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Black Square

Leonhard Lapin (2/2015)

The living legend of the Estonian avant-garde Leonhard Lapin writes about Kazimir Malevich’s iconic "Black Square", a work that has also played a significant role in Lapin’s own work.


20. III–9. VIII 2015
Prints Room at Kumu Art Museum
"Metamorphoses of the Black Square. Interpretations of Malevich's Work in Estonian Art"
Artists: Arnold Akberg, Janno Bergmann, Sirja-Liisa Eelma, Aleksei Gordin, Villem Jahu, Flo Kasearu, Kiwa, Leonhard Lapin, Tanja Muravskaja, Ats Nukki, Enn Põldroos, Hanno Soans, Ülo Sooster, Andres Tolts.
Curator: Elnara Taidre


Kazimir Malevich's (1878–1935) "Black Square", an iconic modernist work, was exhibited for the first time in 1915 in Petrograd at a show titled "The Last Futurist Exhibition of Paintings 0.10". The Futurist Malevich had become a Suprematist1 artist and had a considerable following of students (UNOVIS) and imitators. Following the tradition of Russian orthodox icons, the "Black Square", presented among 38 other suprematist paintings, was hung in the upper corner of the room.

What is the story behind the birth of the "Black Square"? Malevich described it as follows: in spring 1915 he was working together with his students in an orchard, creating a cubo-futurist painting when he suddenly decided to cover the canvas with white paint and paint a black square in the middle. After this revelation he was shocked to the core, unable to eat, sleep or work for three days.2 His students began to regard him as a prophet – which is characteristic of the Russian orthodox culture, but probably what the master also thought of himself. From that moment, most of his lectures and presentations were written down and when the turbulent times came, the papers were divided between his students, so there is an abundance of written material when it comes to Malevich's legacy. During the last two decades this has allowed Russian researchers, who are finally able to access previously classified material, to pinpoint when and where his works were created. This was also possible with the first painting of the "Black Square" (79.2 x 79.5 cm) under which using X-ray a cubo-futurist work was discovered, and so it has been established that it was painted in spring 1915, not in 1914 as some sources have claimed. The fact that Malevich painted more than 10 black squares, the last of them even in 1929, only added to the confusion. The Petrograd exhibition also displayed several black squares of various sizes.

However, Malevich's "Black Square" also appeared in his earlier, futurist work. In autumn 1913, an avant-garde opera titled "Victory over the Sun" by the futurist Russian composer Mikhail Matyushin (1861–1934) and the poet Aleksei Kruchonykh (1886–1968) was brought to the stage in Petrograd. The cubo-futurist set design and costumes were created by Malevich. As one of the elements of the curtain he used the black square, but also other suprematist images.3 The year 1913 is usually considered the grand finale of Russian high culture, followed by a period of turmoil, wars and decades of communist terror – in hindsight, Malevich called 1913 "a year of suprematism". We can encounter the black square already in Malevitch's cubo-futurist paintings – it is central to his 1914 work "Composition with the Mona Lisa" (there is a work from the same period with a light blue square and another with a pink rectangle). So already in 1914 Malevich's futurism included traits of suprematism.

The spiritual basis of Malevich's work has not been widely discussed.4 Once I was able to acquire the collected works of the underground philosopher Nikolay Fyodorov (1829–1903) from my friends in St Petersburg and after reading it I clearly saw his influence on Malevich.5 Fyodorov's work, influenced by Confucius, was banned from publication in the capital by the Russian Orthodox Church. Despite being shunned, he did meet with the Russian elite of the day in his library (Lev Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Aleksandr Blok and many others), only becoming popular after his death when the ban was lifted.

It is not insignificant that Konstantin Tsiolkovsky (1857–1935), the father of Russian astronautic theory had been his student and he started realizing Fyodorov's work of the spiritualisation of space. The idea of leaving the Earth was also one of the main themes of Malevich's work, he called his suprematist compositions suspended in space (with no distinction between up, down, left or right) "the sputniks of the Earth". When the Soviet Union launched their first satellite to orbit the Earth, it was called "sputnik" as well – it does not seem so unlikely that the name was chosen by a rascal constructor and fan of Tsiolkovsky's and Malevich's work.

Fyodorov created a system of higher ethics, in which man as the brain of nature has to make the world better, and called it supramoralism (compare with suprematism). By regulating cosmic procedures, claims Fyodorov, man defeats death (compare with victory over the Sun). Malevich also repeatedly said that his paintings do not belong to the Earth. Furthermore, his arkhitektons are embodiments of Fyodorov's idea of the temple: temples like the Egyptian pyramids, where the spirituality of our ancestors has been preserved, are the embodiments of a new world project. When we take a closer look at the philosophical nuances of the works of the two great men, we realize how much their ideas coincided.

