Malevich as ‘an indefatigable, stubborn and principled fighter’. He later wrote a short story based on an incident from Malevich’s youth, doubtless recounted over one of the many bottles of bison-grass vodka the two shared that summer. But a much more intriguing product of the encounter was Malevich’s subsequent engagement with the medium of film.
Margarita Tupitsyn’s lavishly produced book, which accompanied an exhibition in Lisbon last summer and Madrid earlier this year, tracks the evolution of Malevich’s attitude to film—most prominent in the essays he wrote on the subject between 1925 and 1929; the last of these, ‘Painterly Laws in the Problems of Cinema’, is included here, translated into English for the first time. Though his conversations with Eisenstein in 1925 acted as the immediate spur to write about cinema, Tupitsyn also seeks to demonstrate that Malevich’s earlier paintings contained cinematic motifs. She concludes with a discussion of the rediscovery of Malevich, and redeployment of his formal system—above all the Black Square—by artists from both East and West in the 1960s and 70s. If Tupitsyn’s loose structure enables her to make a number of suggestive connexions, it also occasionally lets the book’s central theme slip from its grasp. But she sheds an intriguing, oblique light on Malevich’s colossally productive and influential career.
Born in 1878, Malevich spent his childhood in Kiev and then a range of small towns in northeastern Ukraine. Though he began painting in the early 1890s, his career began in earnest in 1907, when he participated in an exhibition with Muscovite members of the avant-garde such as Natalia Goncharova, Vasilii Kandinsky and Mikhail Larionov. Malevich painted in an Impressionist mode until around 1910, but in the five years that followed he worked through an astonishing range of styles with undimmed intensity: a forceful neo-Primitivism; then a dynamic, analytical Cubo-Futurism; then Alogism, which combined Cubist dissections of the picture plane with striking juxtapositions that prefigured Dada and Surrealism. But it was his contribution to the ‘0,10’ exhibition in December 1915 that earned Malevich almost mythical status as one of the fathers of abstraction—39 canvases emptied of all representational gestures, with bare geometrical forms floating on their white surfaces. This was what Malevich chose to call Suprematism, taking as its emblem the most pared down and yet most potent of these initial paintings: a square white canvas, dominated but not filled by a black square.
Tupitsyn suggests that Malevich’s contribution to ‘0,10’ should be viewed not as a succession of paintings but as a totality, where each canvas would be to the whole what a still is to a film; the hanging of several of the paintings vertically one below another reinforces the film-strip analogy. But this is less an argument than an eager metaphor, and there is scant evidence to suggest that Malevich had film in mind when developing Suprematism; notions of flight, of gravity-defying leaps into other dimensions, were far more influential. Tupitsyn would arguably have done better to look for the cinematic motif in Malevich’s work on the Futurist opera Pobeda nad solntsem (Victory Over the Sun, 1913) in which, as Aleksandra Shatskikh has pointed out, a spotlight picked out objects on stage, one after another, in a form of theatrical montage.