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Kazimir Malevich

'Kazimir Malevich and the Russian Avant Garde': an exhibition which recognises that Malevich's radical Suprematism was framed by Impressionism

"Malevich’s early figurative paintings reveal his debt to Monet and Renoir"

With their stark monochromes and bold geometric shapes, Kazimir Malevich’s works were at the forefront of the early 20th-century Russian Avant Garde. But his career as an uncompromising radical is only part of the story as his oeuvre also includes Impressionist-like landscapes and folk art-inspired figures. This is an under-represented aspect of Malevich’s work, which the Stedelijk Museum aims to draw to our attention, changing the way we see this pivotal figure.

Malevich’s early figurative paintings reveal his debt to Monet and Renoir. “He was a follower at the time,” says Bart Rutten, a co-curator of “Kazimir Malevich and the Russian Avant Garde”, which is due to travel to Tate Modern, London, next year. “He was very young and was discovering himself as a painter.” According to Rutten, Malevich returned to Impressionism later in his career, but, as was recently discovered, he back-dated those paintings to 1910. “He discovered that he had missed a gradual change between Impressionism and the Cubism period that followed.” But the motivation for Malevich’s move away from abstraction at that time may have been more than artistic. “In the 1920s, state control of the arts in Russia became more and more ­aggressive,” Rutten says, and, after Malevich’s spell in prison in 1930, the artist’s desire to toe the party line was rekindled.

Set designs

Alongside the figurative works, the exhibition will include a large number of Malevich’s better known Suprematist compositions, as well as the set designs for the 1913 opera “Victory Over the Sun” by Aleksei Kruchonykh and Mikhail Matyushin. Malevich’s designs for the opera include the first appearance of his famous black square. Rutten says: “The opera became a scandalous success and set him up as one of the leading figures of the Russian Avant Garde”. Works by Malevich’s contemporaries, such as Marc Chagall, Wassily Kandinsky and Natalya Goncharova, are included in the exhibition to provide context for his work. “The impact of Suprematism not only on art but graphic design and fashion is enormous,” Rutten says. “I feel today that Suprematism is incredibly close to the spirit of our time.”

• Kazimir Malevich and the Russian Avant Garde, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, 19 October-2 February 2014

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'First impressions of a Modernist'