In addition to Fyodorov, Malevich was influenced by Buddhism. The movement's significance increased during the turn of the century due to the fact that there was a large number of Buryats studying and working in St Petersburg, where they also built a magnificent temple. Until the Bolshevist revolution, which quickly destroyed all spiritual movements, Far East spirituality is evident in the works and ideas of many of the prominent artists of St Petersburg. Malevich, too, puts emphasis on the non-object world, criticises production based on factories and a society where people need to wear masks, sacrificing their freedom to consumption. Is this not relevant even today?

The "Black Square", interpreted by many critics as the death of art, was considered the basis of all opportunities by the artist himself, just like the Taoists and the Buddhists see emptiness as the source of everything. Compared to art of the past, the "Black Square" was emptiness and while meditating on this, we can travel to all kinds of other worlds – its is like a black hole which devours all matter and energy, but also gives birth to them again. This is how the "Black Square" functions as an icon – we can mentally descend into it to obtain a sense of the depth of life.

The first time Malevich's "Black Square" was printed in an Estonian cultural publication, was in 1979, in the magazine Kunst (55/1).6 I designed the covers so that the front cover displayed a black square and the back cover displayed a red square. The fact that an article about Malevich was published at all, and the radical design of the magazine, gravely angered the officials, in fact an article about Malevich's friend and mentor Mikhail Matyshin was removed from the issue by the censors. Matyushin, also influenced by Fyodorov, was a composer and writer but also worked with conceptual art and colour theory. I was fired from my position as the designer of the magazine, the editor Sirje Helme only barely managed to keep hers. The communist art historian Kaalu Kirme wrote about our wrongdoings in the Estonian Communist Party's publication Eesti Kommunist and Karl Vaino, the First Secretary of the party also mentioned the "backwards" magazine Kunst in his annual speech. Indeed, we became famous – and all thanks to Malevich!

In spring 2015, Kumu Art Museum opened a small academic exhibition to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Malevich's "Black Square". This is nice; however, the young curator only has a shallow knowledge of the topic and she has not been able to convey a clear concept. The exhibition, which fails to include significant documents related to the influence of the "Black Square" in Estonia, juxtaposes great works with an in-depth understanding of Malevich and works that are completely unrelated to the topic, technically incompetent, even ridiculing suprematism. On top of everything else, there is the feeble dollar sign on a black rectangle (a reference to an incident in 1997 when a young Russian con man Aleksandr Brener painted a dollar sign on one of Malevich's works at the Stedelijk museum in Amsterdam, as an act of performance art) and a poorly painted beggar looking into the black opening of a rubbish bin. Then there is someone shooting a black rectangle with a gun, as if he was capable of destroying an art world more powerful than the master – or maybe the gunman is just expressing his anger over his own incompetence.

One can make fun of all authority figures and call it postmodernism in our everything-allowed world, but not in a state museum, filled with serious art. Kumu has a certain reputation and it is not a place for childish experiments. Remember – unlike the scandalous Brener, Malevich took art and teaching very seriously. More important than painting was the idea, a desire to shatter social and mental illusions of the time, to create a new man – who is now unable to reach the master's expectations. Whether the time be as capitalist as it is and culture as entertaining as it is – we must not forget that the dimension that connects the temporal man with eternity is depth. This can be reached by keeping a clear mind and striving to exist as something more than just a consuming mammal. Malevich did not play around with squares, rectangles, circles and crosses – he tried to elevate man and reach a cosmos, not of satellites, but of spirituality.

There are still a few places that understand Malevich's work, as is evident in the exhibition at the Russian Museum in St Petersburg, which starts off with classics of icon painting, manifesting pure spirituality, such as Andrei Rublyov, and finishes with Malevich's Modernist icon – the end and the beginning come together, just like life.


Leonhard Lapin is a living legend of Estonian art, one of the most significant artists of the post-war period.



1 Malevich derived the term "suprematism" from his favourite language, Polish, and it was meant to denote the highest level of painting. His parents were Polish and his first trip outside the Soviet Union in 1927 took him to Warsaw. Born Kiev, Malevich had close ties with Ukraine and he considered himself a Ukrainian artist. He has never called himself a Russian artist, although this is something Russians would want – they have even tried to get the Stedelijk museum to give his works over to Russian museums.

