Foot Soldiers of the Russian Avant-Garde

IN 1917 when Russia's brave new world called for a brave new art, painters Kazimir Malevich and Liubov Popova figured as important members of the Russian avant-garde - a cadre of innovative modern artists. These artists ascended under the aegis of the Bolshevik regime only to slide into obscurity when that government's idealism fossilized into repression. Two retrospectives, Malevich at the Metropolitan Museum and Popova at the Museum of Modern Art, give us illuminating career overviews of artists who forged their art in the eye of this political tempest. Both artists responded uniquely to those pressures with heroic and authoritative work.

For a short-lived moment before and after the Russian Revolution, the interests of the artistic avant-garde and the new socialist regime marched in perfect step. Citizen and artist were linked in a nationalistic vision that sought new art for a new social order. Malevich and Popova were zealous revolutionaries; in turn, politicians had a healthy respect for the power of the image and the written word.

Of the two, Popova is the lesser-known. She was younger, died at an early age and faired better under the vagaries of state-sponsored art. Her retrospective handsomely traces an inspired if short career, leaving to speculation how Popova's art might have developed during the brutal repression of the Stalin years.

Malevich on the other hand is a seminal if poorly understood icon of modern art. His stark geometric canvases open every art history book's discussion of geometric abstract art.

Malevich laid the theoretical and formal foundation for just about all the hard-edged abstract painting we see and puzzle over today.

The show treats us to a healthy sampling of the geometric art for which Malevich is remembered and respected, but almost as important, it introduces viewers to the sweep of the artist's eccentric and chameleon-like creativity. We see him exploring - with innate Russian passion - at least four mutually exclusive styles, carving an almost schizoid body of work with an ease and elegance that awes and befuddles viewers.

Malevich was born in 1878 to a rural working-class family. As a mature artist, he would say that it was not art but nature that inspired his work. He said that his earliest, most moving experiences came from the sensations, colors, moods of nature - shifting clouds, sunlight passing over puddles. These ties to the land and to Russian folk roots would fuel collisions of spirit and intellect.

Folk art meets Futurism

There's a touch of inspired, if crude genius in the provocative, bizarre hybrids he came up with. A brooding self-portrait of a handsome young Malevich combines Matisse's color with the edgy, psychological tension of expressive styles in Northern Europe. Cezanne and Russian icons blend oddly in images of thick-limbed peasants with enormous red hands who gaze out at us or somberly tend gardens.

Works in the style Malevich called ``Cubo-Futurist'' depict peasants, trees, villages painted as if they were broken shards of metal, softened by the rich hues, emotional directness, and the homey warmth of folk art. In a beautiful, strange painting of a violin, a cow, and curious crazy marks, we sense an artist struggling to balance his innate humanism, his respect for modern progess, and his sense of outrage against the technology of war.

These early works are harbingers of the unchartered artistic ground he was to break: Every figure, every object is formed with simple masses of bright sharp color contained by rhythmic lines that defy gravity and have a life on the canvas that goes beyond description.

In 1915 Malevich made the quantum leap into the world of the unseen, inventing the movement of abstract art and aesthetics he called Suprematism. In complex theoretical writings, Malevich described Suprematism as a reduction of painting (and design) to its simplest, most basic units. These least divisible units consisted of colored planes, an occasional circle or cross shape floating in uncolored fields.

According to Malevich, his carefully worked out geometries captured and conveyed cosmic truths that transcended visible reality, class struggles, and language. But it is not necessary for us to understand or even know the complex rationales underlying Malevich's startling leap into non-representaional art in order to be moved by the distilled and quiet beauty of his abstract paintings.

Priviledged Popova

At its zenith in the early 1920s, Malevich's visual revolution attracted young artists like Popova. She was 11 years his junior and the priviledged daughter of cultured intellectuals. Malevich worked at a hapless job for months to save money to get to Moscow; Popova was sent at an early age to to study art in Paris.

Popova's work traces the same stylistic arc followed by most young Russian artists. At each juncture, however, we see a disciplined, astute artist able to not only digest, but also claim as her own each avant-garde current. Her interpretations do not have the eccentricity or profundity of Malevich, but she grasps Cezanne, Picasso's Cubism, and Suprematism authoritatively, remaining true to the letter of the parent style but raising it an octave.

In Popova we never see the visionary/philosopher wanting to transcend outward appearances. Her feet are firmly on the ground, and her art stays close to things we can recognize. In her Suprematist work and the later abstractions, she does not try, as Malevich did, to create a new weightless and mysterious cosmos with its own physical laws. A gifted, instinctual colorist, she makes her shapes obediently move and stack according to gravity.

The other difference between these artists is that we leave Popova's exhibition feeling that her work took less of a psychic toll. Younger than Malevich, city bred, internationally educated, Popova's ties to deep Russian roots were less urgent, produced less of a conflict as she responded to the constantly changing political winds. She moved easily from Suprematism and painting to provocative stage designs for state-sponsored theater that included moving machinery, pulleys, even weaponry.

Malevich, on the other hand, lived long enough to learn that brave new worlds are fickle. By the late 1920s he painted less, exhibited less, watched his Institute of Artistic Culture fall apart, saw his works confiscated, and was subjected to government interrogation.

Malevich's repression

In his final uneasy years, Malevich returned to a queer figuration in which faceless peasants till the fields with quiet, robotic actions.

These paintings have been called uninspired beside Suprematism: a tired man avoiding official ire.

Others contend that the cagey, uncompromising Malevich laughed last, using these faceless farmers - stalwart and enduring as his squares and rectangles - to express the irony that the Soviet Union had become as repressive as the oligarchy it toppled. One senses that Malevich could never quite excise from his artistic persona - even as a faithful socialist - that trademark Russian combination of intense intellectualism and deep spirituality, which we also find in the works of Dostoyevsky, Tchaikovsky, an d Chekhov.

The Malevich and Popova overviews raise as many questions as they answer. But the exhibitions show that over the drone of political dogma, the personal creative voice manages to be heard.

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