‘Black Square’ (1915) by Russian painter Kazimir Malevich is, formally, a simple painting. On an approximately 80x80-cm white linen canvas, the artist painted a black square. It’s not really a square as the sides are not parallel to each other and the black is actually a mix of several colours. Yet, when you confront it, you understand that you are looking at an enigma, at an image that is trying to tell you so much by vehemently refusing to show anything.
Malevich’s black square is not the first one to be painted in recorded art history. French playwright Paul Bilhaud made a similar painting and called it ‘A Battle of Negroes at Night’. It was submitted as an entry in the Salon of Cheeky Art in Paris in 1882. Bilhaud’s friend and writer Alphonse Allais added two more paintings to this “series”: a red square with the title ‘Tomatoes being harvested by apoplectic cardinals on the shores of the Red Sea’, and a white square titled ‘Anemic girls making their first communion in snowy weather’. But what sets Malevich’s square apart is that it was an unexpected answer to a sincere question the artist had posed to himself.
Malevich’s endeavour as a writer and artist was to reduce everything to nothing, that is, zero, and then try and discover what lies beyond this nothingness. He believed that the true meaning of painting was not to represent the world as we know it but to bring forward the essence of the cosmos without the constraints of form. Since cubism and futurism were the important art movements dominating the 1910s in Europe, perhaps it was natural for Malevich to assume that nothingness would manifest itself in a geometric shape. He had painted several monochromatic squares and circles before he painted ‘Black Square’. But this one was different. It consumed the canvas. The artist mentions in his writings that, after he finished painting, he knew he was looking at something unusual. He hung it in the particular corner of the room usually reserved for the image of Christ or Madonna.
‘Black Square’ was Malevich’s attempt to represent, or rather capture, nothingness. But more importantly, it was a symbol of defiance, of daring to take on and negate centuries of pictorial conventions. In the history of art, ‘Black Square’ is often considered the painting that called for the end of painting. Its power lies in its simplicity. It manages to communicate without the use of figures, landscape, a narrative or a perspective, thus making all the rules and conventions of painting that existed till then appear unnecessary.
This protest against authority played out in Malevich’s real life too. By the late ’20s, it had become difficult for avant-garde artists in Russia to work freely. The Stalinist regime decided that all art had to be realistic and Malevich was imprisoned for his artistic experiments. Before going to jail, he entrusted a large body of his work to a friend in Germany. And in Germany of the ’30s, when the Nazis came looking to destroy “degenerate art”— modern art made by Jews, communists and/or homosexuals was considered products of mental illness — another friend sent these works to the US.
In the final years of his life, after his imprisonment, Malevich painted landscapes and figures. Not always in a state-approved style but in a manner the Stalinists found tolerable. He, however, began signing his paintings with a little black square in the bottom right corner.
No one knows exactly when the colour black came to be associated with protest. The most cited instance is of the black bloc, the name given to protesters who would dress in black and agitate against abusive laws in Germany in the ’80s. It’s now part of a visual vocabulary that we are familiar with. Some of us, for instance, signed ourselves as little black squares on social media as a way of conveying our horror at the events unfolding in Kathua and Unnao.
In 1918, Malevich painted ‘Suprematist Composition: White on White’, a cool white square set on a warmer white background. Many consider this painting to be Malevich’s answer to what lies beyond nothingness — the generative possibilities of a white canvas. The artist himself considered it a representation of infinity. But as his work continued to be thwarted under an oppressive regime, he chose to emphasise the muteness imposed by black instead of the creative possibilities of white. He chose to mark his work and his grave with a black square.
In a different context, white can sometimes make for a stronger colour of protest. The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, for instance, tied white scarves on their heads. They were the mothers of the people who “disappeared” during the military dictatorship between 1976 and 1983 in Argentina. The scarves were originally nappies and had the names of their children embroidered on them. White was a rejection of black, a refusal to go into silent mourning. When our children are at stake, we cannot afford to be mute.
Blessy Augustine is an art critic based in New Delhi; @blessyaugust