Black Square A woman studies Malevich's revolutionary Black Square (Steve Parsons/PA Wire)

Adventures of the Black Square, Abstract Art and Society 1915 – 2015 at the Whitechapel Art Gallery, London is reviewed by Paul Rohan

A hundred years ago, Malevich displayed ‘The Black Square’, which started a revolution in art.  At the current exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery you can see work displayed by Malevich and a further 99 artists from over the last 100 years, including Saloua Raouda Choucair, Fernand Léger, El Lissitzky, Piet Mondrian, Lyubov Popova, Jeffrey Steele, Sophie Taeuber-Arp, Keith Coventry, Hannah Starkey and Vladimir Tatlin.

Black Quadrilateral

‘The Black Square’ symbolised the end of art based on nature. And the start of non-objective art based on geometric shapes.  At the exhibition you don’t get to see the original ‘The Black Square.’  It is too fragile to travel and is housed permanently at one of the Tretyakov Galleries in Moscow. But don’t let that put you off visiting the exhibition.

Because as you walk into the exhibition, you face head-on ‘The Black Quadrilateral’. This painting can be viewed as Malevich’s  artistic reflection of the blackness overshadowing Russian society and Malevich himself.  Although it is undated, from much research we can gather it was painted around the same time as ‘The Black Square’. Likely as a study prior to the painting of ‘The Black Square’ itself.

In 1914, there was a mass wave of jingoism in Russia (and across Europe) to join and support the First World War. Initially Malevich got caught up in this mood and created patriotic posters for the Russian War effort, which depicts a range of Russian characters triumphing against his depiction of ‘weak’ Germans.  

In 1914, Russian forces suffered heavy defeats by smaller German forces. By 1915, large areas of Russian territory were overrun by the German forces. The illusion of a short victorious war quickly won against ‘feeble’ Germans no longer fitted reality.  

An X-ray of ‘The Black Quadrilateral’ has revealed that Malevich painted over a jingoistic painting supporting the Russian war effort, although this is hidden in the current exhibition. If you look very closely you can see traces of the former picture which Malevich obliterated by black paint. This points to his shift in his consciousness.  Away from a pro-war stance.  But not a conscious ‘stop the war’ stance either. Stopping the war was a minority and dangerous position in 1915.  Malevich, as part of the Avant Garde, who were pushing boundaries, would have been fully aware of censorship, persecution and power of the Czarist autocratic state. 

Instead Malevich responded to his situation as an artist with ‘The Black Square’ as his starting point.  In 1915, he wrote that: ‘The impending alarm of war is forcing me to work intensely, for the days are numbered.’ 

Black Square Exhibition

Malevich publicly unveiled his own hanging of ‘The Black Square’ and a further abstract 38 paintings at an exhibition in December 1915, in what is now called St Petersburg. The beginning point of non-objective art.

His display of the Black Square was provocative because he placed ‘The Black Square’ in the corner of the room, which is the traditional space for an Orthodox icon in Russian homes. Through art, Malevich was providing a break with the past and the present. The place of the church of the Russian state was replaced by ‘The Black Square’, with the other paintings radiating out from this new starting point. A new supreme and higher place for art over established earthly ideas and beliefs.

His artistic movement, which he now called Suprematism, attracted other great artists who used abstraction, colour and geometric forms as a starting point to go on their own artistic journeys. At the exhibition you can see Lyubov Popova, who joined the Suprematist group starting to use abstraction and geometrical shapes to explore space, movement and energy on the 2-D canvas in ‘Painterly Architectonics’ (1916). 

Painterly Architectonics

By October 1917, the movement to stop the war led to the Russian Revolution, headed by Lenin and the Bolsheviks. Malevich survived the First World War. Over a decade after the revolution provided a legacy of unparalleled creativity in culture. The Avant Garde artists were supported by the new government and sought ways of serving the new Soviet state, including Malevich who welcomed the opportunity to serve the people, becoming the main art theoretician and a teacher of students at the art school in Vitebsk.

Between 1918-21, the Soviet state was besieged by what was known as the White Armies, armed and trained by the British, American, French and other nations. In response, Leon Trotsky from the Central Committee of the Communist Party formed the Red Army to defend the revolution. El-Lissitzsky, a student of Malevich at Vitebsk, made use of poster design to support the Red Army against the White Armies, with a reproduction of his 1919 poster, ‘Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge’ shown at the exhibition.

