Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 19, 2003
Margarita Tupitsyn Malevich and Film New Haven: Yale University Press. 192 pp.; 20 color ills.; 80 b/w ills. Cloth $50.00 (0300094590)
Centro Cultural de Belém, Lisbon, May 17–August 18, 2002; Fundación La Caixa, Madrid, November 20, 2002–January 19, 2003

Margarita Tupitsyn’s book, Malevich and Film, and the accompanying exhibition set forth an ambitious, revisionist narrative. Malevich and Film tells anew the story of the Russian painter’s iconic work, Black Square, first conceived as a backdrop for the Futurist opera Victory over the Sun in 1913, and provocatively installed at the conjunction of two walls and the ceiling in the exhibition 0.10 in St. Petersburg in December 1915. Kasimir Malevich (1878–1935) placed great importance on this work—a quadrangle of black paint set on a ground of white, forming a composition eighty centimeters square—and he remade it in varying formats and materials several times thereafter. The critical attention bestowed upon this bold and fundamental statement, meanwhile, has far surpassed even the artist’s own estimation. Itself an image of stasis, Black Square nevertheless anchors a worldview, Suprematism, which Malevich coined to name a summa in dynamic movement. Tupitsyn gives our understanding of Suprematism a new angle by interpreting Black Square as a screen, onto which she projects an encounter between painting and cinema that continues, as Tupitsyn claims, in art production throughout the twentieth century and to the present day.

Tupitsyn writes to counter two principal arguments: first, a notion that Black Square, if it anticipates Constructivism at all, does so through its status as an object in real space; and second, that Malevich was a mystical thinker adamantly opposed to celebrations of the material world. Describing Black Square not as a self-contained form in space but as the rendering of a movie screen or a film frame, Tupitsyn minimizes its objecthood, while at the same time augmenting the link between “non-objective art” (as Malevich called Suprematism) and the everyday world. Rather than painterly architectonics, it is film that she feels ties Malevich to international Constructivism in the 1920s: the magazine Cine-Photo, established in 1922 by Aleksei Gan; Dziga Vertov’s movie chronicles; the films of Hans Richter; El Lissitzky’s photographic experiments and the project for a film adaptation of his 1922 book, Suprematist Story of Two Squares in 6 Constructions.

Advancing her case through some formal analysis and many references to cinema theory, both of the period (Vertov, Sergei Eisenstein) and more recent (Gilles Deleuze), Tupitsyn forges provocative associations between Suprematism and the post-1917 movements of Constructivism and Productivism. She draws attention to Malevich’s claim, made in a series of articles on film, that advanced cinematography derived its principles of montage, repetition, accelerated action, and cropping from the most advanced painting: Cubism, Futurism, and Suprematism. Tupitsyn seconds that claim and believes that certain Constructivists—principally Gan and Lissitzky—agreed with it as well. Malevich called upon abstract artists to turn to film, and in 1927 began work on his own script, influenced by Hans Richter, for an animated sequence in which geometric shapes (squares, circles, crosses, shaded rectangles) would move and coalesce into a Suprematist composition. The many “shifts” (sdvigi) that Malevich called for here, to effect a dynamic invasion of space by simple, planar forms, are (for Malevich and Tupitsyn both) comparable to the dynamic camera editing employed by Vertov. Surprisingly for an abstract painter, Malevich approved of the Vertov’s transformative depictions of everyday Soviet life and championed Vertov’s documentary realism against the figurative academicism in ascendance among Soviet painters during the late 1920s.

Tupitsyn’s historical projection is itself constructed with rapid-pace editing, accompanied in its layout by an abundance of full-page reproductions of film stills and many works that presumably were shown in the exhibition as well—although the correspondence between book and show is not explicitly indicated. Particularly intriguing is Tupitsyn’s account of Malevich’s return to figuration in 1928 and after, in paintings that are usually considered capitulations to political pressure (Malevich was summarily commanded home after a short stay in Germany in 1927, only to be met with outspoken hostility; he never left Russia again). Indeed, it was during the later 1920s that Malevich for the first time publicly expressed his interest in the cinema. He published four essays on the subject, the last of which, entitled here “Painterly Laws in the Problems of the Cinema” (1929), is included as an appendix to the book.

