Commissar of Space


The years 1927 to 1935 were a time of deepening crisis for Kazimir Severinovich Malevich and his art. The herald of abstraction in Russian art, the artist whose researches into earthly and cosmic space had taken pictorial languages into hitherto unexplored dimensions, must have sensed that his country - and its policy towards literature and the arts - was at another turning point as he travelled with his one-man exhibition, first to Warsaw and then to Berlin, in March and June of 1927. The inventor of Suprematism surely perceived that exhibitions such as AKhRR's huge 'Life and Being of the Peoples of the USSR', held in Moscow the previous year, and his own abstract and highly speculative paintings, drawings and constructions, belonged to very different frames of belief, orientation and purpose. Storm clouds were unmistakeably gathering. By the spring of 1927 Stalin's faction within the Communist Party had convinced itself that opportunities for international socialism were growing thin. The German revolution had failed, and that country was sliding inexorably towards fascism. A General Strike in Britain the previous year had been broken by the Baldwin government. The headlong expansion of American capitalism looked unstable. Spurred on by a doctrine of 'socialism in one country' and with Trotski's left opposition by now in almost terminal disarray, Stalin's Party had decided at its Fifteenth Conference in October 1926 to 'build socialism' by a method of orders and commands from above. That itself was alarming enough; Bukharin's gradualist policy of urging kulaks to 'Get rich' - for the country to 'ride into socialism on a peasant nag' - was now officially repudiated. Class struggle would be the slogan. National self-consciousness would be the official mood. In any case, some Party leaders interpreted the international situation as already war-like, in which case waiting for the 'peasant nag' would seriously delay the urgently needed modernisation of industry, agriculture and the armed forces alike.


Malevich returned early to Leningrad in June 1927, leaving his work in the care of his architect friend Hugo Häring and Häring's Russian-born wife, from whom they would pass, some 25 years later, to the Stedelijk Museum. In the same month as the artist's return to Russia, June 1927, the Committee of People's Commissars (SovNarKom) decreed that work should begin on a Five Year Plan to achieve the 'rapid industrialisation' of the entire country. Malevich must have seen too that his own investment in the figure of the peasant, and in the abstracted spirituality of the peasant in the context of 'nature' and work, now stood in stark opposition to the prevailing mood of instrumentally using the peasant to produce more and more, in newly organised conditions, for ever lower returns.


Malevich's position in the artistic hierarchy of Soviet Russia was also under threat at the same time. Having lost his post as Director of the State Institute for Artistic Culture (GInKhuK) and having seen its remnants merged with the ideologically mainstream State Institute of Art History (GIII) the previous November, his work now proceeded, but with much greater difficulty than before. Having met Gropius and Le Corbusier at the Bauhaus in Dessau and with many new contacts in the German avant-garde - among them Arp, Schwitters, and Hans Richter - Malevich must have felt that the spirit of cultural modernisation in the Soviet Union was going into sharp decline. The pace of the ideological game too must have seemed bewildering. With Trotski and Zinoviev long since out of the Politburo, they and their supporters were now to be seen engaging in strident and poorly coordinated denunciations of Stalin's isolationist position from the margins. Their attempt to publish Lenin's secret 'testament' against Stalin was foiled. At the Fifteenth Congress of the Party in December 1927 the left opposition was howled down: together with Trotski and Zinoviev, some 75 of its members were expelled from the Party, Trotksi being sent into exile in Alma-Ata. Early in 1928 Bukharin himself was isolated as Stalin swung ideologically to the 'left' to embrace a quasi-Trotskiist position on the necessity to industrialise quickly (1).


What became clear too in gradual stages was that the war against the old intelligentsia was about to begin in earnest. In March 1928 a so-called 'counter-revolutionary' plot was alleged to have occurred in the Shakhti mines in the Donbass. Technical experts were arrested on charges of collaboration with foreign powers, unwillingness to cooperate with untrained Party administrators, and 'bourgeois wrecking' of the economy. In literature and the arts the mood was similar: progressively, 'experts' and 'specialists' in this or that stylistic tendency or aesthetic system were cast in the unenviable light of an undesirable social group. Proletarian team-work and 'equalisation' were becoming requisite both in industry, agriculture and the arts. Meanwhile Stalin had travelled through Siberia and the Urals, personally supervising the peremptory dismissal of local officials, the seizure of grain surpluses, and the thorough dressing-down of 'incompetent and cowardly' Party apparatuses which he accused of being in league with kulak or rich-peasant profiteers. New legions of semi-educated young communists were drafted into the Party. 'Modernity' both in politics and the arts was becoming replaced with a drive for wealth-creating productivity alone.


