Seven Rotations 1-6 (1979) by Dóra Maurer
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Hip to be square: suprematism at the Whitechapel Gallery

Adventures of the Black Square at the Whitechapel Gallery is a fascinating examination of an artistic phenomenon.

In 1915 in Petrograd, the recently renamed St Petersburg, Kazimir Malevich unveiled one of art’s most adaptable and enduring motifs. In a show ponderously entitled “The Last Futurist Exhibition of Painting 0,10” he displayed a painting of a plain black square on an empty white background. The picture, hung high in a corner of the gallery – the place usually occupied in Russian homes by an icon – was designed to announce a birth and a death. The birth was that of his new movement, suprematism (from supremus), and the death was nothing less than that of the history of painting.

Into that black void would disappear, he hoped, the bourgeois values of art. “I’m happy that my square’s face can’t be compared to any master or period,” he wrote. “I didn’t obey the fathers and I’m not like them.” Malevich saw his new style as part of the wider Soviet project and his black square as presaging the utopian future: jump through it, he said, and “the free white sea, infinity, lies before you”. There the detritus of traditional art, all those “bits of nature, madonnas and shameless nudes”, would be replaced by “pure painting composition”. His empty square in fact held a lot of aspirations, political, spiritual and artistic.

The afterlife of Malevich’s innovation is the subject of an inventive exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery in London, “Adventures of the Black Square: Abstract Art and Society 1915-2015”. It traces the many reincarnations of Malevich’s original and tracks the way both its form and its meaning have been adapted over the succeeding century by artists as varied as Piet Mondrian and Carl Andre, Aleksandr Rodchenko and Dan Flavin. According to Malevich, “painting died, like the old regime, because it was an organic part of it”, but what the exhibition proves most forcibly is how spectacularly wrong he was. Ironically, his Black Quadrilateral, an attempt to break from the art of the past, has become a historical artefact in its own right, the founding image of a new tradition and a point of reference for legions of later artists. Geometric abstraction has real-world uses.

The curators have divided this exploration of Malevich’s square under four themes – Utopia, Architectonics, Communications and the Everyday – which between them show how his picture was repurposed for everything from construction and graphic art to industrial and textile design. Its range, too, became global: from Russia it quickly spread, first to Europe through the Bauhaus and then, aided by innumerable magazines and printed manifestos (also on show), to South America, which adopted abstraction as a way of breaking from the colonial past.

The journey was, among other things, one of disappointment, too. For the early Soviets geometrical shapes were inherently democratic and the ideal basis from which to fashion a new architecture. Yet later generations saw them as impersonal and the optimism turned to pessimism. A wonderfully skilful black-and-white drawing by Iakov Chernikhov of 1925 shows a fantasy building composed entirely of blocks and grids – a noble edifice fit for the workers. Seventy years later Keith Coventry’s seemingly abstract painting of ten yellow rectangles floating in space is in fact the ground plan for the Sceaux Gardens Estate in Camberwell, south London, an example of just how un-utopian many modernist social housing schemes were.

A similarly dispiriting trajectory can be observed in the way Malevich’s immaculately simple Black and White: Suprematist Composition of 1915 was reused in 1999 by Rosemarie Trockel, switching the black and white and woven in wool with the words “Cogito, ergo sum” stitched in. Malevich’s clarion call has become yet another plaything for clever-clever postmodern artists to mess around with.

As the century progressed, Malevich’s square lost not just its ideology but its original colour, the black being replaced by the full spectrum. That makes this exhibition a surprisingly joyous one visually, filled with invention and bright shades, from Josef Albers’s 1963 Homage to the Square in four tints of yellow to equally vivid geometrical riffs by Peter Halley and Andrea Büttner. While many of the later painterly derivations can trace their inspiration back to 1915 the curators see echoes everywhere and not all are convincing – Hannah Starkey’s 2006 photographs of office foyers and Sarah Morris’s 2008 video of Beijing show a geometrical precision that has nothing to do with Malevich’s model.

Even if the second half of the Whitechapel exhibition, dealing with the mid-1960s onwards, lacks the rigour of the first part, which deals with the early years when the square hadn’t yet been tugged into more whimsical shapes, this is a fascinating and worthwhile examination of an artistic phenomenon. It proves there was and is nothing square about the square.

Runs until 6 April. whitechapelgallery.org

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 23 January 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Christianity in the Middle East

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Britain's diversity crisis starts with its writers. Here's why

What happens on the casting couch draws the headline, but the problem starts on the page, says James Graham. 

I’m a playwright and screenwriter, which – pertinent to the issues we’ll be discussing in this enquiry – still feels weird to say. I get embarrassed, still, saying that, in a taxi or hairdressers. I don’t know why I still carry that insecurity about saying I’m a writer, but I do, because it sounds like I’m lying, even in my own head.

Obviously I’m completely biased, and probably overstating the influence and importance of my own profession, but I think so many of the problems surrounding lack of representation in the performing arts start with writers.

