When is a square not a square? Or at least, not just a square? When it is a symbol of humanity, or when it is a revelation of a spiritual structure supporting the world. What? How so?
It was an interesting room in the Tate Modern Art Gallery to walk into and pause and ponder. Mondrian’s flat, geometric shapes have a certain charm. Their very flatness relieves us from the burden of trying to work out what the object is- its lack of shading and tone show it to be a square, a shape, a square. [This contrasts to Jean Helion’s Abstract Composition 1934 which has shapes with tones that make you think of an object – which object? What thing is it?] Mondrian’s flatness helps you just contemplate this – this shape. The lines connect the shapes and give a sense of calm and rest. His horizontals and verticals give a sense of stability and firmness.
In contrast are the geometric shape paintings of Malevich, hung close to Mondrian’s. His paintings have a dynamism because the shapes are free-floating on the canvas – not tied, and unconnected. And Malevich has diagonals – he composes the shapes at an angle, creating a movement within the painting.
[It’s quite amusing to see people’s reactions to the paintings in this room, to this Mondrian painting in particular: you can tell when they have got bored as they gaze into the glass-fronted painting in order to see their reflection and check their hair – chaps as much as girls!].
Also, adding to the stillness, or part of Mondrian’s creating the stillness and calm, is the limit of his palette: red, blue, yellow along with black and white: primary colours – before mixing, before shading, before tone. In contrast, Malevich has a much wider palette: pink, yellow ochre, turquoise, brown, cream, grey, burnt sienna, scarlet, green, zaffre blue.
When I returned home I read a little about both artists. Mondrian believed that the world as we experience it is supported by an essentially spiritual structure, and the geometric, ordered shape of the square conveys that idea in his work. Malevich’s works are also prompted by a spirituality yet one much transformed. Regurgitating the form and contents of the past didn’t appeal to him – not for him were landscapes and still-life’s. Neither did the heavy narrative of religious painting hold any allure. What did fascinate him, however, was attempting to encapsulate an aspect of spirituality, at the same time as creating something new in order to convey that.
In contrast to religious iconography that used gold to denote transcendence to the divine, and blue for the sky as the limit and extent of human endeavour, Malevich used white to denote infinity, limitlessness. This is the transcendence he manifested – the antithesis of human limitations and constraints. White is not a neutral background colour in his paintings; white is an intense carrier of meaning in his art – it signifies infinity, which is a backdrop against which all human activity takes place. Infinity is beyond all human manipulation and power; it is totally other to humans, yet it is the ‘within-ness’ that humans live their lives in.
As a symbol of humanity, Malevich utilised the figure of the square because it is a shape that is not found in nature. Through that, Malevich focusses on the element of being human that is over and above the natural world – the intellectual achievements of humans. Indeed, Malevich was hopeful of the role of the technological and the industrial in the human project. His was a utopian vision. Yet, as Malevich’s paintings remind us, this excellent and progressive humanity exists against a backdrop that is vaster than it. And that perspective must never be forgotten. In this way, his artwork endorses the importance of spirituality – albeit a spirituality that is radically different from the traditional.
It may be that, in reality, in retrospect, focussing on humans as over and above nature has been the very cause of so much catastrophe in the twentieth century, both in relation to other humans as well as in relation to the planet we live our lives on. Perhaps if we had focussed on human creatureliness a little more we might have avoided unspeakable atrocities to other humans and ravaging environmental disasters to the planet. But these are the problems of the hundred years since Malevich, and not a yardstick we should judge him by.
Perhaps what endures, perhaps the idea that is worth reiterating, is the need for spirituality; that humans need aspects of transcendence to take us beyond our individual selves, concerns and projects. Then we might be better able to connect with the world, with nature and with each other. And in that outward glance we might find joy and wonder and delight, and paradoxically, we might find ourselves.
Kazimir Malevich, Suprematist Painting 1916, Tate Modern Art Gallery, London
At the top: Piet Mondrian, Composition with red, blue and yellow, Tate Modern Art Gallery, London