2 The source of all the facts presented here is the book "Казимир Малевич. Собрание сочинений в 5 томах" (Kazimir Malevich. Collected Works in Five Volumes. Moscow: Gileia, 1995–2004).

3 The source of Russian Futurism, unlike its Italian counterpart, is not a new culture of machines, but the essence of Slavic culture – the shamanist rhythm of Igor Stravinsky's music, the old Russian folk prayers in Aleksei Kruchenykh's poems, the old Russain icons of Kazimir Malevich. Even though their works are quite similar and almost seem to confirm the current ‘Technobia' concept (a concept by L.L. he published in 2006 – Ed.) that the technological world and its various stages of development are equal to the human world in nature.

4 Western art historians (since Russian researchers only gained access to Malevich's writings after the Perestroika, I think sometime around 1990) who introduced him to the world did not have access to the archives either, neither could they often speak Russian. I rememeber being showed Malevich's work in the basement of the Russian Museum in Leningrad, the kind I had only seen in Kostakis's private collection in Moscow; I was also shown a cabinet with the master's manuscripts and told that these cannot be accessed. To obtained a deeper understanding of Malevich, I had to do a lot of detective work – to find his student Pavel Kondrayev, private collectors who still have a few of Malevich's works and to bring important official papers and a bottle of the Estonian liquer Vana Tallinn, in order to get to see the Russian Museum's collections. Even so eveyone was extremely helpful, since they all had a great respect for the Ukrainian master. And I am still thankful to all of them.

5 In 1987, I published an article on Nikolai Fyodorov titled "A Fighter Against Death" in the Finnish art magazine Taide (5), in Estonian it was published in the book "Kaks kunsti" (Leonhard Lapin, Two Arts. Tallinn: Kunst, 1997).

6 The author of the article had dated the "Black Square" incorrectly, instead of 1913 it should have been 1915. However, the editor had no way of checking that at the time.




Must ruut

Leonhard Lapin
Black Square
1980, intaglio
Courtesy of the artist and Art Museum of Estonia



Quote corner:

"The current exhibition is a modest homage to Kazimir Malevich (1878–1935) on the 100th anniversary of his iconic 20th-century painting "Black Square". Without any pretensions of exhaustive treatment, it is an attempt to display an intriguing and multifaceted selection of various interpretations of "Black Square" in the works of Estonian artists. [---] "The zero of form", a visual tabula rasa, the "Black Square" is a supremely simple image, yet its meaning remains open: in the eyes of the artist, it simultaneously served as the primal element of the new art and as a symbol of the unlimited potential of avant-garde aesthetics. In the 1920s, Malevich started to view suprematism as a universal system, a model for redesigning the living environment, beginning with accomplished design of objects and interiors and ending with visions of a new architecture and cosmic apparatus. The motif of a black square often formed the core of Malevich's designs; he made several versions of the "Black Square" painting (in 1923, 1929 and around 1931, as far as is known), and also used the symbol to sign his correspondence and works of art. Malevich's pupils wore black squares on their sleeves and it could also be found on the artist's coffin above his head and on his gravestone. Therefore, "Black Square" became an essential part of Malevich's artistic mythology; in a wider sense, it symbolised the radical nature of the avant-garde, inescapable in the discussions of both modern and post-modern art. The first replicas of "Black Square" were made by Malevich's students during his lifetime; more recent interpretations in Russian and Western art are innumerable. The "Black Square" has become the cornerstone of contemporary art, which cannot be ignored by any aspiring artist: one either has to try to comprehend it or rebel against it as a fetish of the art world through deconstruction. Thanks to numerous homages and citations, the "Black Square" crossed the borders of the field of meaning given to it by its deceased author long ago: it has become an autonomous character, taking on an independent existence in the works of other artists. This process was cleverly captured in the title of the exhibition by the State Russian Museum – "The Adventures of the Black Square" (2007), which was also an indirect source of inspiration for the idea of our exhibition. [---] The first Estonian artist to systematically study and introduce Malevich's ideas was Leonhard Lapin, after World War II. His conceptualist art is largely based on suprematism and contains both hero-ifying and ironic interpretations of the "Black Square". In the series "Forms" (2004) by Andres Tolts, fellow member with Lapin of the SOUP '69 artist group, the black square is just one of the many motifs to surrealistically impinge on the bureaucratic world of Soviet blanks. [---]."


The press release of the Kumu Art Museum 18. III 2015 (

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