If we aren’t encouraging and generating writers from certain communities, classes or backgrounds to tell their stories, to write those roles, then there’s not going to be a demand for actors from those communities to play them. For casting agents or drama schools to prioritise getting diverse actors on stage. We need to create those plays and TV dramas –like the ones that I grew up with. I didn’t have any access to much theatre until I was fifteen, but I did have Boys From the Black Stuff, and I did have Cracker, and I did have Band of Gold. I think the loss of those regional producing bodies – Central, Granada – now all completely centralised into London, means that we just tell less of those stories. I remember a TV show called Boon – anyone? – which was set in Nottingham, and I would see on the TV streets I’d walked down, and think, Oh my God, that actor is walking down a street I’ve walked down. That sounds like it’s insignificant. If you’re from a town that is deprived, that feels ignored, it isn’t.

I was very lucky that at my school (which was, at the time, the largest comprehensive school in the country), from the headmaster down to the drama teachers, everyone just believed that working class kids should do plays. Be in plays, read plays, perform plays to the community. Both inside the curriculum of the school day, and outside it – drama teachers dedicating their time to staying behind. Our head of drama identified a group of us who clearly had a passion for it. We weren’t likely thesps. One lad’s entire family were made unemployed when the pit closed. Many lived on the big council estate. My parents and step-parents worked respectively in warehouses, the local council, or as the local window cleaner (incidentally, my first real job. Which I was terrible at).

Our drama teacher was encouraged and determined enough to launch the first ever Drama A-Level in our school. Based on that, about 10 or 12 of us got the confidence – or arrogance – to take our own show to the Edinburgh Festival. We were 16 or 17, and the first people in our community to ever go to visit the festival. We did a play up there, and after that, a psychological unlocking happened, where I thought: maybe I could do a degree in drama (it was the first time I had ever thought to do so) at university (the first in my family to go. Well, joint-first. My twin sister went on the same day, but I walked into my digs first).

I enrolled in drama at Hull University. A high proportion of my peers were middle class. A higher proportion from London or the South East. They talked often about institutions I had never heard of. They were talking about the National Theatre: I didn’t know we had a national theatre that my parents had been paying tax for that I had never been to. Many had performed with the (again, apparently) ‘National’ Youth Theatre, also in London. Paul Roseby, also on this panel, has made such leaps forward in getting the NYT producing in regional venues, and making auditions possible for people across the UK, but unfortunately, at the time, that wasn’t the case for me – and I was the ideal candidate to be in the National Youth Theatre.

I started writing because I had the confidence after I read texts by people like Jim Cartwright, Alan Bennett, John Godber, Alan Ayckbourn: Northern writers, working class writers that made me think it wasn’t just something that other people do.

After returning home, and working at local theatres, I moved down to London. I had to. The major new writing producers are there. All the TV companies are there. The agents are there. I was lucky to find support in a pub fringe theatre – though the economics meant there was no money to commission, so I wrote plays for free for about four years, that would get produced, and reviewed in the national press, while I worked various jobs in the day and slept for a time on a mate's floor. The first person to ever pay to commission me to write a play was Paul Roseby of the National Youth Theatre. I’m now very lucky to be earning a living doing something I love. In a way, compared to actors, or directors, it’s easier for writers who don’t come from a background that can sustain them, financially, in those early years. Your hours can be more flexible. Yes, it was annoying to miss rehearsals because I had a shift in a call centre, but it was still possible to do it. If you’re an actor or director, you’re fully committed. And if you’re doing that for nothing, there starts to be cut-off point for those from backgrounds who can’t.

I’m sure that local and regional theatres are the key to drawing in talent from less privileged backgrounds. But the range of national arts journalism that cover work outside London has been so significantly reduced. In our little echo chamber a few weeks ago, we theatre types talked about Lyn Gardner at the Guardian. Her coverage has been cut, which is very directly going to affect her ability to cover theatre shows outside of London – and so the self-fulfilling cycle of artists leaving their communities to work exclusively in London takes another, inevitable, turn.

I am culpable in this cycle. I have never done a play at the Nottingham Playhouse, my local producing house growing up – why? Because I’ve never submitted one, because I know that it will get less national press attention. So I just open it in London instead. That’s terrible of me. And I should just bite the bullet and say it doesn’t matter about the attention it gets, I should just go and do a story for my community. And if I, and others, started doing that more, maybe they will come.

I also want to blame myself for not contributing back to the state schools that I come from. I really really enjoy going to do writing workshops with kids in schools, but I would say 90 per cent of those that I get invited to are private schools, or boarding schools, or in the South of England. Either because they’re the ones that ask me, because they’re the ones who come and see my shows in London and see me afterwards backstage, or because they have the confidence to email my agent, or they have the budget to pay for my train ticket. Either way, I should do more. It would have helped the younger me so much to meet a real person, from my background, doing what I wanted to do.

I don’t know how to facilitate that. I take inspiration from Act for Change, creating a grassroots organisation. I know that there is a wealth of industry professionals like me who would, if there was a joined-up structure in place that got us out there into less privileged communities, we would on a regular basis go to schools who don’t get to meet industry professionals and don’t unlock that cultural and psychological block that working class kids have that says, that is not for me, that is something that other people do, I would dedicate so much of my time to it. That’s just one idea of hopefully better ones from other people that might come out of this enquiry.

James Graham is a playwright and screenwriter. This piece is adapted from evidence given by James Graham at an inquiry, Acting Up – Breaking the Class Ceiling in the Performing Arts, looking into the problem of a lack of diversity and a class divide in acting in the UK, led by MPs Gloria De Piero and Tracy Brabin.