BY TATYANA TOLSTAYA
In 1913, or 1914, or maybe 1915—the exact date is unknown—Kazimir Malevich, a Russian painter of Polish descent, took a medium-sized canvas (79.5 cm. x 79.5 cm.), painted it white around the edges, and daubed the middle with thick black paint. Any child could have performed this simple task, although perhaps children lack the patience to fill such a large section with the same color. This kind of work could have been performed by any draftsman—and Malevich worked as one in his youth—but most draftsmen are not interested in such simple forms. A painting like this could have been drawn by a mentally disturbed person, but it wasn’t, and had it been it’s doubtful that it would have had the chance to be exhibited at the right place and at the right time.
After completing this simple task, Malevich became the author of the most famous, most enigmatic, and most frightening painting known to man: “The Black Square.” With an easy flick of the wrist, he once and for all drew an uncrossable line that demarcated the chasm between old art and new art, between a man and his shadow, between a rose and a casket, between life and death, between God and the Devil. In his own words, he reduced everything to the “zero of form.” Zero, for some reason, turned out to be a square, and this simple discovery is one of the most frightening events in art in all of its history of existence.
Malevich, too, knew what he had done. A year or so before this significant event, he, along with some of his friends and likeminded peers, participated in the first All-Russian Congress of Futurists. It was held at a dacha, in a bucolic wooded area north of St. Petersburg. They decided to write an opera called “Victory Over the Sun,” and right there, at the dacha, immediately got to work on carrying out their plan. Malevich was in charge of scenic design. One of the set pieces was black and white, and it somehow resembled the future, still-unborn square—it was used as a backdrop for one of the scenes. What spilled out by itself from his wrist, impulsively and with inspiration, later in his St. Petersburg studio was recognized as a fundamental achievement of theory, the apex of accomplishment—a discovery of that critical, mysterious, coveted point after which, because of which, and beyond which nothing exists and nothing can exist.
Groping about in the dark with the brilliant intuition of an artist and the prophetic insight of a Creator, he found the forbidden figure of a forbidden color—so simple that thousands had walked past it, stepping over it, ignoring it, not noticing it.… To be fair, not many before him dared to plan a “Victory Over the Sun”; not many dared to challenge the Prince of Darkness. Malevich did—and, just as is supposed to happen in credible tales of yearning Faustuses and of bargaining with the Devil, the Master gladly, and without delay, whispered in the artist’s ear the simple formula of nothingness.
By the end of that same year of 1915—the First World War was already in full swing—the sinister canvas was displayed alongside others at a Futurists exhibition. All of his other works Malevich displayed on the walls in the traditional manner, but “The Black Square” was afforded a special place. As can be seen in one of the surviving photographs, the painting is displayed in the corner, under the ceiling—right where it is customary to hang Russian Orthodox icons. It’s doubtful it eluded Malevich—a man well versed in color—that this paramount, sacral spot is called the “red corner,” the word “red” here, in the original Russian, having the additional meaning of “beautiful.” Malevich quite consciously displayed a black hole in a sacred spot: he called this work of his “an icon of our times.” Instead of red, black (zero color); instead of a face, a hollow recess (zero lines); instead of an icon—that is, instead of a window into the heavens, into the light, into eternal life—gloom, a cellar, a trapdoor into the underworld, eternal darkness.
Alexandre Benois, a contemporary of Malevich and an excellent artist in his own right, as well as an art critic, wrote this about the painting: “This black square in a white frame—this is not a simple joke, not a simple dare, not a simple little episode which happened at the house at the Field of Mars. Rather, it’s an act of self-assertion of that entity called ‘the abomination of desolation,’ which boasts that through pride, through arrogance, through trampling of all that is loving and gentle it will lead all beings to death.”