From the sparse surviving evidence we can surmise that Malevich's response to these extreme conditions was two-fold, at least. He had recently written a series of articles on art in Ukranian for the Kharkov monthly journal Nova generatsiia, and had met editorial resistance and even the refusal of certain texts. Now he continued to write and also to paint, back-dating his newest paintings to earlier in his career in order to avoid suspicion of continuing to follow a semi-abstract or 'formalist' style: the paintings are intensely-coloured, largely symmetrical compositions which show peasant figures as iconic types, suspended across the picture-plane in the manner of the designs he had done for his and Kruchyonykh's opera Victory Over the Sun back in 1913, or for the first performance of Mayakovski's Mystery-Buffe, produced by Meyerhold in 1918. It could well have been Malevich's hope that such paintings would be seen as evoking sympathy with the peasantry and with the spirit of folk art. At the end of 1929 however, when the 'new' works and others were exhibited together at a retrospective at the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, they were met with scathing criticism from the Tretyakov's own director, Aleksei Fedorov-Davydov, and when the show travelled on to the Kiev Art Gallery its director Fedor Kumpan was arrested and given a prison sentence (it took Malevich two and a half years to retrieve the impounded works). By now the First Five Year Plan, approved at the Sixteenth Party Congress in April 1929, was demanding a fifty-five percent increase in agricultural production - of which half was to come from collective farms - and, following Stalin's speech to a Conference of Marxist Agrarians at the time of his fiftieth birthday in December 1929, 'the elimination of kulaks as a class'. Proletarianisation of the industrial base combined with headlong collectivisation of every last chicken and farm bucket was promoted by an atmosphere of fear among petty officials who were summarily accused of 'right-wing deviation' if the impossible productions targets imposed upon them were not met on time.


Whether individual peasants were the heroes or the victims of this headlong change - what the economic historian Alec Nove has called 'one of the great dramas of history' (2) - is impossible to say. Kulaks who resisted deportation had their possessions confiscated and withheld from the other peasants lest they, the other peasants, should come to view themselves as having something to lose. Millions were coerced, displaced or dispossessed. The chaos of precipitate movement by road and rail was intense. Individual peasants took to killing their own livestock rather than surrender it to the collective farms: it is estimated that between 1928 and 1933 over forty-five percent of all cattle and horses and over sixty percent of all sheep were put to the slaughter. Famine, misery and disease were widespread. As Moshe Lewin has described it, 'workers, administrators, party apparatus men, and in great masses, peasants were all moving around and changing jobs, creating unwanted surpluses in some places and dearths in others, losing skills or failing to acquire them, creating streams and floods in which families were destroyed, children lost, and morality dissolved ... The mighty dictatorial government found itself, as a result of its impetuous activity during those early years of accelerated industrialisation, presiding over a "quicksand society"' (3). And yet Stalin was ready to castigate his hapless officials first for being 'dizzy with success' (March 1930), and then for being behind with their targets. As he said in a speech to industrial managers in February 1931: 'It is sometimes asked whether it is not possible to slacken the tempo, to slow down the movement. No comrades, it is not possible ... We are fifty or a hundred years behind the advanced countries [of Western Europe and the USA]. We must make good this distance within ten years. Either we do so, or we will be crushed!' (4)


The reverberations of this atmosphere in literature and the arts were no less cataclysmic. In the first place the many quasi-independent (and stylistically combative) art groups that had flowered since the Revolution of 1917, and particularly with the introduction of Lenin's New Economic Policy in 1921, several of which had forged strong relations with the Trades Unions or the armed forces, were now involved in a frenzy of mutual denunciation, internal purges, recrimination, and the attempt to align themselves carefully with what they took to be Party policy in the field of the arts. Up until the end of 1931 and the early part of 1932 it was sometimes difficult to see what Party policy was, however. What was 'realism'? How could writing and the other arts combine the documentary element of revealing actual life with the exhortative element necessary to 'build socialism' - and at a time when official versions of 'reality' and the facts seemed to be diverging more and more? How could different technical and stylistic impulses on the part of different artists and groups be reconciled, if at all? These difficulties were compounded even further in the summer of 1931, when another sudden reversal seemed to occur, as Stalin announced an end to strict proletarianisation and the reintroduction of wage differentials, management hierarchies, and 'expertise'. The old technical (and by implication cultural) intelligentsia no longer had their previous capacity for sabotage and wrecking, he now said. 'Our attitude towards them must be expressed in the policy of enlisting their cooperation, and in solicitude for them' (5).


