Thirteen Ways of Looking at “Black Square”




I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after. 

— Wallace Stevens, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”

¤

I.

A FEW YEARS AGO, in December 2015 in New York City, I attended the last day of a conference to mark the centenary of Suprematism, an artistic movement launched in Petrograd. 100 Years of Suprematism met in a windowless, featureless, and poorly illuminated medium-sized auditorium at Columbia University’s Harriman Institute. Less than a third of the seats were taken, most of them by conference participants. The audience listened in respectful silence to exemplary papers, described aptly by the title of the recently published conference volume: Celebrating Suprematism: New Approaches to the Art of Kazimir Malevich. It would have been an unremarkable academic conference if not for a certain intractable, unruly, disruptive, contrary, ornery, perverse, and inescapable element: Kazimir Malevich.

A recent discovery about the artist disrupted the conference’s placid collegiality. To mark the centenary of Suprematism, Moscow’s Tretyakov Gallery had X-rayed Malevich’s Black Square, the painting that has come to symbolize both the movement and the artist. The X-ray had exposed an ugly phrase beneath the painting’s surface: “Negroes fighting inside a dark cave.”

Two scholars took the stage to debate the matter. Both agreed that this was a racist description of Black Square, and they also agreed that Malevich himself was not racist. With all this agreement, why the acrimony?

The two scholars might have agreed on one thing only: who Malevich was not. He wasn’t a racist, but what was he? They disagreed on every other point — whether it sounded as racist then as it sounds now, whether Malevich had written it, whether Malevich was a self-deprecating kind of guy, whether he was still hated by large numbers of important people.

One insisted that he was so despised by the Russian establishment that they had forged his handwriting and written the hateful phrase to discredit him. The other was certain that the handwriting belonged to Malevich: he was simply ambivalent about his revolutionary new painting. Sometimes it seemed to me that the one was the cordial, sensible colleague and the other, slightly unhinged and paranoid. I agreed with both of them.

A tall, loud man tried to put a stop to the debate and was shouted off the stage. I remember a large blonde woman in a chiffon animal-print blouse rising from her seat. “A man should not stop two women from speaking!” The audience, most of them women, applauded. Some cheered. Finally, the caterers succeeded where the tall, loud man had failed. The debate was abandoned for drinks and snacks in the hallway.

I knew from a past conference not to expect anyone to share my interest in Malevich’s out-of-body experience in a provincial synagogue. Nonetheless, and taking heart from the way the debate had just about reveled in the non-negotiable contradictions of anything Malevich, I plunged ahead with an abbreviated version of Malevich’s story of “flying via the letters beyond the sun and this world.”

The most receptive response from the conference came from the scholar who had asserted that Malevich’s handwriting had been forged. She listened thoughtfully to my account of the letter Malevich had written from the Belarussian city of Vitebsk in December 1919, questioning only whether anyone could understand Malevich who did not know Polish, Ukrainian, and Russian.

II.

Wallace Stevens’s stanza about the beauties of a blackbird’s whistling could describe that conference on Malevich. There are many ways of looking at Malevich.

Anyone familiar with Malevich has become accustomed to coming across mutually contradictory, but nonetheless fervently held, convictions concerning that leader of the early 20th-century avant-garde. He has been called both stubbornly mystical and terrifyingly, repulsively nihilistic, both a rigid Marxist ideologue and a facile opportunist. Some of these things can, perhaps, be reconciled, but all of these things cannot be true of the same person at the same time; and yet, thoughtful and esteemed scholars advance these views. Or we could call all those views of Malevich “inflections” and “innuendos,” all beautiful and equally preferable.

Such an approach would hold true to the way that modernists such as Stevens and Malevich, both born in 1879 and belonging to the same era of modernism have taught us to look at our perceptions of reality: multiple, dynamic, and partial. We could treat Stevens’s poem as a way to reconcile all of Malevich’s seemingly non-negotiable contradictions, both those about him and within him.

Read the 13 brief stanzas of “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” with Malevich in mind and the poem seems like a metaphor for that complex artist: just as each stanza shows a different blackbird by setting her in a new scene, so also a different Malevich emerges with each shift of perspective.

Malevich believed that changing places changed him. Where he was made him who he was. Looking back on his life, Malevich wrote, “No matter how good life was in Kursk, how many friends I had there, I was drawn, like a wolf to the woods, to Moscow or St. Petersburg, where there lived the real art…”

Malevich drew two poles on his map for the ambitious artist: the provincial cities and the great ones. It was a world of either/or. Nobody can be in two places at once. On the one hand, how hopeful to suppose that he could be anyone as long as he was willing to go anywhere; on the other hand, how distressing to have no choice but to leave behind the person he used to be. No friends lived in the great cities, no wolves in Kursk.

Stevens’s first stanza shows us the blackbird:

Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blackbird.

Stevens’s blackbird is also defined by her location. The single sentence sets up a series of contrasts (from large to small — from the mountains at the beginning of the sentence to the blackbird’s eye at the sentence’s end; from the many to the singular — from 20 to only) not quite a world of either/or, but nonetheless a world where one thing can only be known in contrast to another.

