The exhibitions Malevich at Tate Modern and Mondrian and Colour at Turner Contemporary, Margate afford the opportunity to assess and compare these two pioneers of abstract painting. Curated by Bucerious Kunst Forum Hamburg, Margate has only six classic Mondrians but many paintings from his formative years, in all 50 works. London has a major Kasimir Malevich exhibition in the 12 Eyal Ofer galleries, one already shown in Amsterdam and Bonn. The two cannot be compared at this level, but for quality, Mondrian and Colour is the superior show.
Art historians and critics of contemporary art are fond of telling us that Malevich’s Black Square is an iconic work and is his breakthrough into major art. It was not. It is the smaller Red Square, 1915 that has this distinction, a painting that should have lead him to make new and original art. He got there for awhile with the Dissolution paintings, by which time it was too late as he was forced by Stalinism to make second rate figurative art, which should not have been included in this exhibition.
Red Square has almost the same proportions as the black squares, except that Malevich has painted two adjoining sides with a slightly different red which rise from zero to 2 cm where they join at the top right, as if to give the illusion of perspective volume. This slight, subtle and refined adjustment dematerialises the square as it engages with the white ground. Like the large Black Square, the Red Square is placed at the centre of the canvas, but where the Black squats dumbly, in the Red the colours against the white are exciting and play as much of a role as proportion and placement does.
Malevich did not immediately bear down on this discovery, painting the Suprematist series, of which there are many. Always using white as a ground, the brightly coloured small rectangles and some other shapes tend to come too far forward in the picture, like forms in relief on a ground plane. The Tate’s own Dynamic Suprematism/Supremus, 1916-17, could have been transposed into a polychrome sculpture (and should have been except that his efforts in 3 dimensions hardly show that he could have handled it).
But he later hits the jackpot, remembering the Red Square, with the Dissolution series of which only two are shown at Tate Modern. Here, a single angular plane fills most of the vertical canvas rectangle painted in just one colour (one is yellow, the other maroon). But one side the plane fades out by brush stroke gradation and the effect is dynamic. This reminds me of the method used by Baroque fresco painters to fade one passage into another, and also of the late and great German/American abstract painter Friedel Dzubas, who used this method to slide one colour into another.
The white on white paintings, which the Tate’s curator of interpretation calls ‘the end of painting’, are just that. However his followers and imitators have not considered them to be that and carry on with this idea art, known in the trade as conceptual painting. (Ad Reinhardt is an obvious example). It represents the academic side of abstract painting; sculpture as well. And I use ‘academic’ to describe most art that relies too much on ideas, whether it be the school of Ingres or the school of Newman. Was Malevich academic? He made decisions about where painting could go based on Cubism, he wanted to be new and he was new for a while, getting there before anyone else. But that does not guarantee quality, as newness is just one part of art and intellectual reasoning about new moves is much easier than allowing sensibility and inspiration to dictate progress, which is a much riskier approach.
For the pleasure that modern painting can bring, his early modernist and cubist work are exemplary. The Russians had the advantage of contact to the great collections of Shchukin and Morozov and the excitement one sees in his discoveries is palpable. Once again the quality of Braque and Picasso’s small part-cubist masterpieces cannot help but to rub off, informing the younger artists how to take art onwards, and almost guaranteeing quality work is made.
The largest gallery is devoted to drawings, tiny ones and finely detailed studies for many of the exhibited paintings including the cubist ones. I wondered if they had been made after the paintings as an aide-memoire for the record. If not, then he was certainly able to work it out in advance and to design his way forward.
Mondrian painted Composition in Oval with Colour Planes in 1914. Following Braque, he used an oval format and faded his facet planes towards the perimeter, which he visually understands rather than imitates. These cues were vital for Mondrian to achieve his vision. But this is where the influence stopped. His picture is airy and light, the pastel shade facet planes emphasised by black lines add to the ethereal effect. It derives from his studies of sea, dunes, pier and ocean.
The Margate exhibition is chosen to concentrate on his colour, but it also, more succinctly shows that it was landscape and the genre of landscape that was his abiding passion. When young he dabbled with pointillism and his Little House in Sunlight, 1909, with green-blues complementing orange is a superb example of this phase. An earlier masterpiece from 1909 is The Red Cloud made at the same time as small paintings of dunes at the coast. The intensity and restrained passion of these early landscapes, where he pursued his inspiration with single minded intelligence are an example for all abstract artists, as are the tree series (only one at Turner Contemporary), the pier and ocean gouaches and drawings and those of church facades.
In Paris he was confronted by the masters of cubism and like Malevich steered in their direction, but unlike Malevich his small part-cubism is on a par with the masters. And that shows him the way to abstraction which Braque and Picasso were never able to take. Lozenge with Four Yellow Bands, 1933, is there. A stunning and original painting, the title explains its orientation, the bands are not quite the same width, nor placed in quite the same way, and he teases the eye with this tension that contrasts with the calm and empty white centre.
From landscape and the clear light of the sea, Mondrian made a ‘landscape’ of his own in his Paris studio which became his muse. At Turner there are only four great classic Mondrians from that period but it was enough. The curators intend that one should come to understand these by way of concentrating on his colour, and it comes off. However they have curated an exhibition that shows us how natural the best abstract art is, and how it confirms our experience of the world and how simple it is to grasp when one’s eyes are open.
Unfortunately the orthodox attitude about contemporary art is unable to accept abstract art as being natural and beautiful. It has to conform to the taste of ‘our guardians of culture’ and be explained in obtuse prose. And this taste is confused by the academic abstract painting which dominates our times, so much of it deriving from the example of Malevich. As Eugene Delacroix wrote in the last entry of his Journal – “The eyes of many people are dull or false: they see objects literally, of the exquisite they see nothing.”