Tupitsyn argues that the late works, which show largely faceless Russian peasants, singly or in clonelike groups, were a “Suprematist Mirror” (the title of a 1923 manifesto) that Malevich held up to the normative Soviet film image of peasant-worker revolutionaries. In the accompanying illustrations, Tupitsyn suggests that Malevich mimicked in particular the compositional preferences of Eisenstein, whose films Malevich criticized for (among other things) an unseemly concentration on individual faces. More than mere parodies, however, the “peasant paintings” amount for Tupitsyn to an extended, post-Suprematist storyboard for a film with “objective content,” yet still largely composed of abstract shapes and self-referential signs. She interprets Malevich’s deliberately false attribution of double dates on these works (1928 and 1932) as an allusion to “running time”; the reading seems tendentious, yet it suggestively conjures a life playing itself out, frame by frame, in exceedingly slow motion.

Reading through this quickly advancing account of Malevich’s filmic ideas, I wondered particularly about Malevich’s beginnings in this subject. What historical connections gave him the impetus to “paint cinematically,” as it were, in 1915–17? Tupitsyn suggests that Malevich’s early Suprematist paintings resemble “a collage made out of filmstrips” (40). In its time, this would have been a highly singular move. There are isolated comparisons: for instance, the cycle of abstract watercolors, Colored Rhythm, created as a film idea in 1913 by Russian-born painter Léopold Survage in Paris. Yet, if Tupitsyn’s argument is accurate, Malevich was inspired in his abstract geometries by elements of the cinematic apparatus itself: that is, the artist painted his rectangles, squares, and oblique geometrical planes as deformations of the film frame and/or the movie-house film screen.

As such, he would be one of the earliest proponents of what one might call an “aesthetics of the filmstrip,” a modernist interest that as far as I am aware gained wider appeal only in the 1920s, and not in painting. Actual film rolls appear in photographs from that decade by Czech artists Jaroslav Rössler and Josef Sudek, for example, and by Man Ray. Stefan Themerson, the Polish filmmaker and montage artist, exploited the visible film reel in his movie Europa (1931–32), while László Moholy-Nagy filmed the sound-band on a film spool to make his Sound Alphabet (1932). In Russia, meanwhile, Gan created one of the boldest cover designs ever printed for his book, Long Live the Demonstration of Everyday Life! (1923); on a torn strip of film, a succession of three frames (only one of which appears complete) shows a youth at extremely close range, screaming defiantly at the camera. This particular example is evidently important to Malevich and Film, for it is reproduced twice in the book and was also selected by the publishers for the dust jacket. Indeed, Gan’s constructivist work gives Tupitsyn her greatest example of a “symbiosis between abstraction and figuration” within “everyday life” (99), a reordering of visible reality through the “geometric matrix” of the film frame, that she asserts determined the form and ideas of Suprematism as well.

The 1915 0.10 exhibition that Tupitsyn uses to build her argument, however, substantially predates all of these creations. Surprisingly, she does not contextualize her claims for Malevich’s precocious insight, and indeed confuses the issue by repeating his explanation that Suprematism had its antecedents in Russian and Italian Futurism—antecedents that (in Italy at least) followed motion photography more than cinema. Tupitsyn might have addressed this question by including recent scholarship more emphatically within her project. For example, in his book Early Cinema in Russia and Its Cultural Reception (London: Routledge, 1994, first published in Russian in 1991), Yuri Tsivian provides extensive information that seems potentially consistent with Tupitsyn’s own project. Tsivian documents a widespread period consciousness of cinema’s physical attributes, for instance, the variable projection speeds allowed by hand-cranked projectors; an attention to the screen surface occasioned by worn, faded, and scratched prints; freezing of the image that resulted when fire-prevention devices clamped down on a snapped reel, and so forth. Further, Tsivian asserts that in 1913, Russian Futurism (which included Malevich) and cinema became intertwined in the public mind as expressions of a disorienting, modern world. Given this information, it would be interesting to speculate further on the connection between Malevich, whom Tsivian does not mention, and cinema in Russia as a culturally specific phenomenon.

