I spent yesterday at the Tate Modern. Since the opening of the Henri Matisse Cut-Outs exhibition I have been itching to go and see it, as I have long used these paintings to teach children the nature of collage and colour (despite recent idiotic comments by Jake Chapman), and then when the first major retrospective of Kazimir Malevich for 25 years was announced, I knew that I had a day of delights ahead of me. I have loved the paintings of Malevich for over 20 years and in 2005 tried in vain to view the large permanent collection at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam (the museum had moved to the harbour post office, as museums do, and all the permanent collections were in boxes in a vault somewhere!). I have used his An Englishman in Moscow (illustrated left) as a great starting place for children’s art.
Both Tate exhibitions are astonishing, brilliantly curated and exhibited, and exhaustive. The Matisse exhibition (which I hope you have already seen, by the way – it finishes 7 September) has over 120 paintings and draft designs on display, including the entire contents of his 1947 Jazz exhibition and book, whilst the Malevich exhibition has an enormous collection of material, from paintings, to a huge collection of his suprematist works, to teaching material and a film of the opera he did the costume and set designs for, to the amazing and unbelievably moving pieces of art he painted in the 1930s. The contents of the December 1915 Last Exhibition of Futurist Painting 0.10 is displayed in a room designed to match as closely that of the original exhibition and is really challenging.
For me, suprematism was the low point in Malevich’s art, although I absolutely accept the argument that it was a fundamental pillar of 20th Century art. It was a low point because of its roots in the negative and nihilistic (almost Nietzschian) philosophy that led to the zaum movement in Russian art at the beginning of the 20th Century, where words were separated from their meaning, where rational thought and conscious action had to give way to subconscious and artistically-defined ways of communicating. It is also a low point because it seems to me that Malevich didn’t really believe it in a fundamental way (his art from the 1930s seems to confirm this – seen particularly beautifully in his portrait of his mother, 1932-1934). And seeing a quote from Malevich put me in mind of a similar one from Wendell Berry. Compare these two perspectives, Malevich first.
The artist can be a creator only when the forms in his picture have nothing in common with nature….Artists of the past are mere counterfeiters of nature (thus he dismisses all representational art). Suprematism is the beginning of a new culture…our world of art has become new, non-objective, pure. Everything has disappeared, a mass of material is left from which a new form will be built (in From Cubism and Futurism to Suprematism, 1915)
And here is Berry, from his essay Healing (1977):
A creature is not a creator, and cannot be. There is only one Creation, and we are its members. To be creative is to have health: to keep oneself fully alive in the Creation, to keep the Creation fully alive in oneself, to see the Creation anew, to welcome one’s part in it anew. The most creative works are all strategies of this health. Works of pride, by self-called creators, with their premium on originality, reduce the Creation to novelty – the faint surprises of minds incapable of wonder. Pursuing originality, the would-be creator works alone. In loneliness one assumes a responsibility for oneself that one cannot fulfill.
I was pondering these two perspectives as I went around the Malevich exhibition for the second time (once really was not enough), and there is some more to be thought about here, especially between the relationship of his early peasant women paintings from the first decade of the 20th Century to the faceless ones we see painted at the time of collectivization of agriculture and the great famine of the early 1930s, where the fields are full of character and colour but the houses and people are in black or white. It seems to me that Malevich is, despite everything, deeply political and expressive, and that his representational art is the work that speaks most profoundly to us today, along with his amazing technique.
With my head buzzing with all this, I went straight into the Matisse exhibition on the floor below. It was still packed with people (and children, Mr Chapman! Children!). After a brief introductory room and some paintings and early cut-outs on dancers, I was into the room where the Jazz book materials were laid out – both the maquettes and the stencil prints, but more interestingly (and I found one kindred spirit who was studying the same thing) the text that went in the book – the original of which was laid out fully around the room in glass cases below the maquettes themselves. The text, written in Matisse’s own longhand French, was printed as he wrote it:
The artist must bring all his energy, his sincerity and the greatest modesty to leave during his work the old clichés which come so readily to hand (pp 90-93)
Nothing is sweeter than love, nothing is stronger, nothing higher, nothing broader, nothing fuller, nothing better in heaven or earth, because love is born of God, and we cannot rest except for God, above all creatures (p117-119).
And if I believe in God? Yes, when I am working. When I am submitted and modest, I feel helped by someone who makes me do those things that surpass me (my apologies for the dodgy translations here).
For someone who variously described himself as an atheist and a sort-of Buddhist, these give an insight into God’s affirmation of Matisse’s creative process. In this, I think he is more honest than Malevich, because whilst he recognised that nobody before him had really produced the kind of art that he was embarking on in Vence from his bed and wheelchair, armed with a mind and a pair of enormous scissors, he also understood that God was with him in the creative process and that he was contributing to creation, not simply making new stuff (novelty, to use Berry’s withering phrase). The rest of the exhibition showed that there was a deep fascination with animal and plant forms – flowers and the female form especially – and that these, no matter how distorted the representation might be (see Malevich’s Head of a Peasant Woman at the head of this post), are part of the calling of the artist to humanity. Berry again, from the same essay – this could be written about Matisse, especially following the illness and surgery that nearly killed him:
One’s inner voices become audible. One feels the attraction of one’s most intimate sources. In consequence, one responds more clearly to other lives. The more coherent one becomes within oneself as a creature, the more fully one enters into the communion of all creatures. One returns from solitude laden with gifts of circumstance.
Wanting then to look at the current exhibition on Poetry and Dream, I only spent an hour looking at all the huge range of Matisse cut-outs. On entering the Poetry and Dream exhibition rooms, amongst plenty of other material from Picasso, Ernst, Dali and Miro, there was a final delight for the day – the original of Paul Nash’s Landscape from a Dream. We have been spending Thursday afternoons in the art club at school over the last summer term looking at this painting and trying to recreate it in terms of our own dream experiences and what we have learnt about how to paint landscape. The children have worked in pastel, charcoal and acrylic and have produced some amazing pieces of work that will have to be exhibited somewhere. Some have even explored other paintings by Nash and incorporated other aspects, such as the geometric objects he used in earlier surrealist landscapes. To see the original right there was an unexpected joy, completing an exhilarating and thought-provoking day. I will blog on the children’s work later, once I have displayed it.