Ukraine's Stolen Heritage: the Black Square

Kazymyr Malevych's revolutionary art was formed in Ukraine: to understand him as an artist, we have to understand him as a Ukrainian artist

Malevych's Black Square Black Square by Kazymyr Malevych (1915).

Recently, I had a dream.

I was standing in front of the Black Square, back in the Tate Modern where I saw it years ago. The crowd around the painting began to thin. I drew closer until all I could see was the white border and the darkness of the shape.

I reached forward and touched the canvas. At first, all I felt was the paint and the rough fabric. But then, working my hands in, I suddenly felt soil. Rich, black soil. Granules of it scattered in my fingers. Among it, were forms of seeds and warm patches of lingering sun. Everything around me grew quiet. I understood I was surrounded by black night, with only glimpses of stars above my head.

I stayed there in the darkness until dawn began to break, heralded in by the white fringes of the painting. Stepping away, I realised that I had experienced something no viewer who ignores Kazymyr Malevych's Ukrainian identity could have done.

I had seen a vision of freedom.

Malevych, a Ukrainian artist

One of the most cited examples of culture stolen from Ukraine by russia is, in fact, a whole person: Kazymyr Malevych (1879 – 1935).

Widely agreed to be one of the most influential artists to have ever lived, his Black Square changed the course of art internationally, pushing it in a more abstract direction.

But for an artist so closely studied, a certain, glaringly obvious lie is rife. From art encyclopaedias to Christie's auctions, Kazymyr Malevych is listed as a russian artist. Even his name is transliterated from the russian version into “Kazimir Malevich.”

Suprematist works, including the Black Square, by Kazymyr Malevych (1915) Suprematist works, including the Black Square, by Kazymyr Malevych (1915)

And yet – the artist was born into a Polish-Ukrainian family. Raised in Ukraine, he spoke solely Ukrainian and Polish well into his teenage years. In diary entries, letters, official documents, and even during a KGB interrogation, he described himself as a Ukrainian.

To label Malevych as russian is factually wrong, plain and simple. But it is a lot more than his nationality that the world misses out when they overlook Ukraine and the distinct cultural context in which Malevych was raised.

They miss out on what the artist was trying to communicate.

Ukrainian folk art and Malevych

Born in 1879 to a Polish father and a Ukrainian mother in Kyiv, Ukraine, Malevych didn't live in the capital (then under the direct imperial rule and quickly being russified) for long. Instead, growing up, Malevych and his family moved all over Ukraine, living in small villages across the country, due to his father's work.

It was here in the countryside that Malevych was exposed to Ukrainian folk culture, the influence that would become so vital later on. The artist wrote about this in his autobiography, referring here to his time between the ages of 12 and 15 in a village outside Kharkiv,

The village was engaged in art. They made things that I really liked. Here is the secret of my sympathy for the peasants. I watched their work with great excitement and helped them plaster the floor of the house with clay and make patterns on the stoves. Beautifully depicted birds, horses and flowers. All paints were made on site with various clays and blue. I tried to reproduce this art on the stove at home, but failed. They said that I spoiled a lot of things – fences, sheds and walls and so on.

As Malevych's writing shows, colour and design were central to Ukrainian traditional life. Here, Malevych is describing the frescoes of Ukrainian folk art. They were widespread among the population to the extent that even the poorest of peasant homes would have their whitewashed walls and pich (Ukrainian for stove) covered in patterns.

A decorated pich A decorated pich

There are other folk art creations that he refers to slightly later in the autobiography,

I remember their weddings, during which a bride and her bridesmaids looked like some kind of highly coloured and patterned folk….A groom was usually wearing wide blue trousers which would take no less than 12 meters of cloth to make.

Here, Malevych is writing about the Ukrainian national dress, the vyshyvanka, an embroidered shirt covered in patterns and images. It would have been handmade by the women of the village, and in this case most probably by the bride herself, in preparation for the ceremony.

Groom in blue trousers and vyshyvanka A man in blue trousers and a vyshyvanka, from Ivan Honchar's ethnographic-historical album (created c. 1960 – 1990). Photos taken on Kyiv's Left Bank region. Creative Commons Licence and credit to Honchar Museum.

From pysanky (Easter eggs decorated with wax and dye) to rushnyky (embroidered lengths of material that would be hung in homes and used in ritual ceremonies), there are many such canvases that Ukrainians traditionally repurposed for their art. Living in the midst of ordinary village life, Malevych would have been aware of all of them, and even practising them as he mentions explicitly in his autobiography.

But something much more complicated lies in these pretty patterns that adorn Ukrainian folk culture. And it is this that holds the key to a deeper understanding of Malevych's abstract art.

A language of symbols

Ukrainian folk culture has an ancient visual language in which shapes and colours signify various concepts. When combined, like pictorial hieroglyphs on papyrus, they create messages, conveying the maker's interior world and their prayers for themselves, their family, or their community.

This is evidenced in the etymology of the names of the folk art creations. Pysanka, the decorated Easter egg, comes from pysaty – to write, whilst vyshyvanka, the embroidered national shirt, comes from vyshnyi – heavenly or cosmological, pointing to the spiritual nature of the messages.

Pysanka from Honchar Museum A pysanka in the Honchar Museum collection. Created c. 1950 – 1980. Pokuttya, far western Ukraine. Creative Commons Licence and credit to Honchar Museum.

Women and girls would traditionally have been the ones embroidering and designing. When they sat down, they would create a completely unique meaning from their arrangement of the patterns, colours, and shapes which they picked from the visual folk language at their disposal. Indeed, to copy someone else's design was seen as an attempt to steal their fate, something that could only lead to bad luck.