In a time of such rapid and uncoordinated proletarianisation it was no doubt very difficult to win Party support for artistic ventures that did not to some degree involve team-work, reference to collectivization, the factory floor - this must be part of the reason why up to mid-1931 many art groups spent more time proselytising for this or that ideological position than producing art; but why by the same token they provided an immediate ideological barometer of the effectiveness of the Party's latest swing. With the theoretical reinstatement of experts and the old intelligentsia half way through 1931 however the position became only superficially more comfortable: for experts implied hierarchies, and hierarchies implied a different but no less effective kind of control. Where the language of artistic and cultural appraisal had for a time been strikingly militaristic - the talk had consistently been of 'offensives', 'battlegrounds', 'mobilisation', 'shock-troops', 'victory' and 'defeat' - the talk towards the later part of 1931 and the early part of 1932 was of unification of the arts around a single method or set of political priorities. In painting, older figures such as Ilya Repin (who lived until 1930) and the Peredvizhniki were resuscitated to form a kind of national tradition. Previously antagonistic art and literature organisations were 'reconstructed' (ie. dissolved) by a Party Decision of the Central Committee of April 1932 and an organisation established which would 'integrate all writers who support the platform of the Soviet government and who aspire to participate in socialist construction in a single Union of Soviet writers with a communist faction therein'. There would take place 'execution of analagous changes with regard to the other arts' (6).


Like all artists and writers, Malevich was inevitably caught up in the dilemmas caused by these tumultuous changes. During the proletarianisation period of the early part of the Five Year Plan suspicions could be levelled against anyone thought to be in liaison with kulaks, priests, former NEP-men, or the old intelligentsia. Malevich's own Tretyakov Gallery exhibition at the end of 1929 had come under fire from several figures, including the constructivist theorist Aleksei Gan, now a prominent member of the left-wing Oktyabr group (itself shortly to disappear in the reconstruction). Malevich had then been interned between September and December 1930 in order to be questioned closely about his foreign contacts in Germany and about the ideology of various artistic trends. Increasingly in the early 1930s, the major accusation levelled against him was one of 'bourgeois' art or more seriously 'formalism' - the tendency to accord significance to line, colour, design and technique over readily ostensible 'content'. With the reconstruction of all the independent groups in the spring of 1932 Malevich was offered a small space to work in the basement of the State Russian Museum, but increasingly his paintings were redescribed or recategorised in exhibitions bent on demonstrating the progress of a single tradition which defined the requirements of the newly evolving policy. The major example is the large exhibition 'Artists of the Russian Federation over Fifteen Years', opened in Leningrad in November 1932 as a more or less dispassionate survey of tendencies in Russian art, and in which both Malevich and Pavel Filonov had a room each. For its Moscow showing however Malevich's contribution was excluded, while Filonov's was severely pruned. The left-inclined theoretician Nikolai Punin, who had played a part in the organisation of the Leningrad show, was removed from the Moscow organising committee and had his article on Western influences on Russian modernism removed from the catalogue. With the inclusion of several extra 'realists', the exhibition had in effect been turned into a show-case of the newly evolving political position on the visual arts. There is little doubt that discussions behind the scenes, involving Evgeni Katsman, Isaak Brodski, Aleksandr Gerasimov, almost certainly Kliment Voroshilov and perhaps also Maxim Gorki - all approved of or politically extremely close to Stalin at that time - were instrumental in rescheduling the show 7. And yet here as elsewhere in the rapidly changing policy climate in Soviet art and letters, Stalin himself had unformed or at best primitive views on art, and it is likely to have been a pact of like-minded figures prominent in the art world that forced the change, encouraged no doubt by the Party leadership, rather than any unambiguous directive 'from above'.


The rest, so to speak, is history. Though visual artists were not in general subject to the same level of interrogation and surveillance as poets and writers - Osip Mandelstam was later that year to compose the poem attacking Stalin as a 'murderer and peasant-slayer' that would cost him his life - painters and sculptors who did not find a niche somewhere in the catalogue of state-approved projects (such as Rodchenko and Klutsis did for a time) found themselves unable to publish or exhibit their works. The evidence we have is that Malevich revised his own aesthetic position only a litle: far too little to win official approval for his works. In 1933 he planned a book on Russian Futurism with the writer Nikolai Karzhiyev, to whom he entrusted fragments of a projected autobiography. Neither the Futurism book nor the autobiography was ever finished. Malelvich fell ill with cancer: Nadezhda Mandelstam wrote that 'nobody will ever believe that cancer is not connected with the shocks to which we are constantly exposed.'


