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A Gallery of Thoughts on Arts, Culture and Orthodox Christian Spirituality

Russian Avant-Garde, the "Black Square" and Primordial Forms

One of the most impressive and influential phenomena in the intellectual, spiritual and artistic upheaval in Russia around the time of the Revolution was the Russian avant-garde in visual arts. Two of its most prominent representatives were Kazimir Malevich (1878-1935) and Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944). Art historian and cultural studies scholar, Irina Iazykova, answers the questions related to the "Black Square," the painting that stands as the symbol of this wave, and about the differences between the two artists and theorists of the avant-garde.

- They say that Malevich called his "Black Square" an anti-icon. What does that mean?

- In order to decipher the significance of this statement by the artist, one must remember that he painted this picture at the time of a colossal historical catastrophe - at the height of the First World War (1914-1918). With the "Black Square" he tried to show the abyss into which humanity was then falling. Malevich himself hung it in the "red corner" of his studio - indeed, as if it were an icon. But the "Black Square" is an anti-icon not in the sense that something that contradicts the icon is hidden here, something diabolical. This picture, according to Malevich's conception, had the same symbolic power. There is an apophatic principle in this picture, if you will.

Taking the shape of an icon close to a square, making the frame white and the centre black, the artist is clearly staying away from the iconographic canon. The square has always been a symbol that draws the whole world into itself - all four corners of the world. The icon is therefore quadrangular. It seems to absorb the scale of the entire universe. Malevich reduces all the multicolored icons to two colors: black and white - light and darkness. It is these principles that are struggling in the world - light and darkness, being and non-being, God and His adversary. And here non-existence, that is, black color, is pushing out, squeezing out the light towards the edges, occupying the entire space of the square in the middle. At the place where a face is supposed to be - there is darkness, which dully warns: it's the end of the road! In this sense, Malevich seems to put an end to art, because the world is being destroyed by the world war. But this is only one of the interpretations. There is an opinion that the "Black Square" symbolises, on the contrary, the beginning of the universe, which is about to appear, or, quite the opposite, has already disappeared, and behind it a new heaven and a new earth will be born. The picture depicts both the beginning and the end simultaneously.

In this sense, the "Black Square" is an anti-icon, which symbolised both the collapse of the usual forms of expressiveness, and the beginning of a new creative search. It is interesting that later Malevich painted the "White Square on a White Background," and then the "Red Square." The artist himself continued to move on, stepping over the "point" of the "Black Square", trying to comprehend and express new horizons of art.

- In the history of the Russian avant-garde there are perhaps two principal and most recognisable figures - Kazimir Malevich and Wassily Kandinsky. Did Kandinsky take the same path as Malevich?

- No, they are completely different. It seems to me that Malevich is more apocalyptic in spirit. As an artist, he is turned towards the end of this world, trying to mark its death. At the same time, peering into the abyss of the "Black Square", the artist grasps glimpses of new art behind the blackness of the universal "Apocalypse," which he called "Suprematism" or non-objective art.

Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944) sets out in a completely different direction - to the beginnings of the world. He can be called an  "Edenic" artist. He sort of cuts through all forms of art to the first elements - points, lines, spots - from which an artistic image is formed. Kandinsky seeks to show the world as it appeared in the very beginning. The artist comes into contact with the being that is unfolding. Kandinsky's art brings us back to that heavenly state when Adam first inhaled the air and saw the world around him in its inception - up to that point only bursts, unformed colors, sensations. He sees a line that has not yet taken a definite direction, he sees a point from which stars and planets have not yet been launched. In Kandinsky, everything is "primitive", and therefore abstract, without completed forms.

Both Kandinsky and Malevich were avant-garde theoreticians. Wassily Wassilevich left us a small but very capacious book, On the Spiritual in Art, in which he explained why he used the language of abstraction for his work. The artist compared the art of painting with music.

Music in itself is abstract, but a person always hears something concrete and personal in it. And in order, for example, to musically portray the morning, it is not necessary to drag a rooster into the orchestra.

Claude Debussy or Peter Tchaikovsky needed just a harmony of seven notes to "depict" a morning to the listener. Similarly, in the paintings of Kandinsky, using a combination of seven colors and freeing his pictures of objectivity, the artist sought to immerse his viewer in the "music of light." The use of abstract painting was justified psychophysically by the artist. And, after all, it's true that when we look at a landscape outside the window, the first thing we see on the level of emotions is whether it is sunny or cloudy. And the artist, in order to convey this feeling, absolutely does not need to meticulously replicate the entire landscape. It is enough only to filter it out of its concrete outlines and convey the mood itself, to endow it with a musical sound.

Nevertheless, it seems to me that religious searches, the comprehension of the sacred, divine in Malevich and Kandinsky are still not fully understood nor evaluated.

Tikhon Sysoev

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