For example, if a girl wanted to confess romantic feelings to someone, she could write a pysanka, which might include an octagonal star (the symbol for love) and an “S” shape (the symbol for the joining together of opposites). A wedding rushnyk might be embroidered with symbols such as the Tree of Life for continuity, pairs of larks for joy, and squares to represent the fertile earth. Red thread might be used to signify happiness, whilst white might be used for life and infinity.

Detail from a rushnyk, Honchar Museum Detail from a rushnyk in the Honchar Museum collection. Created at the end of 19th century. Kyiv region. Creative Commons Licence and credit to Honchar Museum.

Sadder occasions in life would be marked with these symbols, too. On funeral rushnyky, there might be cuckoos for sorrow (associated with a woman in mourning) or butterflies which signify the departure of a soul. Circles converging inwards would be a symbol of emptiness.

There are hundreds of such shapes and choices of colour that vary from region to region in Ukraine, and were used for every moment in life, from birth to death. They gave, and give to this day, Ukrainians a language with which to turn their surface level designs into amulets connected with the spiritual world, protecting their owners from harm with their messages and carving out a fate for them in the world.

Malevych's own language of symbols

Suprematism, Malevych's revolutionary visual language that so rocked the world, is made up of abstract geometric shapes and colours set against a white background of infinity. For Ukrainians, its origins are clear.

But there is more explicit evidence that points to Malevych's direct engagement with this ancient visual language beyond his autobiography and the recurrence of Ukrainian folk art motifs in his art.

Suprematist Composition, Kazymyr Malevych, 1916. Suprematist Composition by Kazymyr Malevych (1916).

It is cited almost everywhere that Malevych's revolutionary artistic language, Suprematism, was first publicly shown at Exhibition 0.10 in December 1915, alongside other now world famous avant-garde artists.

But in fact, it was a month earlier, at a Moscow exhibition called Contemporary Decorative Art. There, Ukrainian folk embroiderers from the Kyiv region were showing their creations.

And, among the rushnyky, vyshyvanky and other embroideries, were Malevych's Suprematist paintings.

Malevych, rooted in Ukraine

Malevych was an artist deeply influenced by his Ukrainian life. His first artistic education came in 1895 from Mykola Pymonenko, a professor at the Kyiv Drawing School and a Ukrainian artist renowned for his realistic portrayals of his nation's customs and traditions.

Harvest in Ukraine, Mykola Pymonenko, 1896 Harvest in Ukraine by Mykola Pymonenko (1896).

Malevich recounted his first meeting with Pymonenko, writing that his depictions of Ukrainian life made a “deep impression” on him. Indeed, the flat Ukrainian landscape and the focus on Ukrainian peasant activities formed the focus of one of Malevych's first series of paintings, known as the First Peasant Cycle.

Later, after his move to russia at the turn of the century, Malevych continued to return to Ukraine, working alongside artisans in a village co-operative outside Kyiv, where the craftspeople applied his designs to their own embroideries and paintings.

Taking in the Harvest by Kazymyr Malevych, 1911 Taking in the Harvest by Kazymyr Malevych (1911)

In the last years of his life, Kyiv became his refuge from the Soviet regime's attempts to suppress abstract art and turn all visual culture towards social realism. Appointed as a professor at the Kyiv Art Institute, he published some of his most important essays in Ukrainian language art journals like Nova Generatsiia and Avangard-Almanakh. Before his death which quickly followed the KGB interrogation, Malevych had made plans to move permanently back to Kyiv.

And when the Soviet russian regime began to perpetrate genocide against Ukrainians in 1932, starving millions to death over a single winter, emptying and silencing the ever fertile, ever producing Ukrainian countryside, Malevych was the only artist to directly respond to it.

One of Malevych's works from the hunger, known as the Holdomor, takes its title from the words of a contemporary widely known Ukrainian folk song:

“Where there is a hammer and sickle, there is death and hunger.”

Peasants, Malevych, 1932 Peasants by Malevych (c. 1932).

Malevych, misunderstood

An individual's identity is multifaceted. It is created through interactions with differences, and formed through the influence of various elements. This is something that anyone in our world today can attest to, and indeed it is what makes us interesting as humans.

But empire, and in Malevych's case, the russian empire, aims to create absolute uniformity. One language, one culture, one history: everything, no matter where it is from or what it may think, is sucked into the imperial centre. It becomes russian.

The empire, today in its contemporary form as the russian federation, continues to hold its iron grip on Malevych. Right down to the very spelling of his name, it blocks out new discussions on the meaning of his art, and his role in world history. Countless documents on the artist are locked away in russian archives, along with his paintings and works. With the help of Western critics and galleries, Malevych remains branded “a russian”, a cover that hides away the artist in its shadow.

Malevych's Black Square Black Square by Kazymyr Malevych.

But when I look at Malevych's Black Square, I don't see anything to do with russia.

I remember that a square in the Ukrainian folk art that Malevych so loved is the symbol of living matter. It is the earth and fertile fields with its black soil, the winds, rain and sun of the seasons as represented by its four corners. I remember that black is the colour of eternity and the darkness that comes before dawn awakens the earth.

I don't know if I will ever see Malevych's Black Square again. Perhaps it is destined, like so many other Ukrainian works, to be locked up in the russian empire forever.

What I do know, though, is that it is an embodiment of liberty, wherever it may be. And the world is poorer for ignoring its message.

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