Malevich, the Polish-Ukrainian Catholic, could never claim a single nationality, language, or religion. Long before academics were debating whether he was this or that, his contemporaries looked on Malevich with, at best, bewilderment, and, more often, suspicion. That reaction is nicely dramatized by a seemingly inconsequential incident Malevich included in his brief and unfinished autobiography.

The incident occurred when Malevich was 12 and living in a small village in Ukraine: Bilopillia. The incident turns on the fact that Malevich was not a native of Bilopillia and his friend was. Malevich depends on his friend to tell him what is happening in Bilopillia. Why it happens Malevich must figure out by himself.

Malevich’s friend can tell him that some artists — icon painters — will be visiting Bilopillia, but he can’t tell Malevich why the two of them have to go to absurd lengths to find the artists instead of simply asking someone. Decades later, he is still wondering why they did not simply ask someone. Malevich never seems to consider that he himself could have done the asking.

The reason for his timidity is explained, or at least illustrated, by a brief exchange between his friend’s aunt and his friend. The aunt asked her nephew, “Who does he belong to?” She uses the third person as if he is not standing right there and ignores him as if he couldn’t speak. His friend answered for him. “Moved from Parkhomovka.” Who Malevich belonged to was where he belonged and, wherever he belonged, it was never where he was. He was, like the blackbird’s eye, “the only moving thing,” in a monolithic landscape.

Malevich had a nomadic childhood. He was born in Kyiv, Ukraine’s largest city, and grew up moving from one small village to another as his father searched for work until they moved just over the border into Russia, to Kursk. He never seemed to live anywhere; he was always from somewhere, somewhere else.

In her memoir, Malevich’s mother, Liudviga Malevich, records the place, not the date, of her family’s births and deaths. Her son, Mechislav, had been born in the village of Avdiivka, a daughter, Severina, in the village of Moivka, and another daughter, Anichka, had died in still another village, Chervone.

Wherever his family lived, they were outsiders: as Poles among Ukrainians, as Catholics among Orthodox (although his father might have been born Russian Orthodox), and as Polish speakers among Ukrainian speakers. To make matters worse, they were educated urbanites among Ukrainian peasants. His father was a technician in a sugar beet factory. Most factory technicians lived in urban areas where most factories were located. Sugar beet factories, however, had to be near sugar beet fields, so the sugar beet factory technician and his family lived in the countryside.

The young Malevich who was undeterred by the peasant children rebuffing his attempts at friendship with blows grew up to be the artist who made his way in the great cities of Russia undeterred by insults and his own sense of inferiority (“I felt like a provincial among the communards from the School of Painting, Sculpture, and Architectures.”). His famous rivalry with the artist Vladimir Tatlin had an element of the conflict between the great city insider and provincial outsider.

He had the urban cosmopolitan’s habit — a habit often used to distinguish traditional and rural communities from modern, urban ones — of forming his own communities based on common interests. For Malevich, this meant art. Malevich told the story about Bilopillia to explain how he first conceived the ambition to leave the provinces for the great cities. It was the story of the making of a wolf who would be drawn to St. Petersburg and Moscow “where lived the real art.” Werner Sollors has called these communities of shared interests, communities of ascent as opposed to those of descent. Sollors’s communities of ascent were made up of people who had moved to the city, not those born there.

Malevich’s map, with its two poles, was big. Malevich’s sense of possibility was the sense of someone who has often moved, who knows that the world where they happen to be is not the only world there is. He was a rootless cosmopolitan, a pejorative term more often used to describe Jews than Polish-Ukrainian Catholics. While Malevich’s biography supports Yuri Slezkine’s thesis in The Jewish Century (2004) that even non-Jews can have supposedly Jewish trajectories, the artist confounded his friends, his critics, and his audience both during his lifetime and after his death.

Malevich made being an outsider seem enviable. He was enviably adaptable and open. He was not exactly like anyone, so he could be a little like everyone. Not belonging to a single group gave him the freedom to join many. To some, this can look like opportunism; to many, it looks suspicious. When Vladimir Tatlin, his archrival, beheld Malevich’s corpse, he reportedly said, “He’s faking.”

III.

The conference at Columbia had not only celebrated 100 years of Malevich’s Suprematism but also the publication of the translation of Kazimir Malevich: Letters, Documents, Memoirs, Criticism. This monumental work of scholarship fills two large, heavy square-shaped volumes. The editors collected and heavily annotated both published and unpublished documents by and about Malevich. Translating these volumes required an army of experts.

One of the most eminent scholars had reserved the honor and pleasure of translating a treasure trove of newly discovered letters for herself. For once, a new discovery offered a happy revelation about Malevich. The letters he had sent to his third wife revealed a new aspect of Malevich: a vulnerable and tender Malevich.

I had already discovered that Malevich. More than a decade earlier I had come across the letter that described his moment of physical transcendence in a Jewish place of worship in a small, untranslated collection of his letters. That letter had been included in the new two-volume collection and, although some passages in that letter were annotated, the lines about Malevich that fascinated me were entirely without notes.