Many years before that, in September of 1869, Leo Tolstoy went through a strange experience that had a powerful effect on the rest of his life, and which served, it appears, as a turning point in his entire outlook. He left his house in high spirits to make an important and profitable purchase: a new estate. They were riding in a horse-drawn carriage, happily chatting. Night fell. “I dozed off but then suddenly awoke: for some reason I felt afraid.… I suddenly felt that I don’t need any of this, that there is no need to ride this far, that I’ll die right here, away from home. And I felt frightened.” The travellers decided to spend the night in a little town called Arzamas:
We finally approached some lodge with a hitching post. The house was white, but it seemed horribly sad to me. And so I felt a great sense of dread.… There was a hallway; a sleepy man with a spot on his check—that spot seemed awful to me—showed me to my room. Gloomy was that room. I entered it and felt even more dread.…
A whitewashed square room. As I remember, it was particularly painful to me that this room was square. There was one window with a red curtain … I grabbed a pillow and lay down on the sofa. When I came to, the room was empty and it was dark.… I could feel that falling back asleep would be impossible. Why did I decide to stop here? Where am I taking myself? From what and where to am I running? I’m running from something frightful that I can’t run away from … I stepped out into the hallway, hoping to leave behind that which was tormenting me. But it came out after me and marred all. I was just as scared, more scared even.
—What nonsense, I said to myself. Why do I feel anguish, what am I scared of?
—Of me, came the soundless voice of death. I am here.…
I tried to lie down but as soon as I did, I jumped up in horror. The anguish, the anguish—the same dread as comes before nausea, but only spiritual. Frightening, terrifying. Seemingly it’s fear of death, but if you recollect, think about life, then it’s a fear of a dying life. Life and death were merging into one. Something was trying to tear my soul into pieces but was unable to do it. I went to look once again at those who were sleeping; I tried falling asleep myself; same kind of dread—red, white, square. Something being torn apart but not tearing. Painful, painfully dry and malicious, not a drop of kindness could I sense within myself. Only an even, calm anger with myself and with that, which has made me.
This famous and mysterious event in Tolstoy’s life—which was not simply a sudden, serious depressive episode but an unforeseen kind of meeting with death, with evil—was named “the Arzamas horror.” Red, white, square. Sounds like a description of one of Malevich’s paintings.
Leo Tolstoy, who personally experienced the red-white square, couldn’t foresee, nor control, what happened. It appeared before him and it attacked him, and under its influence—not right away, but steadily—he renounced the life that he led before; he renounced his family, love, the understanding of those close to him, the foundations of life around him; he renounced art. This “truth” that was revealed to him led him into nothingness, into the zero of form, into self-destruction. On a “spiritual quest,” toward the end of his life, he found only a handful of banalities—a version of early Christianity, nothing more. His followers, too, walked away from civilization, and likewise didn’t arrive anywhere. Drinking tea instead of vodka, abstaining from meat, rejecting family ties, making one’s own boots—poorly, crookedly—that, essentially, is the result of this personal spiritual quest that passed through the Square. “I’m here” came the soundless voice of death, and life went downhill from there. The struggle went on; “Anna Karenina” (mercilessly killed off by the author, punished for her desire to live) was still ahead of him. Still before him were several literary masterpieces, but the Square won. Tolstoy banished from within himself the life-giving power of art, moving on to primitive parables and cheap moralizing. He let his light go out before his physical death, in the end astonishing the world not with the artistic prowess of his later works but with the magnitude of his genuine anguish, his individual protest and public self-flagellation on a hitherto unprecedented scale.