Tupitsyn also does not address why Malevich, if he turned to the cinema for inspiration in 1915, waited another decade to articulate his interest in print. It would have been helpful to state at the outset that Malevich wrote his essays on film between 1925 and 1929, and to assess the value of existing scholarly commentary as well. Translations and reprints of certain essays appeared already in the 1970s and 1980s, and a complete anthology of Malevich’s writings on cinema came out in 1997 in a German-language edition prepared and introduced by Soviet film historian Oksana Bulgakowa (the book is now available in English: K. S. Malevich, The White Rectangle: Writings on Film [Berlin: Potemkin Press, 2003]). Malevich specialist Alexandra Shatskikh also addressed the subject in a 1993 article (“Malevich and Film,” Burlington Magazine [July 1993]: 470–78), which Tupitsyn mentions in a footnote, acknowledging that it came late to her attention. This small body of literature is mostly straightforward in conception and lacks the theoretical ambition of Tupitsyn’s project. Nevertheless, an articulated response to these precedents would help clarify the chronology and historical context of Malevich’s engagement with the cinema.

Malevich and Film makes posthumous connections for its protagonist as well, to artists from the 1960s and after: Yves Klein and Piero Manzoni, Richard Serra and Sol LeWitt, Ilya Kabakov, Komar and Melamid, and others. This flickering afterlife may reflect the logic of an exhibition more than a book. After several chapters of detailed information on early Soviet Russia, with period illustrations to match, it takes some effort to spring across continents and decades in a flash. The jumps are so great, however, that editing becomes clearly visible, and this in itself —for fans of modernist narrative—renders the story intriguing. The analogy between Yves Klein’s Monochromes (abstract painting) and his Leap into the Void (filmic dynamism) with Malevich’s situation is perhaps not tenable as an assertion of intellectual filiation, but it sets important works of art vibrating in compelling ways.

In a secondary essay entitled “Incitement and Thought: The Texts of Malevich,” Victor Tupitsyn gives the main premise of Malevich and Film its boldest formulation: “Going back to [Malevich’s first statements] leaves no doubt that the intentionality characteristic of those earlier writings is nothing other than ‘being-towards-the-movement-image’ ” (127). In other words, film is not incidental to Malevich’s intellectual and artistic career, but rather gives that career its originary impulse and its horizon. The phrase “movement-image,” taken from Cinema I: The Movement-Image by Deleuze (in English, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986), is intended to recast, in phenomenological terms, Malevich’s explanations of Suprematism as a vehicle of transcendence or elevated consciousness. Tupitsyn explains that Malevich thought of transcendence not as a spiritual quest but a journey toward the origins of geometrical and linguistic consciousness, that is, of cognitive ordering systems. Tupitsyn approximates these ideas to the philosophy of phenomenology developed contemporaneously by Edmund Husserl (a connection made previously by Rainer Crone and David Moos in their book Kazimir Malevich: The Climax of Disclosure [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991], 193–96). The force of Tupitsyn’s categorical claims dissipates, unfortunately, in a wandering analysis that he likens to firing “buckshot” at his subject. The intention is to tease out possibilities in Malevich without depriving his work of its polyvalent “life,” as it were, but (to continue the author’s own metaphor) it is hard to make out his target in the hail of theoretical references.

The best argument in this book may in fact be its very first. On page 3, an assertion is put forward but left undeveloped: that for Malevich, and artists of his time and after who exalted transcendental abstraction, “film emerged as [their] most unforeseen challenge.” The anxiety, and the attraction, often claimed for painters with regard to photography are thereby displaced onto cinema, a medium with its own set of technologies, its own socioeconomic circumstances and audience relations. On the subject of “shifts,” the one from photography to cinema is particularly interesting and brings with it the potential for original analysis—a potential partly realized by the authors of Malevich and Film.

Matthew S. Witkovsky
Assistant Curator, National Gallery of Art