Malevich Kazimir Severynovych – Soviet Ukrainian painter and sculptor. (“Vollmer. Allgemeines Lexikon der bildenden Kunstler des XX Jahrhunderts. Band 3. Leipzig 1999”)

It is not so easy to determine to which ethnic group any given artist belongs. Picasso and Van Gogh, for example, are often considered French painters, even though one was Spanish and the other one Dutch, according to the country of birth, the language they spoke and the traditions they observed. At the same time, no one would question their primacy of place in French culture.

The same precept holds with Kazimir Malevich. He is a representative of the Russian avant-garde art, but he referred to himself as Ukrainian. He was born in Kyiv, lived with his parents in Ukrainian villages until he turned 17, the two native languages of his childhood were Ukrainian and Polish, and the songs he used to sing were all Ukrainian. He loved Ukrainian peasant art, was a professor at the Kyiv Art Institute, he published his best articles in Ukrainian journals, and whenever he spoke Russian he would use Ukrainianisms. He never ceased to cherish the land of his birth.


(Pimonenko – Boichuk – Bogomazov – Palmov)

In 1983, i happened to meet with Kazimir Malevich’s sister, Viktoriia Severinovna, who resided in Vyshgorod, not far from Kyiv. She had very few things from her brother for much of his estate had been destroyed, and, in fact, she herself burned his letters in the fateful year of 1937 when the secret police came to her with a search warrant because by then Malevich had been proclaimed an enemy of Socialist Realism. Even so, Viktoriia Severinovna and her friends discussed the right of Ukraine to have its very own Kazimir the Great (as he jokingly called himself) and, indeed, when filling in various bureaucratic forms, he would state that he was Ukrainian, said pani Viktoriia, and advised her and her brother to do the same. Still, Viktoriia Severinovna was unable to explain why in official forms – when he traveling abroad in 1927 – Malevich maintained that he was Polish. But now we know the answer to this question: he was searching for a way to escape the persecution that he was experiencing in Leningrad and he was ready to remain in Poland, except that the Polish authorities considered him a Bolshevik and denied him refugee status. Ukraine came to the rescue or, rather, Nikolai Skyipkin (Minister of Education), Ivan Vrona (President of the Kyiv Art Institute), Lev Kramarenko and Andrei Taran (both professors there), Mikhail Semenko and Georgii Shkurupii (editors of the journal Novaia generatsiia [New Generation] and the almanac Avantgard [Avant-Garde], Fedor Kupman (director of the Kyiv Picture Gallery), and Sergei Efimovich (art critic). Thanks to their efforts, Malevich returned to normal life and, in fact, the Kyiv period of 1928-30 was the most propitious to his creative activity, offering him a momentary protection from Stalin’s tyranny.

Kazimir Malevich - Sketch of Interior design for All-Ukrainian Academy of Sciences in Kyiv. 1930. (On the reverse side (picture on the top of the article) - three suprematism compositions). Paper, pastel, gouache, graphite pencil. 44X31 cm. NAMU.

Kazimir Malevich – Sketch of Interior design for All-Ukrainian Academy of Sciences in Kyiv. 1930.
(On the reverse side (picture on the top of the article) – three suprematism compositions). Paper, pastel, gouache, graphite pencil. 44X31 cm. NAMU.

Malevich’s connection with Ukraine goes deep and he wrote his autobiography just before he died as a true son of Ukraine and of its culture. He was born in Kyiv in 1879 to a Ukrainian mother from the Poltava area and a Polish father who worked as an engineer on sugar-beet plantations. The young Malevich attended both Orthodox and Roman-Catholic churches and there were occasions when his father would invite Orthodox and Roman Catholic priests to visit them together. Kazimir lived with his parents until he was seventeen in villages and other settlements where there were sugar plants including the Podil area (he lived in Yampil until he was twelve); in the Kharkiv area (Parkhomenko, Bilophila from about 1890 onwards); and in the Chernihiv (Chernigov) area (Volchok and Konotop in 1893-95). Malevich then spoke Ukrainian (at the time Russian seemed exotic to him) – once, in Bilophila, he watched some visiting painters work, “We came up to them and they were speaking Russian,” he recalled. But at the same time, he was growing fond of local folk art, too.

