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More Than a Black Square: the Art of Kazimir Malevich: talk by Robert Chandler

Come and hear Robert Chandler talk at this first Pushkin Club evening of the new season either before or after you go to see the great Malevich exhibition now on at Tate Modern.  One of the boldest innovators in twentieth-century art, Malevich is known, above all, for his “Black Square” (1915) and the brilliantly coloured geometric paintings he termed Suprematist.  We now have the chance to see that he created equally great work in many other styles.

            Malevich’s Fauve paintings of 1910-11 remain startling.  “The Bather”, perhaps a direct response to Matisse’s “La Danse”, can be seen as an image of Malevich himself.  A naked figure, with large red hands and two right feet, also large and red, is about to fling himself into unknown waters; the only visible facial feature is an eye.

            Malevich then moved through styles he named Cubo-Futurist and Alogist (a Russian version of Dadaism) and on to Suprematism.  After abandoning painting in 1922 to devote himself to teaching and theory, he returned to figurative work.  His last paintings, from 1928 until his death from cancer in 1935, are as varied as his earlier work.  The stark drawings of the Second Peasant Cycle, with their black or red crosses, their crucified figures and their dead children, are a profound response – like Andrey Platonov’s novel The Foundation Pit – to the horror of Collectivisation.  There are also luminous semi-abstract portraits, such as “Female Torso” (1928-29) that perhaps evoke some world of future harmony.  And, between 1933 and 1935 Malevich painted portraits of his friends and family.

            As Malevich’s earlier work is remarkable for its energy, so these realistic late portraits are remarkable for their humanity.  The delicate grey eyes of his wife see clearly and are clearly seen.  Unlike the staring, visionary eyes characteristic of the earlier work, these eyes are alert to the world of our everyday lives.  Once again there is a parallel between Malevich’s work and that of Platonov.  Between 1937 and 1946 Platonov wrote three of the greatest love stories in Russian literature; the heroine of one is named “Afrodita” and the heroine of both of the other stories is named “Lyubov” – the Russian for “love”.  Malevich’s paintings of his wife deserve a place alongside these stories; they too are fully realized embodiments, at a time of State terror, of clear-eyed love.

Robert Chandler (b. 1953) is a British poet and translator. He is the editor of Russian Short Stories from Pushkin to Buida (Penguin) and the author of Alexander Pushkin (Hesperus).

His translations include numerous works by Andrei PlatonovVasily Grossman's Life and Fate, and Pushkin's The Captain's Daughter. Chandler's co-translation of Platonov's Soul was chosen in 2004 as “best translation of the year from a Slavonic language” by the American Association of Teachers of Slavic and East European Languages (AATSEEL). His translation of Hamid Ismailov’s The Railway won the AATSEEL prize for Best Translation into English in 2007,[1] and received a special commendation from the judges of the 2007 Rossica Translation Prize. Chandler’s translations of Sappho andGuillaume Apollinaire are published in the Everyman’s Poetry series.