Art · Modern Times

Kazimir Malevich: Supremus 1915-16.

The Supremacy Of Pure Feeling.

The Monochrome Intellectual, Part 3.


Modern Art  

In 1913 Kasimir Malevich drew a pencil figure of a square on a white piece of paper. It became Malevich’s central motif: whatever he did it was tightly formed and rigorously geometric. It was his protest against all he saw around him: mere depiction in paint or film. Paintings in embellished frames whose painters sought to catch the shadow of each leaf.

Yet detailing does not make a painting art any more than the lack of it.

Malevich was reacting against an estabishment that had nothing new to offer. That Malevich’s exhibition would raise a storm of reactionary protest from such people means little. Malevich’s ideas were certainly new, certainly fresh and certainly startling. And today we live in a world he would both recognize and recoil from: squares and abstraction are everywhere. Yet these things mean as much to us as one of his paintings.

Malevich said this in respect of the philosophy underpinning his abstract art:

Under Suprematism I understand the primacy of pure feeling in creative art. To the Suprematist, the visual phenomena of the objective world are, in themselves, meaningless; the significant thing is feeling, as such, quite apart from the environment in which it is called forth.

My posts tackle the issues he discusses from a radically different viewpoint. What is more, I do not make broad assumptions about the “primacy of pure feeling”. Much more to the point is whether Malevich actually understood feeling at all, primary or otherwise.

So what did Malevich achieve with his Supremus 1915-16? I posted a photograph of it from the exhibition in Maastricht, asked my Facebook friends what they saw. Few would have seen this painting before, and they presented a wide diversity of reactions. You may read them as they are presented below.

Perhaps the most succinct was “Blast I’ve dropped the Bloody Lot.” to others it evoked scenes from their Christian upbringing. To others, letter forms. Not one reaction was what Malevich intended to convey. Intended them to feel.

Malevich’s Failure To Feel.

If it was the “primacy of feeling” that Malevich wanted to convey to us through his art, it manifestly failed. Not one commenter felt what Malevich was attempting to convey by way of his figurative art.

Circles and squares are still primal geometrical figures. However to understand their true meaning one must look beneath them, as it were. For ‘beneath’ the material is the realm of feeling, it is not and cannot be the thing you are depicting. It is a realm entirely apart, unconnected unless you hold the keys to connect with it. If you are to even make a start with Malevich’s paintings, you must seek the very essence of number, line and form. Malevich did not do this, for had he been able to, his interpretation of feeling would have been very, very different. Merely connecting a “pure feeling” with an arbitrary form is not enough. To be honest, it misses it altogether.

It is simply not possible to convey a feeling with some abstract figure. The very fact that it is abstract is testimony to its very lack of feeling. Call it “pure” if you will, I prefer the term “absent”. That Malevich’s black square is intended to convey the emptiness of the void is of little help here. If there is one thing that can be said about voids, it is that they are formless. There are powerful metaphors for voids, only a black square isn’t one of them. Pure feeling it may have evoked for him, the void is if nothing else, devoid of the very thing he sought.

So what is this all about? It’s a problem we all face. The intellectual mind can go only so far when it comes to the realm of feelings. As Virginia Woolfe knew you can describe and order words, only that is simply not sufficient. Feelings, like words, do not live by being defined in abstract terms. As she rightly points out, they live in the mind. Communicating what is in your mind needs rather more than a mutual acceptance of jumbled concepts. A concept is truly feeble when compared to the power of myth. For myth holds the power to speak of one thing to all ages and all people. The Greek myths can – and have been – analyzed properly and their individual qualities established. In contrast, a concept can be misinterpreted – just as Malevich’s painting was in my little experiment. A concept needs to be conveyed in a vessel, without one, a concept remains unconnected. You have to travel to it, you have to do as it demands.