I took the silence as an indication of the discomfort that the subject of religion triggers among Malevich scholars. His attitude toward Jews had a longer and much more worrisome than his views of Negroes. At one time, Malevich had been explicitly accused of antisemitism, over the fact that Marc Chagall left Vitebsk not long after Malevich arrived. An early biographer of Chagall, his son-in-law Franz Meyer, makes this accusation, which is picked up by others. T. J. Clark, unwittingly reframes this point of view in his book Farewell to an Idea: Episodes from a History of Modernism. Malevich is the Marxist ideologue who steers modernism away from Chagall’s Jewish humanism. Others observe the crosses Malevich painted.

In these debates, Malevich himself does not have a say. Nobody quotes him directly. Malevich neither uttered nor wrote anything that could be cited to settle this matter once and for all. All those fervently held views (including my own) are based on speculation about motives, his own or other people’s. And how do we come up with those?

T. J. Clark quotes Lenin at length, claiming that they express Malevich’s point of view. The question of the racist comment beneath the surface of his Black Square was resolved in an unexpected way. In the introduction to the conference volume, the editor, suppressed both the debate and the controversy itself, aside from a brief mention that followed the slightly unhinged and paranoid account, purged of its more extreme elements.

It’s never about Malevich.

“Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” is not about the blackbird either.

I was of three minds,
Like a tree
In which there are three blackbirds.

There it is. How quickly we come upon the true subject of the poem. Not the blackbird but “I” is the subject of the poem’s second sentence, opening its second stanza. And how mixed up that I is. It’s never about Malevich. Like the poem’s three blackbirds, Malevich becomes a vehicle for our own mixed up minds.

IV.

The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds.
It was a small part of the pantomime.

Stevens only seems to restore the blackbird as the central actor in the next stanza. While these sentences, like the poem itself, remain focused on the blackbird, the blackbird is not the whole focus. Autumn winds send it whirling, and it is only a minor figure in a larger performance.

I first presented the brief story about Malevich and Jews at a conference in Moscow in early spring of 2008. The topic was the spatial imagination in Russia. Since I had written on Malevich’s reaction to living in a provincial city, I was invited to speak. The response to a talk the day before mine should have alerted me to the larger pantomime into whose whirlwind Malevich and Jews would end up.

The talk was about the 19th-century painter Ivan Shishkin, whose realistic Russian landscapes are treated as kitsch: reproductions of his many paintings of birch forests decorate cookie tins. The presenter, an American, placed Shishkin’s realism in the context of photography. Shishkin’s high level of detail, he argued, look forward to the then-new method and not backward to a facile romanticism.

Two people stood up to ask the first question. It had to do with Isaac Levitan. Levitan is a rough contemporary of Shishkin. His paintings are considered masterpieces of the landscape genre. He is also a Jew. The two men repeated their question at such great length that even I with my primitive Russian understood what they had to say. At first, I could not believe that I had understood them correctly. Why would they be talking about Jews when the speaker had not mentioned Jews, let alone Levitan, even once?

The question was on the verge of being longer than the talk, but finally I was certain that they were asking about Jews and Isaac Levitan. “How is it possible that a Jew could understand the Russian soul?”

V.

How is it possible for a Polish-Ukrainian Catholic to understand the Jewish soul? In the same letter that Malevich describes flying via letters in a Vitebsk synagogue, he also writes a very long, passionate, and weird condemnation of Sergei Bulgakov on his recent ordination as Russian Orthodox priest. The letter’s editor remarks that “[t]his letter stands out in Malevich’s epistolary legacy for its stylistic devices — it is overloaded with descriptions, colorful epithets and metaphors, which look somewhat artificial in Malevich’s writing.”

The attack on Bulgakov is all the more bewildering since Malevich admits to never having either met Bulgakov or read anything he has written. In addition, Bulgakov was a friend of the person to whom Malevich addressed this stand out letter. M. O. Gershenzon collaborated with Bulgakov and others in an influential, and liberal-leaning, collection of essays, Signposts (Vekhi) in 1909. Gershenzon attended Bulgakov’s ordination. He did not protest it.

But it seems virtually certain that Gershenzon would have known what Bulgakov had gotten up to since his ordination. He had become a notorious antisemite. This is from a contemporary account:

A philosopher and priest, a scientist and monk, he uses his scholarly authority and monk’s cap to reinforce the black deed of […] overly zealous police officers, and the unenlightened, enraged, innocent masses of the square […] A writer, thoughtful and intelligent, a philosopher turned antisemite […] there is no way to ignore this […] Bulgakov is a significant figure in the Russian cultural context, and his sudden antisemitism should be singled out from the similar phenomena often labeled “social antisemitism” in the South of Russia. Bulgakov’s is a special case; his current antisemitism — savage, ugly, constituting, according to the newspapers, almost a church sanction on Jewish annihilation — is likewise a special event […] “At the Feast of the Gods” is followed by calling for pogroms on the streets and walls of Sevastopol.

Malevich’s attack on Bulgakov puts him on Gershenzon’s side. Malevich links Bulgakov’s spiritual corruption to his Orthodoxy, as did many of his critics. This makes sense of Malevich’s parenthetical suggestion: “Why didn’t [Bulgakov] consider Judaism or Catholicism?” With that sentence, he links his Polish-Ukrainian Catholic soul with his friend’s Jewish one.

VI.

In his poem’s fourth stanza, Stevens imagines an improbable unity:

A man and a woman
Are one.
A man and a woman and a blackbird
Are one.

