Even avant-garde buffs are puzzled when they see Kazimir Malevich’s Black Square . What message did the artist want to convey? Nature is green, the sun is red, the moon is yellow, and outer space is violet. But why a black square — does it signify pitch darkness, the black holes of the universe? Or is the black color the source of eternal light?
Kazimir Severynovych Malevich, the prominent avant-garde artist and founder of the aesthetic theory known as Suprematism, was born in Kyiv. His father was the manager of the Tereshchenko sugar refineries, so the family moved frequently. The future artist spent his childhood in Ukraine, and his earliest impressions of Kyiv’s natural environs and Ukrainian folk art were the sources of what became his brilliant palette.
Suprematism (from the Lat. supremus , or supreme) is marked by compositions featuring simple geometric shapes or forms in which color plays a paramount role. Malevich regarded his newly invented style as a road to completely free, “pure creativity,” and he made unprecedented discoveries on that road. His paintings were not mundane but festive and with a titanic scope.
“I ripped through the blue shade of the constraints of color... I have broken the blue boundary of color limits, come out into the white; beside me comrade-pilots swim in this infinity. I have established the semaphore of Suprematism. I have beaten the lining of the colored sky, torn it away and in the sack that formed itself, I have put color and knotted it. Swim! The free white sea, infinity, lies before you.”
Kyivites who attended the ceremony of unveiling a commemorative sign to Malevich found themselves participating in a gala show featuring drama, music, art, cinematography, and fire. For nearly a whole day the green boulevard of Volodymyrsko-Lybidska Street was the scene of the Suprematist happening “In Malevich’s Square.”
The music of a brass band could be heard from a distance, and black and white square kites soared in the sky. The actors from the Plastic Drama Theater, wearing masks and costumes, greeted visitors and formed living sculptures among the living flowers blooming on the lawn. The young artists from Kyiv’s Children’s Academy of Arts were painting outdoors, creating their present for Kazimir Malevich. This painting event was open to the public, and people came and sat down to create fantastic, bright, and joyful paintings that echoed the reproductions of Malevich’s works, which were displayed on the boulevard. Nearby there is a construction project underway near the boulevard, and the unfinished concrete structures added a hint of constructivism come alive.
Malevich was honored with a black square lying on the ground, which seemed to have sprung from the Kyiv soil. Towering on the square is an empty cube made of light frames. It is open to all directions of the world and the city, the sun, and the cosmos.
The black square was designed by the architect Dmytro Antoniuk, who unveiled the plans for the future Kazimir Malevich Memorial and Exhibition Complex. Its design was displayed on huge posters among the reproductions. The designer recounted the strange incidents that occurred during the work on the complex.
“We are marking Malevich’s 130th anniversary, and from one intersection to the next this boulevard is precisely 130 meters long. When we were working on the memorial part, we changed the size several times until we agreed on the final version. Guess what? It holds exactly 130 cubic meters of Kyiv air, which Malevich breathed and enjoyed while he lived here. One can regard this as mysticism or simply a coincidence. I think it’s symbolic and perhaps a guarantee that all our plans will come true.
“The new cultural space will be more than a commemorative sign. It can be used as a stage, for displaying installations, and staging art exhibits. May it be a living monument, not something that is petrified in time! We would like to hope that we will tidy up the entire boulevard and that an art gallery will appear, raised high above the ground. People will walk on the sidewalk and see works of art hanging above. On one side the gallery will be all glass, with the inscription ‘Malevich’, so you can see the whole exposition from the street. The whole design is based on Malevich’s motifs and rhythms that resemble his original Suprematist works.”
The black square was installed after a joint decision passed by the Kyiv municipal administration in collaboration with the administration of Holosiiv raion, as part of a program to perpetuate the memory of outstanding Kyivites.
Performing dance pantomime, actors of the Plastic Drama Theater conveyed the ups and downs of human feelings in a world ruled by love. The Independent Chamber Music Formation, conducted by Serhii Holubnychy, performed movements from the concert suite The Unknown Brecht in the Arthouse style (music by Alfred Schnittke and Maryna Denysenko). The actors Larysa Parys and Yurii Yatsenko sang and recited poems by Malevich, Gippius, Slutsky, and Voznesensky. The songs were a penetrating combination of lyricism and tragic irony and reminded one of these lines: “Betray an angel, betray a devil, but don’t betray unconscious feeling.”
During the festival I spoke to the initiator, organizer, and emcee Oleksii Kuzhelnyk, the artistic director and manager of the Suziria Theater Workshop.
“What makes the black commemorative square interesting for me as a stage director is that you can hang curtains here and use it as a shadow theater or a puppet theater. I see all this as a stage, as large theater wings, although I don’t exclude the possibility that someone else will see something different because there is vast room for the imagination. Any object placed here turns out to be enlarged many times over by the attention of the spectators. Such creative ‘provocations’ must be on every corner in our city, like a kitten you want to pat, a monument where you can sit. Every festival that I have staged in the last 20 years has a finale of watching the sky over Kyiv. This kind of finale will take place tonight, too.
“There are very subtle things that make people truly creatively integrated. If a person can see a starry sky over the native city, s/he will have combined these two things. If people understand that there is a heavenly void as the beginning of all things, they can feel as though they are at the center of this beginning of all things in this void, primarily creative things. The process of historical memory is continuous. Countless artists have fallen prey to repressions against freedom of creativity. Restoring the name of Kazimir Malevich and returning him to Kyiv and Ukrainian culture is part of the important process of rehabilitating the outstanding personalities who were born here. This is what takes us back to the creative and philosophical core that sustained all of them and which is uniting all of us.”
When it was getting dark, the documentary Kazimir the Great was shown on a screen mounted on the square-stage (script by Dmytro Horbachov and Andrii Danylchenko; directed by Vitalii Syvak and Ihor Neduzhko). The screening was preceded by an introduction by the art historian Prof. Dmytro Horbachov, who is the author of the book Malevich and Ukraine .
“Malevich was born in 1879 in Kyiv, although he didn’t know the exact date and believed he was born in 1878. Recently it was learned that his mother had made a mistake when she was registering his date of birth, probably because she had so many children. And so we may well mark his 130th anniversary again next year. The omnipresent Malevich is still regarded as the most outstanding and important artist of the early 20th century. Even Picasso comes second in terms of his influence on contemporary art. At any art exhibit on any continent you will always find a painting that a contemporary artist has dedicated to Malevich. We are gratified to know that such a magnet — this memorial sign — has appeared in Kyiv. I believe guests from various countries will come here. True, we missed one opportunity. There was a small building in this district of Kyiv, where the artist was born. Unfortunately, it was torn down in 1982. It could have become an international tourist attraction.
“Gogol once described Ukraine as the semi-savage edge of Europe. Being half-savage can also mean semi-cultured. But right now, all of us are in precisely that segment that has everything to do with culture, not savagery!”
Meanwhile, the fantastic nature of the ongoing show was growing. The Sviatohor Fire Theater appeared on stage, its dancers wielding huge lit torches and creating pictures before the stunned audience to the accompaniment of fiery music. Fire born of the earth flew skyward and turned into a fireworks display. People were gazing at the boundless sky, and many of them probably experienced the feeling that they were present at a creative beginning that evening. That feeling will also be experienced by those who visit the black square to pay tribute to the great son of Kyiv, Kazimir Malevich. The main thing is to know how to use this magic gift.