Had Malevich understood feeling, he would have understood myth. In understanding myth, he would have chosen to paint things with some real meaning. An obelisk, the sky, a sunrise. An obelisk is upright, the sky is above us. A sunrise is a happening that we all know. All these things can be used as metaphors, and all have been used in one way or another. What is more, they are common to us all and speak of a common happening.

Malevich threw the baby out with the bathwater: in dismissing pictorial work in its entirety, he missed its essential nature as well. The line that divides real art from mere depiction is as invisible as the feelings the former can evoke.

To be fair, Malevich does use colour. There are very real qualities to a red that a blue or yellow cannot possess. Yet his depictions of them are fixed – and that aspect will be dealt with when I consider the work of Mondriaan and the Pointillist school.

Whilst this article is intellectual and lacking in feeling does not mean that expressing feeling is beyond me. This is merely to demonstrate that I know the technical, philosophical side of what I do as much as the practical.

When Art Connects And Why.

Malevich failed. Others have not, the Canadian artist Tom Thomson being one of them. He too faced the scorn of the established authorities and it mattered as little to him as it did Malevich. The difference is that Thomson’s paintings convey the things he felt at the time he painted them. They aren’t the things he painted though, and therin lies the secret.

For feelings cannot be depicted, they can only be implied. Feelings are not the heavy concrete lumps Malevich imagined them. They are not fixed and immovable: they are as fleeting as summer swallows, and as easy to catch. Only when caught, a swallow is no longer happy for it is no longer completely swallow. For a swallow to be a swallow, it must reside in the air. There it can fully express its swallow-like qualities. For feelings cannot retain their quality if they are squeezed by the rigorous needs of intellectual demand.

If you are to understand feelings, you need an understanding that is as mobile and as fickle as they are. You cannot sit and wait for them to arrive, because you will wait a very long time. Feelings can only be sought, yet your very seeking limits you to the things you seek. You need an openness to feeling that leaves you totally undefended. That’s why it’s so scary. That’s why Malevich only declaims the “supremacy of feeling”: it means he didn’t have to expose himself to that terrifingly unfixed world of feeling.

The Facebook Comments:

Simon T: I see crosses and swords/daggers. It seems violent, with the broad red stripe seeming to me to be like a bleeding wound. The objects seem scattered randomly, like they got to where they are by accident. I see it as symbolizing a violent desecration of something holy.

Andrew C: A bombsite. (That is a compliment – it has a lot of force and disrupts perceptions)

Minke:  To me, the cross seems to explain the power of religion. The church trying to superimpose on the chaotic real world by means of its broad and long tail influence (symbolized by the long stick).

Andrew C: The crossed yellow lines dominate our responses because we identify the Christian symbol, and perhaps we label it “processional cross – must be from a church”, even though the “arms” of the “cross” are of uneven length.
I wonder if people from a non-Christian background would respond in the same way?

Minke: Oke, here is another explanation. A more positive one: cooperation. It might be wishfull thinking, but what I see here also is the stronger ones supporting and carrying the less powerfull individuals.

Lidwien H: My first response is: I see a crewed people, riding horses, going to the far East, to win the Crusade. After that: I see myself walking throught the mountains, leaning on my walkingstick, a sheepdog next to me. Why? The golden cross dominate the other figures, that is de reasen why I start whith the cross. Black and grey stripes brings me to the top of the mountain, the big A and red is for me the long way I have to go.

Brian H: Blast I´ve dropped the Bloody Lot.


The Monochrome Intellectual. Links To Other Parts In This Series.

Part 1 <h1>Code Is Poetry.</h1>
Part 2 Vincent Van Gogh: Enclosing Reality On Canvas (only published on my private blog)
Part 3 Kazimir Malevich: Supremus 1915-16.
Part 4 Decision Making Without A Net. (Only published on my private blog)
Part 5 It’s Cold Out There! Blue as a Phenomenon. (Only published on my private blog)
Part 6 Reverse Engineering The Guru.

Part 7 Leeks For Dinner!



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