Malevich writes about another improbable unity, spiritual unity among all peoples. Maybe they share a fantasy because they share a birth year. Both the American poet and the Polish-Catholic Ukrainian painter put out their calls to universalism at about the same time. Stevens published his poem in 1917; Black Square was first exhibited in 1915. The dates invite speculations about early modernism and about works created in wartime at a time when competing nationalisms and ideologies were dividing and destroying.

The centenary of Suprematism is the centenary of the 0.10 (prounounced zero ten) Exhibition in December 1915. There Malevich first displayed the painting that he had been working on feverishly and in secret for months: Black Square. At the 0.10 Exhibition, “The Last Futurist Exhibition,” Black Square had company. Other shapes, sections of geometric forms, covered the gallery walls, hung askew floor to ceiling, creating one room-sized painting as if it was not a painting but a new world made up of fragments floating in a new universe.

To complete the world-making effect, Malevich hung his black square at the intersection of the ceiling and two walls, the “red corner,” where, in that part of the world, it was traditional to hang a holy icon, that is, an image of a saint or the holy family. Black Square was, in its way, a holy icon as well. Looking up, the crowd below could imagine a face, a presence, a force gazing down on their fragmented world.

Suprematism’s Black Square looked like a replacement for the usual religious icon that hung in the upper corner of a room where ceiling met two walls. To some it looks like an act of vandalism, as if the divine image had been blacked out — censored — by a vindictive and viciously nihilistic hand. That’s the view of Tatyana Tolstaya writing in The New Yorker in 2015. She called Black Square “the most famous, most enigmatic, and most frightening painting known to man.”

Or had Malevich blacked out the particular religious iconography to leave an unmarked, culturally neutral space to unite all religions and people? I’m not the only one who sees this universalist impulse. T. J. Clark, the eminent British art historian, has condemned Malevich not for his nihilism but for his universalism.

Or there’s the cheery advice of a Tate Modern curator on the occasion of the museum’s 2014 Malevich show who advised in their Five Ways of Looking at Black Square: Discover why Malevich’s Black Square is such a big deal: “There’s no wrong or right way to look at it. It could be a window into the night, or you could see it as just a black shape on a white canvas, (which is more of what Malevich was intending).”

Really?

VII.

On the other hand, it’s pretty obvious why someone would claim to know Malevich’s intentions. He wrote about them. Malevich’s contemporary, Abram Efros, had a point when he sneered that Suprematist paintings were “not paintings at all but illustrations of a theory.” Malevich wrote more than he painted. There are fewer Suprematist paintings than there are words about Suprematism. 

Malevich painted the identical black square four times between 1915 and 1930. The theories were many and various. The 1915 manifesto on Suprematism, From Cubism and Futurism to Suprematism: The New Painterly Realism, was only the beginning. At the end of the summer of 1919, he finished On New Systems in Art, which was published in Vitebsk. In Vitebsk, he published Suprematism: 34 Drawings and “God Is Not Cast Down.” In 1922, he wrote Suprematism: The World as Non-Objectivity or Eternal Rest. In 1924, he wrote to El Lissitzky, “Oh, if you only knew how much I have written, I could open an entire specialty publishing house. One section of On Suprematism is 240 pages.”

No wonder so many speak so authoritatively of Malevich’s intentions. There is only one problem, and it is not that all of these people do not know Polish, Ukrainian, and Russian. There’s a bigger problem that no amount of language instruction can solve. Malevich’s writing is all but untranslatable and incomprehensible.

On this point, there is complete unanimity. This is well and truly the only thing about which absolutely everyone who has read Malevich agrees. This was also definitely not what Malevich meant by unity, but there it is.

So, when in letters dated May 1916, a certain Ivan Aleksandrovich Aksenov wrote about Malevich to a friend, “Send me his idiotic booklet Suprematism. […] He can scribble something or other about the exhibitions (without fee, for now), we’ll correct his grammar and it will be excellent…” — this was neither antisemitism, as a subsequent letter written the same month suggests (“What stripe is he? Isn’t he a Jew? Let me know, please.”), nor is it that Malevich has fallen into the melting pot of Russian xenophobia: Aksenov would have been just as contemptuous if he had known that Malevich was a Polish Ukrainian. Malevich’s friends felt the same way about his writing.

El Lissitzky, Malevich’s truly devoted colleague and friend, wrote to his wife, Sophie Lissitzky-Küppers: “This Malevich thing is complicated — his Russian is not all it might be, the grammar is all the wrong way round, impossible word-formations.” Lissitzky wrote this in 1924 when he was a patient in a Swiss sanatorium and working both at translating Malevich’s essays and writing about them. One can only begin to imagine his dismay at Malevich’s happy announcement that he was writing enough to keep an entire publishing house busy.

Lissitzky opted to translate Malevich “more or less like poetry, because otherwise I would have to raise a lot of objections,” which leaves the larger problem of decoding what Malevich meant. He complains, “the definitions are so anti-art and so mystical and I don’t want to present the thing in a false light.” Like other translators and interpreters, he ends up simply picking and choosing from the super-abundance of possibilities. The interpretation of Suprematism he gives in A. and Pangeometry avoids the mystical altogether.