Beat the whites with the red wedge

The victory of the Red Army in the Civil War led to the lifting of the blockade with the Soviet Union, leading to an exchange of artistic ideas and technology  This enabled El Lissitzky to improve innovation using German printing technology, with examples on display of his book design and magazine designs. Also you can see the interchange of ideas and influence on other radical art movements like the Bauhaus in Germany and DeStijl which are represented in the exhibition. 

In Russia, a new art movement arose and became known as Constructivism. It aimed to put art into production and to enrich everyday life for the new workers’ state in Russia. Away the museums and  ‘art for art sake’. For example, Popova would use her experiments in painting for textile and clothing design, as well as designing the stage set for the play ‘The Magnificent Cuckold’ in 1922.

An example of ‘art into everyday life’ is the stunning design for the Shukhov Radio Tower, built in Moscow in 1922, a project personally supported by Lenin. Geometrical shapes were put to practical use here as the radio mast provided the platform as a useful communication channel for the largely illiterate population. The structure itself became a subject of early examples of what we now call photographic art, with a number of versions on display at the exhibition, including photographs shot by the Constructivist artist-engineer and supporter of the Soviet state, Alexander Rodchenko.

Guard at the Shukhov Tower

However, artists creating art with geometric patterns and abstract art do not live outside the society they come from. So there art in some ways reflects the world and times in which they live. In the 1920s, in Russia, Constructivism strived to make a difference to everyday life, linked to the vision of building a new socialist world. By 1927, Stalin’s dictatorship had risen to power and was intent on forging a national industrialised state, which he termed ‘Building Socialism in One Country’. In reality, this meant no longer seeking to create a state based on worker’s control, but to bolster the control and rule of the ruling Communist Party bureaucracy, a new form of ruling class. 

Avant Garde art was increasingly being censored and marginalised. By 1934, the escapist doctrine of Socialist Realism meant that art had to be based on nature, optimistic and illustrate a rosy picture of ‘socialist’ progress.  Launched during a period when Russia was hit by starvation and famine. During the same period ‘The Black Square’ was taken away from public display and buried away in the cellars of the Tretyakov Museum for 40 years. 

But the legend of ‘The Black Square’ and geometric art continued to be a starting point for artists dealing with human and social inquiry. There are many examples of subversive social comment through art in the exhibition. For example, ‘Sceaux Estate Plan’ (1995) by Keith Coventry, influenced by Malevich and Mondrian. Here Coventry exposes the reality of how geometrically-designed architecture became the neglected social housing of the 1990s. Not fulfilling the promise of quality social housing for all in Britain after the Second World War.

Sceax Gardens Estate

Another artist on display is Jeffrey Steele who followed a rational and systems-based approach to painting process, supported by his own artistic intuition and vision.  He sums up the contradiction of a being both political and an artist in this society: ‘There are ideas that can’t come under a capitalist order….. you can’t expect to build a socialist architecture only for it to become a sub fraction of the capitalist class….alongside a lot of crumbling tower blocks.’

Even this can create a feeling of the ‘good old days’ with the continuing shift of national income and resources being diverted to the richest part of society in the UK. We now have fewer crumbling tower blocks in London. But when they are knocked down, less social housing for affordable rent is built to take its place, with more private housing encroaching on land where social housing once stood. Former social housing is now sold on as an investment opportunity to make money from rental income for Landlords. In the Whitechapel area, what is called an ‘entry level’ one-bedroom flat starts at £265,000 to buy or are available to rent starting at £260 per week. And these costs continue to rise.  


The exhibition is uneven in some places and shows how the idea of ‘The Black Square’ can be incorporated in the current system. But there are three main inspirations to take away from the exhibition. Firstly, the Black Square and Suprematism enabled Malevich to personally cope as well as create a subversive artistic challenge in the darkest days of the First World War. Secondly, Avant Garde  artists were politically committed to the Soviet state and connected their inspiring artistic innovations into improving everyday life leading to an unparalleled flourishing of culture achieved, which was provided by the victory of the Russian Revolution.  And finally, the continuing adventures of artists using the Black Square as a starting point opens questions on the way society is organised. This artistic inquiry can only be fully answered by a radical and fundamental change in society.


On display until the 6th April 2015. £11.95 (£8.95 concessions)

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