The villagers were making some kind of artwork (I didn’t know the word then). To put it more accurately, they were making things that I enjoyed very much….In great amazement I watched how the peasants painted murals, I would help them cover the floors of their huts with clay or make ornaments on a stove. Peasant women did a fine job depicting roosters, horses and flowers… I remember their weddings, during which a bride and her bridesmaids looked like some kind of highly colored and patterned folk….A groom was usually wearing wide blue trousers which would take no less than 12 meters of cloth to make”. (This indicated that the groom was a seaman).

Malevich’s first artistic exercises were the patterns he painted on the stove of a Podol hut: geometric, flat forms move and oscillate against the white background of a wall or stove in accordance with to the laws of rhythm – patterns symbolizing the flowering of the world, while the white background, on the other hand, represents infinity. This is exactly the way Malevich would interpret – cosmically – the white background of his abstract paintings: “The Suprematist canvas depicts white, not blue, space. The reason for this is quite obvious – blue does not offer a real concept of infinity.” Just like the folk craftsmen, Malevich emphasized simple coloring and geometric patterns, disregarding narrative. He spoke about the eternal, not the ephemeral: “To immortalize on a wall something that tomorrow will be out of date is wrong.” At a very young age Malevich must have identified the birds of eternity and totem “horses” – simplified to a mere symbol – in the peasant artifacts and his own paintings, with their scattered, clearly defined patterns, evoke a true sense of folk art and folk cosmogony. Local people often perceived his abstract art as ornamental drawing and craftspeople from the village of Verbivka even applied Malevich’s sketches.

In the Kyiv of the 1890s, Malevich still felt that the village was his life: he saw the juicy green grass and sparkling water in the paintings of his teacher Mykola Pimonenko that “made a great impression on me. He showed me his picture titled Gopak [national Ukrainian dance], I was struck by everything that I saw in his studio. There were many easels there with paintings depicting life in Ukraine…. I showed him my work, this time my sketches from nature. I was accepted by the Kyiv Art Institute.”

In Moscow, where Malevich moved in 1904, he was confronted by the power of technology, industry – and Picasso’s Cubism with its heavy, metallic style. But he also experienced the fury of class conflict, discussed social theories in a Marxist circle and in 1905 joined the barricades. Once again he remembered the peasants, their patience, humility, and iron fortitude, something that he expressed in his epic paintings of the early 1910s with their unhurried strength, collective, transpersonal, eternal. “The sun. Invites them to work, the sun also invites them to sleep when it hides its rays behind the globe.” Accordingly, Malevich’s peasant paintings are as bright as the sun, simple and cordial as popular art or an icon. It is as if Malevich had never abandoned the complex artistic legacy of Impressionist color, moving from simple topics (Harvest, Chopping Firewood) to large areas of color and very strong contrasts. Soon he would leave behind the plastic geometry of Picasso and Braque and soar weightlessly within the “mooing sound” of Suprematism.

Kazimir Malevich - A Composition in Suprematism. 1910s. Watercolors on paper, ink. 33,5X28 cm. Parkhomivsky History and Art Museum.

Kazimir Malevich – A Composition in Suprematism. 1910s. Watercolors on paper, ink. 33,5X28 cm. Parkhomivsky History and Art Museum.

True, a fascination with the cosmic and the global removed Malevich from his childish sense of land, albeit it for a moment. “David Burliuk,” he wrote with some irony in 1913, “even though he paints from four points of view, is way behind our era with his old, but modern, Malorossia (Ukraine).” In a separate letter, Malevich noted: “Through me passes that strength, that harmony of creative laws which rules over all.” In the infinity of this outburst, he finds a supporter, the Ukrainian sculptor Alexander Archipenko, and informs his friend Mikhail Matyushin: “I have received a letter from Archipenko in Paris. He writes that I am enjoying some success among French artists. He himself is delighted.”

