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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Politics doesn't just connect us to the past and the future – it's what makes us human

To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

I have long been haunted by a scene in George Orwell’s great novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Winston Smith, the hero, is forced to watch propaganda films depicting acts of war and destruction. He is moved by something he sees: a woman trying to protect a child by wrapping her arm around him as they are attacked. It’s a futile gesture. She cannot shield the boy or stop the bullets but she embraces him all the same – before, as Orwell writes, “The helicopter blew them both to pieces.”

For Winston, what Orwell calls the “enveloping, protecting gesture” of the woman’s arm comes to symbolise something profoundly human – an expression of selflessness and of unconditional love in an unforgiving world. Scenes such as this we now witness daily in footage from the besieged eastern Aleppo and other Syrian towns, people in extreme situations showing extraordinary dignity and kindness.

I read Nineteen Eighty-Four for the first time in late adolescence. I’d dropped out of sixth-form college without completing my A-levels and was commuting on a coach from my parents’ house in Hertfordshire to London, where I worked as a junior clerk for the Electricity Council. During this long daily journey – sometimes two hours each way – I started to read seriously for the first time in my life.

I was just getting interested in politics – this was the high tide of the Thatcher years – and Orwell’s portrayal of a dystopian future in which Britain (renamed “Airstrip One”) had become a Soviet-style totalitarian state was bleakly fascinating. Fundamentally the book seemed to me to be about the deep ­human yearning for political change – about the never-ending dream of conserving or creating a better society.

Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in 1949 (Orwell died in January 1950, aged 46), at a time of rationing and austerity in Britain – but also of renewal. Under the leadership of Clement Attlee, Winston Churchill’s deputy in the wartime coalition, the Labour government was laying the foundations of what became the postwar settlement.

The National Health Service and the welfare state were created. Essential industries such as the railways were nationalised. The Town and Country Planning Act was passed, opening the way for the redevelopment of tracts of land. Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent was commissioned. New towns were established – such as Harlow in Essex, where I was born and brought up.

To grow up in Harlow, I now understand, was to be part of a grand experiment. Many of the families I knew there had escaped the bomb-ruined streets of the East End of London. Our lives were socially engineered. Everything we needed was provided by the state – housing, education, health care, libraries, recreational facilities. (One friend described it to me as being like East Ger­many without the Stasi.)

This hadn’t happened by accident. As my father used to say, we owed the quality of our lives to the struggles of those who came before us. The conservative philosopher Edmund Burke described society as a partnership between “those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born” – and I find this idea of an intergenerational social contract persuasive.

Progress, however, isn’t inevitable. There is no guarantee that things will keep getting better. History isn’t linear, but contingent and discontinuous. And these are dark and turbulent new times in which we are living.

A civil war has been raging in Syria for more than five years, transforming much of the Middle East into a theatre of great-power rivalry. Europe has been destabilised by economic and refugee crises and by the emergence of insurgent parties, from the radical left and the radical right. The liberal world order is crumbling. Many millions feel locked out or left behind by globalisation and rapid change.

But we shouldn’t despair. To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

And part of what it means to be human is to believe in politics and the change that politics can bring, for better and worse.

What, after all, led so many Americans to vote for an anti-establishment populist such as Donald Trump? He has promised to “make America great again” – and enough people believed him or, at least, wanted to believe him to carry him all the way to the White House. They want to believe in something different, something better, in anything better – which, of course, Trump may never deliver.

So politics matters.

The decisions we take collectively as ­humans have consequences. We are social creatures and rational agents, yet we can be dangerously irrational. This is why long-established institutions, as well as the accumulated wisdom of past generations, are so valuable, as Burke understood.

Politics makes us human. It changes our world and ultimately affects who we are and how we live, not just in the here and now, but long into the future.

An edited version of this essay was broadcast as part of the “What Makes Us Human?” series on BBC Radio 2’s “Jeremy Vine” show

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage