MASTERS OF MODERN ART FROM THE HERMITAGE

These big shows overwhelm me. Apart from the audience crowds there’s the celebrity of the artworks themselves, with their big, colourful personalities. Indeed, it’s colour (and at the end, its absence) that really is this show’s theme.

Summer blockbusters are crowdpleasers, and for that you can’t go past Monet. The mark-making of his Poppy field is rough as hell but tonally it’s perfect. Standing in front of this, you squint through the sunshine; feel the breeze riffle your hair.

 

Claude Monet (1840-1926), Poppy field, 1890/91, oil on canvas, 61 x 92 cm

 

It was fabulous to see two whole wall of Matisses, although like John McDonald I wasn’t a fan of the glaring yellow wall colour. It did make me feel the heat of the Mediterranean though.

Game of Bowls  is both puzzling and magnetic. It doesn’t seem like anything much, and I’m often not a fan of his figuration (there, I’ve said it in print. Yikes…) but it was very hard to drag my eyes away from this one. Once again Matisse nails both forms and tone: the rhythmic positioning of the almost – black heads and balls is delicious.

 

Henri Matisse (1869-1954 )  Game of Bowls, 1908, oil on canvas,115 x 147 cm

 

I came across an artist I’ve not heard of, whose work was a welcome respite from some of the noisy psychedelia of the show. It allowed me some breathing room and I found it soothing. Albert Marquet is associated with the Fauves but his palette is as you can see much more restrained, for which I was grateful.

Again, tones win the day and I found the light in this, as well as the composition, both balanced and satisfying. I especially enjoyed the quiet interplay between the sequences of oar/standing figure in the foreground and middle ground, with the outline of mast and rigging in the distance. This linear discussion considered and over with, we could then enjoy the quiet saturation of the sky at the top of the work, before discovering on the right side of the work a gentle echo of the previous conversation. More on Albert Marquet here.

 

Albert Marquet (1875-1947 ) Bay of Naples, 1909, oil on canvas, 62 x 80.3 cm

 

For all the visual excitement of those colour-saturated Moderns, it’s Malevich’s Black Square that has gotten under my skin. I didn’t expect this.

That period, the first decade or two of the 20th century, saw several artists experimenting with the strange new ideas of abstraction – Kandinsky; Mondrian; af Klint – and each of these with some sort of spiritual component to their concerns.

I stand before Black Square with a century of Abstraction under my belt. It could never possibly hope to convey the original meaning. It was created at a time of great change and excitement in art, however very soon it would become increasingly dangerous for artworks to be created if they were seen to create ‘public unrest’ or were ‘decadent’. It’s  hard to get a good sense of that today. Malevich was ok up until Stalin’s takeover in the 1920s. After that his career didn’t do so well and at times he was obliged to create socialist realism  posters for the State.

In its inaugural exhibition,  0.10 in 1915, Black Square was positioned high in the corner of the room. The ‘red corner’ or ‘beautiful corner’ was where an icon painting would hang in a traditional Russian home. [1] For Malevich to adopt such a presentation spoke eloquently about how he regarded his work, and the ideas behind the work.

Malevich was trying to get away from the pictorial, the descriptive and invent a new language, where a painting was not descriptive of something, but- like an icon – was an object of magic in itself. This was Suprematism. Phillip Shaw from the TATE tells us that Malevich announced  that ‘To the Suprematist the visual phenomena of the objective world are, in themselves, meaningless; the significant thing is feeling’.[2]

In recognition of the superlative nature of Malevich’s ideas – and he is considered one of the founding fathers of Abstraction –  the Curators at the AGNSW have given the work a wall of its own, and it is the final statement in the show.

 

Kasimir Malevich (Ukraine, 1878-1935 ) Black Square, this version 1932 but originally 1913, oil on canvas, 53.5 x 53.5cm

 

But Black Square in 2018 is small, cracked and…well, humble. It comprises simple materials that are now, naturally, degrading. There is something about its uncompromising presence that I found moving just as we may be moved when reading the headstone of someone famous.

All the artists in the show are long dead, but I don’t feel like this about any of the others. Maybe it’s the nakedness of it; like the bald head of a monk. It’s not showing virtuosity or brilliance. We’re not transported by the fascinating composition or saturated colours. It’s unapologetic and at one time was very sure of itself. And as we know, this never lasts.

It ended up talking to me of human endeavour, exploration and courage. It stood for the endless ways artists will come to the creative act.

 

 

[1] https://tmora.org/happening-now/online-exhibitions/a-homespun-life-textiles-of-old-russia/complete-diorama/red-corner/

[2] Kasimir Malevich, The Non-Objective World: The Manifesto of Suprematism (Mineola: Dover Publications, 2003), p. 67            quoted in Shaw, Philip: The art of the sublime: Malevich’s Black Square, https://www.tate.org.uk/art/research-publications/the-sublime/philip-shaw-kasimir-malevichs-black-square-r1141459