Ukrainian heart in a black square: life and art of Kazimir Malevich

The Art Newspaper

The Ukraine-Russia war has brought destruction and pain on an unimaginable
scale. However, it also conveyed attention to Ukraine and its historical-cultural

Now Ukrainians have a chance to correct history and the evil the nation has
suffered and finally renounce the imperialist legacy of the Russian Empire and
the Soviet Union.

Ukrainians are reclaiming national artists and historical figures appropriated
by the Russian colonial power.

The shift of the perspective

Recently the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the USA recognised Arkhip
Kuindzhi, Ivan Aivazovsky and Ilya Repin as Ukrainian artists, as is seen on the
institution’s website. For instance, on the page of Ivan Aivazovsky’s famous
painting ‘Ship in the Moonlight’, it is indicated that the author is Ukrainian.

On the page of the ‘Red Sunset’ painting by Arkhip Ivanovich Kuindzhi, it is
stated that ‘in March 2022, the Kuindzhi Art Museum in Mariupol, Ukraine,
was destroyed in a Russian airstrike.’

Metropolitan Museum of Art ‘Red Sunset’ web page

People of the world are learning of Ukrainian artists stolen by the Russian
imperialist regime. However, this process is slow and tedious and takes time.

Perhaps, one of the most affected by Russian lies is the artist Kazimir
Malevich. Traditionally, the world knows him as a Russian or Soviet artist, but
by no means a Ukrainian artist. On the website of the Tate gallery (one of the
biggest in Great Britain), it is stated that Kazimir Malevich is a Russian artist.
The article also uses the Russian transliterated name ‘Kiev’ instead of the
correct name of the capital of Ukraine ‘Kyiv’.

This article explores Kazimir Malevich, his Ukrainian identity and how
Ukraine influenced the artist’s creations.

Child of the capitol

Kazimir Malevich was born in Kyiv on February 23, 1879. The Malevich
family had Polish roots. Kazimierz’s father worked at a sugar factory and
dreamed of his son becoming a sugar refiner.

The artist studied drawing at the Mykola Murashka Kyiv Art School under
the leadership of the outstanding Ukrainian artist Mykola Pymonenko, a
Ukrainian master of household painting.

‘Selyanky u tserkvi’, 1912. 1st Peasant Cycle

From 1928–1930, he was a professor at the Kyiv Art Institute and painted
Kyiv landscapes. In the 1920s, he took an active part in the artistic life of Kyiv,
belonging to the Union of Modern Artists of Ukraine.

In 1930, the artist planned to return to Ukraine forever. But soon, Stalin’s
cultural revolution reached Kyiv, and non-party specialists with pre-
revolutionary education were declared ‘enemies of the proletariat’.

In the letters to his friends from Kyiv, written in Ukrainian, the artist
remembers Kyiv with nostalgic notes: ‘Kyiv remained unique in my memory.
Houses made of coloured bricks, mountainous terrain, Dnipro, distant horizons,
and steamships. His whole life influenced me more and more.’

Ukrainian song in artist’s soul

Kazimir became acquainted with the art while living in Ukrainian villages
during childhood. Since Kazimir’s father was a classified specialist in sugar
factories, the Malevich family only stayed in one place briefly. They travelled
almost all over Ukraine. Until 17, Kazimir managed to live in Podilla, Kharkiv
Oblast and Chernihiv Oblast.

He was interested in how local women painted houses with different
patterns: ‘In winter, when the factories work day and night, the peasants sew,
embroider, sing songs, dance, the boys play the violins… I watched with great excitement how the peasants painted and helped them smear the floors of the
houses with clay and make patterns on the stove,’ wrote the artist.

‘Selyanka z vidramy ta dytynoyu’, 1912. 1st Peasant Cycle

Researchers of the artist’s work theorise that the creations of Ukrainian
peasants inspired Kazimir Malevich’s style. The geometric shapes in the
master’s paintings are similar to the patterns of vyshyvanka (traditional
Ukrainian clothing), towels and painted stoves.

The artist’s path to forming his style of Suprematism was long. At the
beginning of his work, motifs of the Ukrainian village dominated his works.
With the start of Malevich’s studies at Mykola Murashko’s art school,
primitivism was replaced by a short period of naturalism. Soon the artist felt the
urge to create in the style of impressionism. Interested in new artistic directions,
Kazimir Malevich worked in symbolism and modernism.

Ukrainian people in artist’s work

Rural themes had a prominent influence in the work of Kazimir Malevich.
And more than once the artist admitted that he started painting precisely
because of the Ukrainian rural life and culture. Living in Russia, the artist often
tenderly mentioned Ukraine: ‘Not one night in Russia can be compared to the
Ukrainian night.’

‘Zhnyvarka’, 1912. 1st Peasant Cycle

The peasant cycle is an example of Kazimir Malevich’s perception of the
image of peasant life. The figures of the concerned peasants are deliberately
primitively simplified, enlarged and deformed to create expressiveness and
emphasise the role of colour.

This unique style reflects the artist’s attitude to the village and traditional
rural culture as one of the essential parts of his life and work.

Malevich dispute

In the global creative discourse to this day, there are debates about the artist’s
nationality. Since Kazimir Malevich travelled a lot in the republics of the Soviet
Union, this made him vulnerable to Russian imperialism and the proclamation
of Kazimir Malevich as a Russian figure.

In the global creative discourse to this day, there are debates about the artist’s
nationality. Since Kazimir Malevich travelled a lot in the republics of the Soviet
Union, this made him vulnerable to Russian imperialism and the proclamation
of Kazimir Malevich as a Russian figure.

In addition to Russia, Poland is also fighting for the right to call Kazimir
Malevich their artist. Poles justify this because Malevich’s family had Polish
roots and spoke Polish among themselves. Malevich really spoke Polish with his parents. However, according to eyewitnesses, he spoke the Ukrainian language outside of his house.

So today, more and more countries recognise that Malevich was Ukrainian.
Thus, recently the Amsterdam Stedelijk Museum recognised Kazimir Malevich
as a Ukrainian artist. Information about the origin of the artist, who until now
was considered a Russian artist, was changed in the descriptions of the works in
the museum and on the pages of his website.

The Art Newspaper

Kazimir Malevich is the leading figure in the creation of Ukrainian avant-
garde. For years, Russian colonial policy destroyed the creativity of the
republics subject to it and captured the most talented artists, claiming them as
their own and completely ignoring nationality. Therefore, weird situations occur
when people who grew up in a Ukrainian environment are inspired by
Ukrainian culture and consider themselves Ukrainians, for some reason, are
called ‘Russians’ in the textbooks of modern Russia.

‘If you look at the Days of Russian Culture in any country, you will see how
many artists they call Russian. Although those people fled from Russia, suffered
the biggest repression in Russia, never called themselves Russian,’ says Liubov
Tsybulska, head of the Center for Strategic Communications and Information
Security. ‘The enemy is trying to declare to the world that Malevich is a Russian
artist… We cannot close our eyes to this. We cannot say that it should be outside
of politics.’

That is why it is crucial to study the life and work of Kazimir Malevich with
an emphasis on his Ukrainian origin and the influence of Ukrainian culture on
the formation of the artist’s personality.

Ukrainian society is fighting for the world to see the yellow-blue heart inside
the black square.

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