In the 1920s, Malevich noticed that people in Leningrad, the granite city on the River Neva, experienced a “fear of color” and wore dark clothes in contrast to those worn by residents of remote provinces. On the other hand, he foresaw the active color spectrum of black and white that would assume a place of merit in urban art. But since the majority of city people hailed from the country, occasionally they would recall their organic connection with the land that they had deserted and paint the streets in bright colors so that the city would look like a field of flowers. “We will perceive the capital as a receiver of the color energy coming from villages…and in every center, a ray of sunshine meets its solar eclipse.”

When in 1926 Malevich was accused of being a “mystic” and the activities of the Institute of Artistic Culture suspended, he found himself out of a job. True, he managed to exhibit his paintings in Warsaw and Berlin the following year and immediately thereafter went to stay with his relatives in Kyiv. By then, his friends the artists Taran and Kramarenko occupied teaching positions at the Kyiv Art Institute and professors Bogomazov and Palmov were elaborating their systems of color painting in both practice and theory. Semenko used to joke that in Kyiv “you never really know if you are in a park or in the country among peasants,” an impression that also stirred Malevich’s dormant rural impressions of the “green world of flesh and bone” that he had disregarded in the name of Suprematism. As a Professor of the Kyiv Art Institute between 1928 and early 1930, he joined the so called “spectrum followers” in the Union of Contemporary Artists of Ukraine (OSMU).

Bogomazov, with his paintings on the theme of the sawyer, was typical of this group. He painted colorful saws, using them as active participants in a vibrant color play. The yellow, orange and red color spectrum of the land of the people challenged the blue of the sky. Indeed, Malevich’s Carpenter (1928-29) has something in common – almost coincidental – with Bogomazov’s Sawyers, especially in the yellow logs and pink soil. Still, as French art historian Jean-Claude Marcade, first pointed out, there are basic differences, for here each individual is active, a toiler. We see the motor force of human anatomy and the intersection of axes, whereas the characters of Malevich are motionless. Indeed, in many of his paintings, this motionlessness becomes tense and anxious, even ominous, as if they bore a premonition of serious disaster. When the disastrous year of 1929 broke the backbone of the peasantry, Malevich – instead of depicting Cubist heroes – began to portray armless, faceless dolls and figures with hammer and sickle, cross and coffin, as if echoing what so many Ukrainians were chanting -“Where there is a hammer with a sickle there is death and famine.”

In 1932-33, the years of famine, when millions of people were starving to death in Ukraine, the peasants in Malevich’s paintings began to move, but it was the dying convulsion of a race between a bloody cross and a bloody sword (“Amidst the field stands a tall cross stained with blood”) as in the painting of a black villager running across the colorful strips of plains against the blue sky (Centre Pompidou, Paris). In spite of its outward cheer (bright strips of color, two red and white Suprematist houses), this landscape breathes emptiness and despair.

Unlike Malevich, Bogomazov did not live to share this bitter experience, for he died of tuberculosis in 1930 just as Malevich was undergoing harassment by the Leningrad Secret Police. Demanding that he confess to being a spy (as he reported to his sister), they tortured him by forcing water through his urinary duct and, although the outcome was not fatal, he fell sick, grew a beard and, not without irony, called himself Kazimir Marx. He wrote to Kramarenko about his prison hardships.

There has been a case against me, concerning simply the ideology of all existing movements. As a theoretician and ideologies, I was supposed to find out if, in all those movements, there were deviations towards ‘right’ and ‘left’, and if they were offensive or not. No need to get scared. On the contrary, one must tirelessly unmask whatever is pernicious in art, chase out all cases of abuse that, under the pretext of empathy towards new trends, destroy the new art and, consequently, compromise new projects… Boichuk is happy, but life is not going to be great, because they are all saboteurs; all insist on the old form under the cover of Marxism, covering themselves with Marxist labels. Members of the party are being tricked too. They don’t know, can’t recognize, the old form of art beneath modern statements. Write to me and let me know if you are in Kyiv or not. Send me the reviews about my exhibition, whether people are buying works or not. It’s okay to pay in installments. I am considering a move to Moscow, because there is no work in Leningrad, and I can’t survive on the salary alone. I shake your hand. December 8, 1930. Leningrad.