Tolstaya also picks a few of the thousands of words Malevich wrote. So she is correct when she writes, “In his own words, he reduced everything to the ‘zero of form.’” She says nothing of his other words, and why not? Lissitzky had also singled out that phrase. He did not, however, arrive at Tolstaya’s conclusion, “Zero, for some reason, turned out to be a square, and this simple discovery is one of the most frightening events in art in all of its history of existence.” It’s not Malevich’s fault that she could not uncover his reason. He was writing as fast as he could.

Lissitzky was not just behaving like a hyper-rationalist reader of his embarrassingly mystical friend’s writing. Malevich himself believed that his writing was bad — both ungrammatical and, if not actually incomprehensible, then difficult to understand. He writes apologetically to Pavel Ettinger in April 1920: “I am writing to you supposedly in Polish, but after more than 20 years of struggle with the ‘dead lane’ in Russia, I’ve forgotten Polish.” To his friend M. O. Gershenzon, he repeatedly lamented his “barbarisms.” He wrote to Matyushin in October 1915, “As for grammat[ical] mistakes, of course correct them, because I have not mastered those sciences.”

If only Malevich were a misunderstood genius ahead of his time, then we could burst on the scene with our superior enlightenment and illuminate his impossible word-formations and bad grammar. Doesn’t it matter that modernism is nothing new these days? Doesn’t it help that we habitually decode all kinds of complex and obscure and even impossible writing? No. The frustration and despair of translators over the decades since Malevich’s death have exceeded Lissitzky’s.

Troels Andersen, a translator of his essays, wrote in 1968, “Malevich’s style is highly complex, and passages of the text are virtually devoid of meaning.”

A deep familiarity with modernist Russian art and literature makes no difference. The late Camilla Gray (also known by her married name, Camilla Gray-Prokofieva) was a pioneer in the study of modern Russian art. In her groundbreaking and in many ways unsurpassed study, The Great Experiment: Russian Art 1863–1922, published in 1962, she also comments on Malevich’s writing. I quote the complete passage because Gray articulates the full scope of the problem:

During this period in Vitebsk, Malevich wrote several other articles and brochures dealing first with his personal road to abstract painting, and then on a more general level, writing of his views on life and religion. Malevich’s language shows an odd mixture of the illiterate, the patriarch and the genuine poet, but his highly illogical use of words, often in two or three senses in the same work, makes his writing of dubious value in explaining his ideas. For the same reason these works are extremely difficult to translate, and lose much by translation. His sentences are sometimes of immense length — and he strings his words together in such a way that often the sense is conveyed by half-meanings and by the very obscurity of expression. In translation they sometimes cease to have any meaning whatever.

Another eminent scholar, Katerina Clark, who has also written classic books on Russian culture, confessed that she could not determine whether Malevich was being metaphorical or literal when he wrote about his art traveling through space like a planet.

Finally, even for the scholars who are completely familiar with all things Malevich, namely Irina A. Vakar and Tatiana N. Mikhienko, the two editors of the monumental two-volume collection of documents by and about Malevich, write:

We should also explain the principles that guided our publication of Malevich’s letters. Here, all publishers face serious difficulties. Traditional textological rules can be applied only partially to Malevich’s manuscripts. The problem is that the innate originality of his language and the avant-garde penchant for experimentation are combined in his writing with the obvious fact of his semi-literacy. Malevich lacked the skills for writing grammatically and observing the rules required special effort on his part.

I cannot disagree. I refer to Stevens’s inflections and innuendoes that such writing invites. But there was an advantage to his bad Russian. His impossible syntax lets him string together words that the rules of grammar would separate. His writing, like that of the Symbolists to whom he can be compared, triggers more emotion than thought.

Malevich was austere on canvas and uninhibited on the page. Suprematist paintings have a precisely restricted palette and a limited vocabulary of geometric shapes. Malevich’s writing explodes with his strange word-formation, with images and ideas. The paintings are minimalist in their resolute rejection of the object; his writings are maximalist in their embrace of the object.

The object-packed, action-packed essays create fantastic worlds. They are stuffed with objects, with nouns. The verbs in their vividness invoke action and the object world. His metaphors are always mixed, the better to clutter his writing with ever more objects. The critic who claimed that Malevich’s paintings illustrated the essays had it backward: the essays illustrate the paintings.

But Malevich could and sometimes did write a clear sentence. Those sentences are in his letters. Even his letters can be untranslatable word collages, but we can at least be certain that we know to whom and when the letters were addressed.

VIII.

While he was working on Black Square, Malevich wrote to a close friend, Mikhail Vasilievich Matyushin, about the painting:

Perhaps I will survive the war intact, and then develop everything. But news of the war nonetheless oppresses my spirit, which thirsts to leave some trace of its existence. Bad premonitions weigh on my soul, which is why I want to pass some of what I’ve done to others, to leave behind my thinking, so that if I do not survive, the living might develop it further.

The meaning of Malevich’s Black Square was haunted — shadowed as Stevens writes in the stanza below — by the premonitions of world war. He already knew that he would have to enlist, risking his life. In another letter, Malevich had written tenderly and poetically about the death of Matyushin’s wife, Elena Guro: “To you, Mikhail Vasilievich, I express my deep sympathy at the loss of a beloved person, and may the tall pines bring her a soft rustling.” Malevich confides his fear that his death would leave his own wife abandoned and grieving.

