I saw this painting in the Russian Museum in St Petersberg a few years ago. I was riveted. It dominated a room full of quite different paintings – Repin, turn of the century Russians, some landscapes of endless trees and mud. But the Red Square, which he called ‘Peasant Woman, Painterly Realism of a Peasant Woman in Two Dimensions’, seemed to fill the entire space, even though it was quite small. And it certainly remained in my head, long after the memory of most of the other paintings there had dimmed. When I saw it again, just now at the Royal Academy, I noticed something that had escaped me the first time: you can see quite clearly, if you look carefully, that the square was first painted as a square, and then maybe only a few days later, or perhaps more, he turned the square into an off-square. You can tell this by the way the paint has dried: it may be the same paint, the same colour, but if it was put on after the first coat, and is ‘joined up’, as this is, it can never match exactly. Once you are aware of this you can even see it in a photograph. It seems more within Malevich’s vocabulary to have it off-square, and seems to work exactly as it should, but still I would love to know why he felt he had to change it, why he thought, as he must have, that a straight and clear geometric square would not have worked. Would it have been too dull, too predictable, too obvious? Does it appear to be more of a square through being less of one? Perhaps a square is just a square, but one that is not quite a square draws attention to its squareness. It can’t be as simple as that, because what he was doing was so astonishingly radical, so utterly unlike anything that had been done before, that a simple square would have done the job, as indeed it did in the ‘Black Square’ – creating an entirely new aesthetic – philosophy – for future artists to develop. Signifying and representing at least the hope of replacing the brutal system he was living under with the idealism of the new. The revolution was still to come, and it’s difficult now to imagine the degree of courage it must have taken in 1915 to show this painting. (together with other Suprematist works of the same period). Sad to think that in spite of his confidence at the time he would never know the astonishing influence this work had on the future of painting. It changed everything.
Published by Royal Academy Publishing