Malevich also wasn’t expecting the Square, although he was searching for it. In the period before the invention of “Suprematism” (Malevich’s term), he preached “Alogism,” an attempt to escape the boundaries of common sense; preached “the struggle against Logism, naturalness, philistine sensibilities and prejudices.” His call to action was heard, and the Square appeared before him, absorbing him in itself. Malevich had every right to be proud of the celebrity afforded him by his deal with the Devil. And proud he was. I don’t know if he noticed the ambiguity that came with this celebrity status. “The painter’s most famous work” means that other works were less famous, less important, less enigmatic; in other words, they were less worthy. And it’s true—next to “The Black Square,” all his other works lose lustre. He has a series of canvases of geometric, brightly colored peasants with empty ovals for faces that look like transparent, unfertilized eggs. They are colorful, decorative paintings, but they come across as a tiny and insignificant stew of rainbow colors, before they, swirling for the last time, mix in a colorful funnel and disappear into the bottomless pit that is “The Black Square.” He has landscapes—pinkish, impressionistic, very run of the mill—the kind painted by many, and often better. Toward the end of his life, he tried to return to figurative art, and those attempts look predictably bad: these aren’t people but, rather, embalmed corpses and waxed dolls, tensely peering out from the frames of their clothing, as if they’ve been cut out of colorful bits of fabric, scraps and leftovers from the “Peasants” series. Of course, when one reaches the top, the only way is down. The terrible truth was that, at the top, there was nothingness.
Art critics write lovingly about Malevich: “‘The Black Square’ absorbed all painting styles that existed before it; it blocks the way for naturalistic imitation, it exists as an absolute form and it heralds art in which free forms—those that are interconnected and those that are not—make up the meaning of the painting.”
It’s true that the Square “blocks the way,” including blocking the way for the artist. “It exists as an absolute form”—that’s true as well, but that also means that all other forms are unnecessary by comparison, since they are, by definition, not absolute. “It heralds art”—this bit turned out to be false. It heralds the end of art, its impossibility, its lack of necessity; it represents the furnace in which art burns, the pit into which art falls, because the Square (to quote Benois again) is “an act of self-assertion of that entity called ‘the abomination of desolation,’ which boasts that through pride, through arrogance, through trampling of all that is loving and gentle, it will lead all beings to death.”
A “pre-Square” artist studies his craft his entire life, struggling with dead, inert, chaotic matter, trying to breathe life into it; as if fanning a fire, as if praying, he tries to ignite light within a stone; he stands on his tippy toes, craning his neck in an attempt to peek where the human eye cannot reach. Sometimes, his efforts and prayers, his caresses, are rewarded: for a brief moment, or maybe for a long while, “it” happens, “it” “appears.” God (an angel, a ghost, a muse, or sometimes a demon) steps back and acquiesces, letting go from his hands those very things, those volatile feelings, those wisps of celestial fire—what should we call them?—that they saved for themselves, for their wondrous abode that is hidden from us. Having solicited this divine gift, the artist experiences a moment of acute gratitude, unhumiliating humility, unshameful pride, a moment of distinct, pure, and purifying tears—both seen and unseen—a moment of catharsis. But “it” surges, and “it” retreats, like a wave. The artist becomes superstitious. He wants to repeat this moment, he knows that, next time, he may not be granted a divine audience, and so his spiritual eyesight opens up, he can sense with deep inner foreknowledge what exactly—avarice, selfishness, arrogance, conceit—may close the pearly gates in front of him. He tries to wield his inner foreknowledge in such a way as to not sin before his angelic guides; he fully understands that he’s a co-author at best, or an apprentice—but a crowned co-author, a beloved apprentice. The artist knows that the Spirit blows wherever it pleases. He knows that he, the artist, has done nothing in his earthly life to deserve being singled out by the Spirit, and so if that happens to pass then he should joyfully give thanks for this wonder.
A “post-Square” artist, an artist who has prayed to the Square, who has peeked inside the black hole without recoiling in horror, doesn’t believe the muses and the angels; he has his own black angels, with short metallic wings—pragmatic and smug beings who know the value of earthly glory and how to capture its most dense and multilayered sections. Craft is unnecessary, what you need is a brain; inspiration is unnecessary, what’s needed is calculation. People love innovation, you need to come up with something new; people love to fume, you need to give them something to fume about; people are indifferent, you need to shock them: shove something smelly in their face, something offensive, something repugnant. If you strike a person’s back with a stick, they’ll turn around; that’s when you spit in their face and then, obviously, charge them for it—otherwise, it’s not art. If this person starts yelling in indignation, you must call them an idiot and explain to them that art now consists solely of the message that art is dead—repeat after me: dead, dead, dead. God is dead, God was never born, God needs to be treaded upon, God hates you, God is a blind idiot, God is a wheeler-dealer, God is the Devil. Art is dead and so are you, ha ha, now pay up! Here is a piece of excrement for it; it’s real, it’s dark, it’s dense, it’s locally sourced, so hold it tight and don’t let it go. There is nothing “loving and gentle” out there and there never was, no light, no flight, no sunbeam through a cloud, no glimmer in the dark, no dreams, and no promises. Life is death; death is here; death is immediate.