The intense fears of death continued. However bad his premonitions were in October 1915, subsequent events proved much worse. He was left to grieve for the wife, the mother of his beloved daughter, Una. She died in 1924.

In 1924, the same year that Malevich told Lissitzky he has written 240 pages on Suprematism, he also tells him that “Sofia Mikhailovna has fallen ill with tuberculosis and there is no hope at all, since the conditions for treatment are absurd. Una is still healthy.” Later in the same letter, he admits, “I myself am not well now either, a nervous condition and very ill, no money, bad food, and no clothes.” He comments on the comforts enjoyed by those enjoying favor with the authorities, “Of course, [Osip] Brik and [Vladimir] Mayakovsky in contrast to us can travel in airplanes.”

Those newly discovered letters to his third wife circle around and around the same topics. On September 7, 1933, he reports that he has eaten only a meager soup, made from mushrooms found in the forest and potatoes, for three days.

He worries that Una has contracted tuberculosis. An examination has found some “damned bacilli” in her lungs.

Our job is to keep her from colds and undereating, because those scum [the damned bacilli] are just waiting for that. […] The worst part is that our finances are so bad that I don’t know how we are going to eat and how to feed Unochka, she absolutely must have milk.

In those decades of war, civil war, revolution, and brutal state oppression, when he is writing essays about the meaning of Suprematism, his letters are full of death, disease, hunger, cold, and shortages of every kind. For this reason, I see a connection between his art and his life. When I pick and choose among all the thousands of words that Malevich has written on Suprematism, I notice how often he writes about longing to create a new world, about searching out forms of unity and mutual comprehension.

I see Malevich trying to assemble a new world from fragments: the black square is one of those fragments. I see something similar in the Stevens poem. Theirs is the modernism of fragments, of mass warfare and mass killing. The middle of Stevens’s poem, the sixth way of looking at a blackbird, describes a dangerous world.

Icicles filled the long window
With barbaric glass.
The shadow of the blackbird
Crossed it, to and fro.
The mood
Traced in the shadow
An indecipherable cause.

The icicles are barbaric. Nature threatens and obscures the view. Only the blackbird’s shadow can be seen. It cannot advance — it moves “to and fro.” Causes are indecipherable. Any possibility for sense or safety has vanished.

IX.

Kazimir Malevich’s Black Square is simple to describe: a square-shaped painting of a black square. Nothing more. No color. No object. No perspective. Beauty is as beside the point as illusion. A narrow white border separates the square from the wall on which it will hang. Up close, the viewer can detect brush strokes and cracks in the paint, evidence of poor materials.

Black Square seems to be an easel painting. It is a painted canvas meant to be hung on a gallery wall. It has hung on gallery walls from Petrograd to New York, from 1915 to the present. In fact, Malevich put the square on a pillow and a small cloth badge to be sewn onto a shirtsleeve. The black square was part of his signature, and it appeared both on a banner at his funeral and on his tomb. It was sign, insignia, and signature, each signifying something different.

Malevich said that he did not paint Black Square, he invented it. He needed this element, the ever-present, repurposed, reinvented sign and signal for his new world to renew the old one, shattered by displacement and loss.

Malevich treated Black Square like the collage piece it resembles, dependent on the surrounding pieces for its meaning. Its meaning shifted with the context. Abundant meanings can feel like instability; it’s also simply abundance. Black Square in a room’s red corner can signify the divine; as a cloth badge on a shirtsleeve it marks a collective of people assembled for a new artistic purpose, it was the artist making his mark, and so on.

Stevens detaches his blackbird from its usual place in the world. Each stanza drops the blackbird, a different part of the blackbird — its eye, whistle, color, flight, shadow — into a different space with shifts in moods, characters, scenery, and ideas. The poem shows the process of assembling and reassembling the blackbird’s pieces.

X.

What Stevens did in a single poem with blackbird, Malevich did with his black square over the course of his life. In the poem’s seventh stanza, Stevens sets the blackbird in a small drama.

O thin men of Haddam,
Why do you imagine golden birds?
Do you not see how the blackbird
Walks around the feet
Of the women about you?

A black square (but not as Black Square) appeared on the set design for the 1913 opera, Victory over the Sun, Malevich devised with Mikhail Matyushin (music) and Alexei Kurchenykh (libretto). In keeping with their intention to make it the first Futurist opera, every aspect of the opera shattered every operatic convention. The opera was made up of those shattered fragments. The libretto was written in “zaum,” language, a language made up of word fragments, nonsense syllables. The music was atonal, notes disconnected from a melodic whole. The costumes and lighting created the illusion that the actors’ bodies were disjointed parts. The costumes broke up their bodies into separate color fields. A member of the audience described the lighting:

The innovation and originality of Malevich’s device consisted first of all in the use of light as a principle which creates form. […] The [human] figures themselves were sliced by the blades of the beams; alternately hands, feet and heads, since for Malevich they were only geometrical bodies, subject not only to composition into component parts but also to complete dissolution in pictorial space.

