The heart of the cross
The attitude of Malevich to art is an open book: he published his Suprematist
Manifesto that lays bare his innermost feelings. Although he saw in his Suprematism
a start of a new religion, free of nation, church and traditional religious concepts,
and despite his indifference to established religion throughout his life and art, he
was also deeply immersed and even obsessed with Christianity and its symbols. His abstract paintings, devoid of a sense of "up or down", create a feeling of floating.
And yet, the frequency of his allusions to the cross and to other familiar religious
symbols offer them gravity.
Being born to a Catholic father and a Ukrainian Orthodox mother, growing up
in Orthodox Ukraine must have suggested to the young Malevich that there were
different forms that symbolize the same god. He must have known intimately at least
two variants of the cross symbol, both the Catholic one which is represented by two
intersecting rectangles and the Orthodox cross represented by three intersecting
rectangles. The forms may be different, but their meaning remains the same. Other
symbols would be the sun and the moon that appear on Slavic Christian icons, the
Trinity motifs and the subtle nuance of the different praying gestures. Being interested
from an early age in forms and pattern, quite probably he noticed the various forms of
the cross and deemed them intriguing on more than one count, as the most powerful
symbol of Christianity. No other image is so strongly attached to Christianity, up to the extent that the symbol of the cross represents the faith itself.
In many Malevich paintings, especially those in the Suprematist style, there is frequent and recurring usage of both the Roman cross, represented by two intersecting
rectangles, and the Orthodox cross, represented by three intersecting rectangles. Indeed, in some Suprematist paintings, crosses are the most prominent element.
They often serve as a basis for the composition of a Suprematist painting that exhibit interplay between several presentations of the cross in different forms, shape,
colours, angles, distortions and positions; some oblongs seem to gravitate towards each other to form crosses.
In some paintings, the image of the cross undergoes alterations until it is hardly recognizable as such. Plato's theory of art includes the idea that art imitates
nature: that among other things, art is an attempt to depict nature in the most exact and natural way possible. In efforts to revive Greek and Roman classical art, Renaissance artists submerged themselves in naturalistic art form. Generations of efforts culminated in the artistic movement of realism.
Yet it was soaked with symbolisms, mostly Christian and otherwise Greek. Nevertheless, the tension between naturalism and symbolism remains a characteristic of Renaissance art. When one depicts an object exactly as it looks, there is no need for symbols and so they are cast aside. The casting away of symbols and the immense effort invested in copying the natural form is a tragedy in the worldview of Malevich, because in realism, the power of art is reduced to sheer technique. Surrendering to the physical world of technique incarcerates the mind of the people, both those who create it and those who observe it. The purpose of Suprematism, said Malevich, is to free the mind and to herald a new era in which vision transcends limited constraints of the phenomena: Suprematism facilitates perception of an infinite abstract religion.
As most religions identify themselves with unique recognizable symbols, this new
religion also needed its own symbols. Malevich, the initiator and high priest of this
new revelation was seeking such a symbol that would manifest and embody the
message of Suprematism. The most powerful symbol in the Christian world is that
of the cross. Believers look up to it during prayer. They use the cross to represent themselves, their identity group and faith. They even gesture the shape of the cross
with their hand ritualistically for protection and blessing. Observing or thinking
about the cross shape alone is sufficient to stir religious feelings in the heart of the
believer. For Malevich, the cross is the best showcase for the idea of Suprematism. Yet
in borrowing the cross to represent himself, Malevich faced the challenge of adapting
a recognized religious symbol in a distinctly different form.
Malevich did not use the cross in its common representation, but rather the core of
the cross, its centre of gravity. Malevich explored and challenged, both intellectually
and spiritually, Christian motifs in his Suprematist art. Many of his works are identifiable
as series of attempts to find out how far apart the elements of a cross can be from each other, until they lose their power. The observer can still appreciate that the rectangular
forms on the canvas are a cross even when they are not intersecting or even touching
each other. In these paintings, a certain gravitational force pulls the separated elements
of the cross towards each other, drawn together by the deep and powerful pattern of
the cross. Malevich shows that the closer the elements are to each other the easier it
is to apprehend that together they form a cross. By this rationale, the most powerful
cross is the one whose elements intersect. The point of intersection is the cross's centre
of gravity and so it is the most powerful portion of the form. When painting a cross,
the intersected sections create a square and when the cross is coloured black, that
intersected section becomes a simple "Black Square". Thus, the "Black Square" that
frequently appears in Malevich's work is the centre and the heart of the cross.
In her book "Breaking Resemblance: The Role of Religious Motifs in Contemporary
Art", published in 2017, Alena Alexandrova writes of Malevich, "he took his inspiration
from rural life and the Russian icon [...] God is Not Cast Down, as an expression of his
view that a new religion is needed; Suprematism was his answer to that need." Her
comment on his "Black Square" was, "[...] the last Futurist Exhibition of Painting, the
work was hung strategically in the corner, a place traditionally reserved for the icon
[...] Malevich's program conflates theology and art." Alexandrova noted that in the
painting of his coffin, painted by his former student long after his demise, a "Black
Square" takes the place of the cross.
It is thus clear that Malevich deemed the "Black Square" as a religious icon. His
students, too, held a similar view, a view that found its expression in their practice of
wearing square black patches on their sleeves. Furthermore, his family placed on his
grave a painting of the "Black Square", in the traditional place of the cross.
Malevich described the "Black Square" as "The end of everything and
the beginning of everything" – a phrase redolent of that used by Jesus to describe
himself, "I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning
and the end" (Revelations 22:13). The "Black Square" is an icon of God; by
embracing it, the believer is saved from the shackles and constrictions of the
natural world. Through Suprematism the follower finds salvation in truth and
humanity. The "Black Square" then "is" the heart and essence of the cross.
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