Returning to his native Ukraine revived the sentiments of youth. He remembered the Pimonenko compositions -barefoot peasant girls with sickle and rake amidst the boundless fields and as homage to his teacher, he painted Women Reapers with its hills, white walled Ukrainian church and lime-trees solemnly disappearing beyond the horizon. Two women reapers in red skirts bent over as apostles in icons. One of them, in her “pre-standing” position, resembles characters in Ukrainian and Polish Baroque portraits of the 18th century. Could this have been a response to the policy of Ukrainianization that was then being conducted in cultural institutions under the leadership of Leonid Skrypnyk?

Malevich’s other peasants of the late 1920s are Cubist, ferrous and universal. Under the heavy step of Martha and Vanka (To Harvest) the globe itself seems to be “turning backwards” (as he once made a described Picasso’s large and weighty women). Once again Malevich yielded to his rural nature as we see in the peasant cycle of the 1920s, pictures exuding the breath of his native soil. At the same time, however, the global revolution – which had once excited him – had now turned into a dictatorship of terrorists.

Kazimir Malevich - A Composition in Suprematism. 1920s. Canvas, casein-oil tempera. 90X64,5 cm. Private collection. Kyiv.

Kazimir Malevich – A Composition in Suprematism. 1920s. Canvas, casein-oil tempera. 90X64,5 cm. Private collection. Kyiv.

The compositions of the late 1920s are even rows of ploughed land, they are the well defined silhouettes of epic peasants, the bearers of age-old diligence and solemnity, they are the geometric compositions of red and black, white and green, yellow and orange stripes. Red Cavalry resonates with the music of Podil carpets with their featured Cossack ranks. Here are the green-red-blue parallel lines of the stitches of Ukrainian hand towels. Malevich now surrendered the urban (spiral) compositional code to the nomadic one (horizontal) as if to affirm that the followers of Impressionism, Primitivism, Cezanne, Cubism and Futurism, had never dismissed the ignorant signboard or icon painter…David Burliuk can also be connected to this style of the peasant’s perception of phenomena.”

As we learn about his letters to Kramarenko, Malevich encountered the shadows of his youth in Kyiv and he once met the patriarch of Ukrainian painting, Serhii Svitoslavsky (who in 1905-06 had saved Archipenko and Bogomazov from political persecution): “When I was still in Kyiv, I learned about Svitoslavsky’s life and made a formal request to the Central Committee of Proletarian Art that it do something to improve Svitoslavsky’s state of affairs.” Malevich did not forget the destiny fate of this old and helpless painter as we see from another letter of September 12, 1930.

From 1928 to early 1930, Malevich found himself in more clement circumstances in Kyiv – thanks to the efforts of Leonid Skrypnyk and Vrona He began to teach in the Pedagogical Department of the Art Institute, “curing” students (as he liked to say) of the symptoms of psychological confusion in the face of a complex global culture, treat them for the symptoms of inner dormancy – an uncertainty, “pictorial neurasthenia” and “fear of color.” As Malevich analyzed the works of his students, he tried to determine which artistic influences might be suppressing their will and which “supplementary elements” of cultural impressions would help them find their own path in art.

Malevich conducted his classes in a special “research office” at the Institute. “I use it to cure students of realism” was his response to the question as to what it was he was doing there (from the memoirs of the artist Vasilii Kasian). Nikolai Kropivnitsky, a graduate from the Kyiv Art Institute, used to stenograph the speeches that Malevich gave during the sessions of the Institute’s Commission on Teaching Methods. But, unfortunately, these protocols vanished in 1941. Kropivnitsky, however, remembered the heated discussion between Palmov and Malevich on the issue of color as a purely technical subject. When Palmov referred to the experiments performed by the physicist Wilhelm Ostwald, Malevich produced a counter-argument: “The physical theory of color is irrelevant for an artist since the work is done on the level of intuition. What, in my opinion, seems to be far more important for an artist is that he find his own ‘ism’, one that is close to his spiritual nature.”