The first Futurist opera purposely disoriented the spectator. Stevens’s reader is similarly disoriented. The poem’s speaker confuses the reader about the poem’s actors, their actions, and location. There is no easy way to decode who the thin men are, where they are, or what they are doing. With the opening “O,” the thin men are addressed like grand personages. But is that any way to address underweight people from a small Connecticut town? Or is it? Haddam does not sound like the name of a Connecticut town, it sounds like someplace faraway, a setting for an ancient epic. (It is the name of a village in Iran.)

The mysteries accumulate in small details, fragments taken from a grander story. The stanza is punctuated with questions marks. A question admonishes the thin men for mistaking blackbirds for golden birds. A question describes unidentified women around whose feet blackbirds gather. The questions are never answered. Stevens’s reader is unsettled by these unstable meanings made up of fragments and doubt.

That audience member at Victory over the Sun, quoted above, was in the minority in appreciating this Futurist experiment. He was in the minority in sitting through it. The shattering of conventions had a predictable, perhaps intended, result. At the first performance of the opera in 1913 in Luna Park in St. Petersburg, most of the audience walked out, confirming the power of conventions to make the world comprehensible and enjoyable.

Victory over the Sun was conceived in mischief. The three collaborators dubbed their gathering to begin work on the opera grandly, confusingly, deceptively, mischievously, and satirically The First All-Russian Congress of Bards of the Future. There were — Surprise! — only three such bards in all of Russia. They gathered at their first congress in Matyushin’s country home in Uusikirkko, Finland (now Polyany, Russia), in July 1913. There was supposed to be a fourth bard, Velimir Khlebnikov. He had been unable to join them for an absurd reason fit for a Futurist bard: he lost the money for the journey when he went for a swim in a lake.

When the all-Russian bards of the future posed for their portraits in Finland, they looked like aspiring acrobats. In one, Kruchenykh lays across the laps of Matyushin and Malevich. In another, Matyushin, on all fours, supports both Malevich lying on his side and Kurchenykh standing up, his head out of the picture frame. Their topsy-turvy poses match the futurist opera’s overturning of all conventions.

But another photograph reveals the somberness behind the energetic hilarity. In this photograph, Matyushin sits by the grave of his wife, Elena Guro, who had died of leukemia three months earlier, in April of that year. An earlier photograph shows Guro on Matyushin’s lap, looking tiny and childlike, dressed in a simple white linen dress. In this photograph at his wife’s grave, Matyushin’s face sags along the deep creases that in other photographs vanish into his smile. He looks haggard. In this photograph, his large hands dangle uselessly in front of him. The futurist bard sits near a tree on which he has hung a completely traditional icon.

The idea behind the whole silly “congress,” might or might not have been a strategy to comfort a grieving friend; the idea of the opera itself, however, was certainly a defiant fist at a nature that kills without mercy. The opera’s victory over the sun is a victory over nature. The hero of the opera is an aviator who wages war against the sun. When the aviator can declare victory over the sun, the laws of the nature have been defeated — the very laws that had sentenced the beloved person, Elena Guro, to an early and painful death.

The childlike woman with the steady gaze saw Malevich as he really was. Her small portrait of him, drawn with brush and India ink is the only one that shows his face as photographs show it: scarred with the pock marks of the smallpox that killed his siblings.

Malevich leaves those pock marks out of his many self-portraits. Even Tatlin draws a smooth-faced Malevich. Guro’s Malevich also has darker, more deep-set eyes than these other Maleviches.

XI.

“Suprematism is not a grand art, that is why it is so easily applied to textiles, cafes, fashions designs and such,” said art critic Nikolai Punin. He sneers at the stuff of ordinary and domestic life. What would he have said had he known that Malevich, taught by his mother, knew how to knit and embroider? Malevich was not ashamed that Suprematism could be employed for decorative purposes. It is usually women’s work to make the goods of daily life more beautiful. Suprematism and Black Square fail as coldly ideological negations: their inventor willingly participated in the putatively women’s work of decoration.

Suprematism was a grand enough art for Malevich’s mother. The woolen neckties she knit for her son’s friends, the writers Daniil Kharms and Nikolai Khardziev, had Suprematist designs. Khardziev remembered, “We hung on to [them] until they were worn to shreds.” Khardziev also hung onto a collection of Russian avant-garde art, including many Suprematist works, which he preserved carefully.

There are two ways to treasure something: by display and through use. The one belongs to the domain of grand, high art, the other, of domestic crafts. Suprematism straddled both worlds.

XII.

I appreciated the apology I got some weeks later from the wildly bearded moderator at the Moscow conference who tried to stop me from continuing my talk just as I got to the part about what Malevich did inside a Vitebsk synagogue. But the truth is that my heckler trying to shut me up made me feel that I had been well and truly heard. He would not have tried to stop me from speaking had he not been so troubled by what I was about to say. Unintentionally, he added to the drama of my revelation. He forced me to pause at the very point where I myself had paused in my laborious process of translation. I, too, had been perplexed — apprehensive — at the prospect of a Polish-Ukrainian Catholic in a synagogue.