So far as Malevich's last paintings are concerned, there was little that he could or wanted to do to revise his long-held interests in form, colour and space as the major themes of an art of transcendence with a basis in Russian thought and tradition. Certain of his last paintings revert to the style of impressionism-naturalism that he had employed in the first decades of the century. Most of the remainder are highly coloured single or double figures, many of them portraits - seemingly a rare concession to his practice of depicting the individual as abstracted, generalised, identity-less. Some portraits show what appears to be a masonic gesture with the right hand. All refer to the tradition of the Russian icon in which painted forms do not represent so much as re-actualise their subjects. A few of these works were exhibited under titles devised in conformity to the prevailing political mood; none of them was considered to even approximate to the formulae ushered in at the First All-Union Congress of Soviet Writers in August 1934 in which Gorki, Karl Radek, Bukharin, Zhdanov and others lambasted mysticism, formalism and 'bourgeois pessimism' as incompatible with the tasks of building socialism.


In a moving testimony written some forty years later, Malevich's former pupil Anna Leporskaya described his trajectory from the early peasant figures to later versions of the same theme. In between came the black square, from which the figure was for the first time absent. 'Malevich did not know, did not understand, what the black square exactly consituted', Leporskaya says. 'I saw myself in space', Malevich was to write to Matiushin shortly afterwards: 'hidden in clouds and dots of colour; there amongst them I sank into the abyss. That summer [of 1917] I declared myself the Chairman of Space' (8): a statement typical of Malevich's ineloquent style, in which he seems once more to declare the autonomy of painting and design from the instrumentality of the political sphere. After Suprematism and with its assistance, Leporskaya continues, Malevich's urge towards colour 'found expression in a new, enriched interpretation ... these new works [of the 1930s] should not be regarded as an unexpected or new course of development, but as the evolution of the colour principle germane to Malevich's early works ... This constitutes the spiritual content of Kazimir Severinovich, powerful and deep, rich in its unity' (9)


Despite the political apparatus ranged against him at the end of his life, Malevich was supported in his last months and years by loyal colleagues and friends. He died on 15 May 1935. A civil memorial service held in the Leningrad House of Artists was followed by a procession along the Nevsky Prospect, accompanied by a small crowd, to the Moscow Station, whence the coffin was taken by train to Moscow and buried near the family dacha at Nemchinovka. The Leningrad City Council passed a resolution to pay for the funeral and to petition the People's Commissariat for Education to pay Malevich's family a pension, 'in view of the services of the later aritist K.S.Malevich to Soviet figurative art' (10). It is a resolution marked by the secret language of bureaucracy; the only way that Leningrad could acknowledge the life and work of a significant artist in the frenetic aftermath of the assassination of Sergei Kirov, and the use of that assassination (on Stalin's orders) to purge the entire Leningrad Party of possible conspirators. The full estrangement of politics and modern art had begun.


Brandon Taylor




1. For further detail on the politics of the Five Year Plan, see my own Art and Literature Under the Bolsheviks, Vol II, Authority and Revolution, London: Pluto 1992, pp 70-94.

2. A.Nove, An Economic History of the USSR, London: Allen Lane, the Penguin Press, 1969, p 160.

3. M.Lewin, 'Society, State and Ideology during the First Five-Year Plan', in S.Fitzpatrick (ed), Cultural Revolution in Russia 1928-31, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, Indiana 1978, p 56.

4. J.Stalin, 'The Tasks of Business Executives', speech delivered at the First All-Union conference of Managers of Socialist Industry, 4 February 1931; Problems of Leninism, Moscow 1947, pp 445-6..

5. J.Stalin 'New Conditions - New Tasks in Economic Construction', speech delivered at a Conference of Business Executives, 23 June 1931; Problems of Leninism, pp 467-8.

6. 'O perestroike literaturno-khudozhestvennykh organizitsii', 1932; in I.Matsa, Sovetskoe iskusstvo za 15 let. materialy i dokumentatsiya, Moscow-Leningrad 1933, pp 288-90; cited in Taylor, Art and Literature Under the Bolsheviks, pp 181-2

7. M.Cullerne Bown, Socialist Realist Painting, Yale University Press, New Haven and London 1998, pp 185,189.

8. From E.F.Kovtun, 'K.S.Malevich: Pisma k M.V.Matiushin' in Ezhegodnik Rukopisnogo otdela Pushkinskogo doma na 1974 god, Leningrad, 1976, p 182.

9. A.Leporskaya, 'The Beginnings and the End of Figurative Painting - and Suprematism', in Kasimir Malewitsch zum 100. Geburtstag, Cologne: Galerie Gmurzynska, 1978, p 69.

10. K.Simonov, 'In View of Services to Figurative Art', Nauka i zhizn, no 12, 1975; reprinted in translation in L.Zhadova, Malevich, London: Thames and Hudson, 1982, pp 343-4.




Professor Brandon Taylor is Research Fellow in Contemporary Art at Southampton Solent University . His publications include Art and Literature Under the Bolsheviks, 2 volumes, London: Pluto 1991 and 1992, and The Art of Today, London: Weidenfeld 1995.


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