The journals Nova generacija [New Generation] and Avantgard [Avant-garde] reserved considerable space for Malevich’s pedagogical statements, publishing, for example, his theory of color under the title, “An Attempt to Determine the Interdependence of Color and Form in Painting” (Nova generacija, Kharkiv, 1930, No. 6-7, 8-9). A supporter of what he called color painting, Malevich disagreed with the antiqued, faded coloring of Mikhail Boichuk and his followers. They had established a “Byzantine” trend in the monumental art of Ukraine: “In the West,” Malevich noted, “fresco painting is now developing in a new way; it has nothing at all in common with the fresco painting of the monastery, which relates to countries with lots of monasteries. In our case, however, we have no monasteries and yet our frescos are developing according to the ancient laws of the monastery.” “A fresco” – he was now preaching to the Boichukists – “has a sense of monastic serenity, but what we need now is a change of form, theme and ideas.” Such polemics, however, did not prevent Malevich from visiting Boichuk or from joking about Boychuk’s stylizations reminding him of Ramses II speaking on the phone or of a local tailor making a tuxedo for Jesus Christ.

Once, in response to Kramarenko’s offer to paint the hall of the Presidium of the All-Ukrainian Academy of Sciences, Malevich made a sketch of a mural, and not an abstract, but a figurative, one – a hapless figure of a peasant woman next to a sinister cross. This took place in 1929 in the apartment of Kramarenko and Irina Zhdanko in Kyiv.

Malevich continued to go to Leningrad every month and often for a week or two at a time, so as to “deliver a lecture, so that they would know what I am working on and that they needed to offer me a job.” By 1930-31, Malevich was planning to move to Ukraine for good, but right at that moment the Stalinist Cultural Revolution finally reached Kyiv. Non-party specialists with pre-Revolutionary education were proclaimed enemies of the proletariat. Skrypnyk defended the intelligentsia for as long as he could, but, lacking power, he was unable to resist the force of tyranny – and committed suicide. All the major professors of the Kyiv Art Institute, including Boichuk, Kramarenko, Malevich and Evgenii Sahaidachny, were kicked out. President Vrona lost his job, too. Ultimately, they were all replaced by Party hacks.

The Director of the Kyiv Picture Gallery, Kumpan, was reprimanded for organizing a private show of the “bourgeois” Malevich. Paintings were not purchased from the show and the transportation charges for the shipment of the canvases from Kyiv to Leningrad were not honored. How much care had been invested in preparing this exhibition! Kramarenko, for example, transported forty-five items from Moscow to Kyiv. The exhibition had been advertised in advance with much aplomb in the newspaper Proletarskaya pravda [Proletarian Truth] and was well received. Then, all of a sudden, a pogrom! Hopes for salvation in Kyiv were dashed. Malevich mused: “I was saved by the Kazan’ Mother of God who stopped me from moving to Kyiv and not to allow that I, too, end up selling horseradish.” Things in Leningrad, however, were not much better. Leningrad was on rations, which meant semi-starvation. “They say, in Kyiv there is more food than one can imagine. There are tart cherries, cherries, and those berries that grow close to the ground. Wouldn’t it be nice to have curd dumplings with sour cream and all those berries with sugar and milk? People also say that you could get a suckling pig in the House of Scientists.”

Malevich bid his farewell to Kyiv in the spring of 1930 when he painted a landscape of the Kyiv suburb Svyatoshino. This light and airy composition bears no sign of the imminent collapse of Ukrainian hopes and dreams. Zhdanko recalled what Malevich said that spring: ’”I want to paint a landscape in the style of the Impressionists. Just let me have some more whitewash’. We gave him paint and canvas.”

In 1982, the World Congress of Slavic Studies convened in Kyiv, capital of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. Some of the participants came to visit a little house at 15, Bulionskaia Street, in which one of the greatest artists of the 20th century had been born. Just one year later this historic site was devoured by the Institute of Electrical Welding of the Academy of Sciences – and the house demolished by the bulldozers of technological progress.

Dmytro Gorbachov, 2005