Toward the end of December, Malevich wrote a very long letter to Gershenzon in which he described what happened in a Vitebsk synagogue:

In the synagogue, I flew via the letters, leaving body and blood behind, otherwise I could not see that sun and that world. I meditated so deeply that my walking stick fell from my hand and my hat. I did not pick it up for a long time, although it probably hit the floor heavily. I was very startled, when I saw my walking stick on the floor, I wondered if I had gone out of my mind.

Malevich’s visit to a Vitebsk synagogue was his last stop on a short tour of three of Vitebsk’s places of worship. The aesthetics of the Greek Orthodox and Catholic churches repelled him: too much color and too many images. The Catholic and Orthodox buildings are “full of life,” with color and texture, red and velvet; sunlight, bread, blood, and animals; but the Jewish interior is “spiritual” and “bloodless.” The two qualities are related. It “does not need either the sun or plants.” The Jewish place of worship, however, is victorious over the sun. The Jews transcend everything that repels him about the Catholic and Greek Orthodox churches.

In the synagogue, Malevich sees only “innumerable letters.” The Jewish building transcends place, too. “The Jewish building stands aside, nevertheless where exactly, it is impossible to say, it is impossible to call its building a building, rather, if it exists at all, it is a place for reflection.”

This flight via letters was solitary and unspectacular. Malevich flew by himself, knowing he had arrived where he wanted to go when he could “meditate deeply.” His destination was a state of mind, not a place on the map. His was a journey within.

Malevich’s world was something shared with one friend in a letter in a description so brief and cryptic, only that friend could have understood it. For the unintended reader, those few sentences describe something both strikingly vivid and puzzling; Malevich passes over it as if Gershenzon was already familiar with these deep meditative states.

For his flight, Malevich required only his letters, his hat, and his walking stick. The walking stick hitting the ground is the only sound, the only moment approaching drama. This flight lacked the thrill of takeoff and the relief of a safe landing. The points of departure and arrival blur together. Did he meditate deeply after he had left body and blood behind? Or did he leave them behind because he was meditating?

With this flight, the distinction does not matter. It was as much a journey away from something as it was a journey toward something. Where Malevich went was where he had been minus that list of things left behind that serve as a description of his flight. Body, blood, sun, world, and finally hat and walking stick. His mind.

As Malevich flew, he subtracted again and again, which landed him in a place that was nothing but the absence of his starting point. Strictly speaking, Malevich had not gone anywhere.

When Malevich claims to have left body and blood behind in that Vitebsk synagogue, what had he actually left behind? His walking stick. The sun remained where it was, as did Malevich. He remained in this world inside a synagogue. He was not flying, but he was standing without his walking stick. Freeing his spirit healed his body. In his brief account of his flight, he twice notes that his walking stick fell.

Malevich’s difficulty walking was severe enough that it was one of the reasons that he had to leave Moscow for Vitebsk. It was the reason that his doctor had prescribed long walks. Malevich is so surprised to find himself standing without his walking stick that he wonders whether he had gone out of his mind. (He might have meant “left his senses.” Another translation has “gone insane.”) It sounds like a miracle healing.

Scenes like this played out at Lourdes or other places where healing occurs through faith. The injured body was everywhere. World War, Revolution, Civil War — the numbers of violent and bloody conflict are difficult to tally. Forget the fantasy technology of flight. The technology of prosthetics was advancing during this period. Advances in medical care increased the numbers of the wounded who survived, but not without amputations, thus creating the need for a remedy. The crowd Malevich knew was one full of the bandaged, limping, and disfigured. Only in fantasy could Malevich’s spirit escape his body. The letters he saw in the synagogue were unintelligible but legible. A black square.

XIII.

A few weeks after his flight on the synagogue’s letters, Malevich wrote to Matyushin:

Now I understand the meaning of Suprematism, now I understand its line, now I understand how we must correspond to it, now I see how wizened the old world is, and now I see the two moving “I’s, I have learned to read the signs in their faces and now I divide them into perfections, for I am entering through the doors of the World, I have seen the concordance of billions of elements that form the tools of infinite overcoming.

I connect Malevich’s fresh understanding of Suprematism with his out-of-body experience in one of Vitebsk’s synagogues. Those letters comprised a kind of black square. Not knowing Hebrew turned the letters into the visual equivalent of “zaum” language, a language that transcends meaning, that can mean anything to everybody. In the synagogue, the interdiction against “graven images,” would have kept the space as blank and full of potential as Black Square. In various essays, Malevich called Black Square a semaphore, a door, a building platform. In Vitebsk, he seems to have encountered another manifestation of his square: the synagogue. It was his door into his “World.” There he saw “the concordance of billions of elements that form the tools of infinite overcoming.”

The final way of looking at a blackbird also has a feeling of the infinite. Stevens concludes his poem:

It was evening all afternoon.
It was snowing
And it was going to snow.
The blackbird sat
In the cedar-limbs.

The laws of nature have been suspended in favor of experience. It wasn’t really evening all afternoon, but that’s how it felt. The long evening summons the feeling of being safely indoors. The blackbird has found a safe, interior space also — inside the limbs of a cedar tree. Just as, for one moment, Malevich is suspended safely inside the walls of a synagogue.

¤

Shifra Sharlin lives in New York with her husband and two cats.

 

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