“Somehow life and death have merged into one,” Leo Tolstoy wrote in horror, and from this moment on, and till the end, he fought back as best he could—it was a colossal battle of biblical proportions. “And Jacob was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day.” It’s terrifying to witness the battle of a genius with the Devil: first one seems to overcome, then the other.
“The Death of Ivan Ilyich” is such a battlefield, and it’s difficult to say who won. In this novella, Tolstoy says—tells us, repeats it, assures us, hammers it into our brains—that life is death. But, in the end, his dying hero is born into death as if into a new life; he’s freed, turned around. Enlightened, he leaves us for a place where, seemingly, he’ll be given consolation. “New art” derides the very idea of consolation, of enlightenment, of rising above—it derides it while deriving pride from that derision, as it dances and celebrates.
Conversations about God are so endlessly complicated that it’s scary to even engage in them, or, on the contrary, very simple: if you want God to exist—He does, if you don’t—He doesn’t. He is everybody, ourselves included, and for us He is, first and foremost, us. God does not impose himself on us. Rather, it’s His distorted, falsified image that’s imposed upon us by other people, while God simply and quietly exists within us, like still water in a water well. While searching for Him, we search for ourselves; while refuting Him, we refute ourselves; while mocking Him, we mock ourselves—the choice is ours. Dehumanization and “desacralization” are one and the same.
“Desacralization” was the slogan of the twentieth century; it’s the slogan of ignoramuses, of mediocrity and incompetence. It’s a free pass doled out by one dimwit to another bonehead while trying to convince the third nincompoop that everything should be meaningless and base (allegedly democratic, allegedly accessible), and that everyone has the right to judge everyone else; that authority can’t exist in principle, that a hierarchy of values is obscene (since everyone’s equal), and that art’s worth is determined solely by cost and demand. Novelties and fashionable scandals are surprisingly not that novel and not that scandalous: fans of the Square keep presenting various bodily fluids and objects created from them as evidence of art’s accomplishments. It’s as if Adam and Eve—one suffering from amnesia, the other from Alzheimer’s—were attempting to convince each other and their children that they are clay, only clay, and nothing but clay.
I’m considered an “expert” in contemporary art by an arts fund in Russia that’s subsidized by foreign money. They bring us art projects and we decide if said projects should get funding or not. There are actual experts working alongside me on this panel, true connoisseurs—old art, “pre-Square.” All of us can’t stand “The Black Square” and the “self-assertion of that entity called ‘the abomination of desolation.’ ” Yet they keep submitting projects that consist of “the abomination of desolation,” solely of the abomination, and nothing else. We are obligated to spend the money that has been allocated to the fund or else it will be closed. We try our best to fund those who come up with the least pointless and annoying ideas. One year, we funded an artist who placed empty picture frames along a riverbank, and another artist who wrote “ME” in big letters that cast a beautiful shadow, as well as a group of creators who organized a campaign to clean up dog feces in St. Petersburg’s parks. Another year, it was a woman who affixed stamps to rocks and mailed them to various cities in Russia, as well as a group that made a pool of blood in a submarine, which visitors had to step over while listening to the letters of Abelard and Heloise via headphones. After our meetings, us members of the panel step out for a silent smoke, where we try to avoid making eye contact with one another. We then silently shake hands and hurriedly walk home.
(Translated, from the Russian, by Anya Migdal.)