How did a large black square make an impact on the perception of art?
The square in question was painted by Malevich in 1915; the first painting that didn't depict something, an icon that wasn't an icon, and the symbol of a new movement that the artist called Suprematism. It's one of the must-see items in Grimaldi Forum's summer art exhibition.
"From Chagall to Malevich: the Revolution of the Avant-Gardes" traces the development of Russian avant-garde art from 1905 to 1930. The movement emerged in a period of political upheaval, and at the entrance to the exhibition there's an informative artistic and historic chronology that helps place the works in context.
Taking the recommended route through the exhibition, the first works displayed are Classic and Neo-primitive tableaux, representations of a traditional Russia that would soon change. There's a hard-life, oppressed feel to the paintings; peasants with grim, determined expressions, and portraits of sitters with unhealthy green and grey faces. A Christmas card collage of Saint Basil's Cathedral (1913) by Aristarkh Lentulov stands out from the rest, with candy-striped, brightly coloured domes.
The second room contains rare documents; revolutionary street art, posters and leaflets. Prints of horn-blowing, heroic figures and valiant St Georges brought to mind Delacroix's Liberty Leading the People.
As Russian painters were exposed to artistic ideas from other countries, they developed their own abstract styles such as Rayonism and Cubo-futurism. A striking example is Natalia Goncharova's Rayonist Lilies (1913), full of energetic greens and yellows, which at first glance looks like firework rockets exploding in the sky.
At this point in the itinerary, there's a room dedicated to Marc Chagall and the art of the Russian Jewish Theatre. Music (1920) depicts an emerald faced violinist, dancing like a paper cutout puppet on miniature houses. It's one of several paintings that served as inspiration for the title of the musical Fiddler on the Roof.
This keystone room also serves as the entrance to a cross shaped area at the centre of the exhibition, where Malevich's Black Square (1923) is displayed. Just as striking is his Reaper (1911-1912), which looked more like a Samurai warrior in armour than a barefooted peasant farmer.
Leading off from the central space is a room with David Sterenberg's Still Life with Cherries (1919) and Vladimir Lebedev's Still Life with a Saw (1920). There's no doubt about what both paintings depict, unlike Georgy Yakulov's Sulky (1919). Stare at it for long enough and a horse and man emerge from the blocks and circles; the phrase "can you tell what it is yet?" springs to mind.
Paintings in the final room mark the end of revolutionary idealism. Many avant-garde artists fled the Soviet Union as political power progressively stamped out freedom of expression. Malevich remained, painting faceless figures that presaged the fate of many Soviets under autocratic rule. To the outside world, the communists were strange, anonymous clones, like the Torso in a Yellow Shirt (Complex Premonition) (circa 1932).
I didn't expect to like many Russian avant-garde artworks, but I did, although perhaps not enough to want to display them on my living room wall. I'm a dilettante when it comes to art and this exhibition challenged my aesthetic ideals. It also provided an alternative view of the Soviets in their Red Square. It explained the impact of that iconic Black Square too.
- exhibition runs from 12 July to 6 September
- daily, 10:00-20:00, late night Thursdays until 22:00
- entry, 10 euros
- students, seniors and groups of +10, 8 euros
- under 18s, free of charge