So fragile is Kazimir Malevich's 1915 Black Square that the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow refuses to lend it. Not even to a venue within Russia. To reach it in the Tretyakov, you have to trek through rooms of traditional Russian painting and past a great many more modern canvases filled with images subjected to semi-cubist fragmentation. Then suddenly there it is, hanging high up - this relatively small painting filled with its large black square hovering over a tired white ground. Amid the visual clamour elsewhere in the museum, it acts like a sudden silence. And the first thing one notices is that the surface of the black square is crazed with craquelure. Its forlorn state acts like a protest and reminds the viewer that in 1934, when socialist realism was declared the official artistic doctrine of the Soviet Union, this painting and many other works by Malevich were abruptly removed and hidden from sight. It was more than 40 years before Black Square returned to public view.
In 1915 it had been the key picture in Malevich's unveiling of "suprematism". This strange word derives from supremus, meaning "superior" or "perfected", and refers to Malevich's intent to liberate painting from the shackles of mimesis and representation, to raise it to a higher state and into greater spatial freedom. For some two years he worked in secret on this new approach to the making of art, keeping the results hidden from sight until he showed a large group of suprematist pictures in the legendary Last Futurist Exhibition of Painting 0.10, held in the Dobchina Art Bureau in the recently named Petrograd. They did not form a neat line, but were dotted unevenly over the walls, from floor to ceiling, creating their own environment.
Black Square hung in a corner just beneath the ceiling. This cross-wall position echoed that of Vladimir Tatlin's corner reliefs, which appeared nearby in the exhibition. But the use of a high-up corner space also evoked the sacred, for it was precisely where an icon usually hung in the traditional Russian home. Malevich's black square replaced the more usual gold background associated with divinity. Instead it faced into the room, offering a fiercely unequivoval formalist blessing.
Malevich dated this work 1913, but this is incorrect: the craquelure has exposed small glimpses of red and these led to the x-ray discovery that the square is painted over an earlier suprematist composition. But it suited Malevich to suggest that the genesis of suprematism lay in this stark opposition of black and white. In 1913 he had collaborated with the writers Aleksei Kruchenykh and Velimir Khlebnikov, as well as the composer Mikhail Matyushin, on the futurist opera Victory Over the Sun. It was full of nonsense language, but was also intended as a protest against religious doctrines and tsarist absolutism. No black square is mentioned in the libretto, but it has been pointed out that, in the scene depicting the funeral of the sun, a black square on the backcloth suggests the sun's coffin, while the pall bearers sport black squares on their coats and hats. One of Malevich's shorthand sketches for a stage curtain also shows a square, divided in two by a diagonal line. "That drawing," he announced in 1915, "will have great significance for painting. That which was done unconsciously now bears extraordinary fruit."
Just how extraordinary can be seen at Tate Modern, where the first Malevich exhibition for almost 25 years will open on 16 July. Malevich (1879-1935) was born in Ukraine, of Polish descent. He grew up amid the vast expanse of Ukraine's sugar fields; his father was a manager of sugar refineries. Around 1890 the family moved to a town near Kiev. Until then he had shown scant interest in drawing, but his boyhood love of watching storks and hawks soaring into the sky suggests a fascination with the freedom associated with flight into space. Later, in some of his suprematist compositions, the abstract shapes were so arranged as to evoke light aeroplanes, seen from above, twisting and turning in white space.
In his teens he taught himself to paint, adopting the methods used in local peasant or folk art. Later, after he began studying art and in 1907 moved permanently to Moscow, he segued through realism, impressionism and symbolism, gaining en route a very good understanding of the history of art. Of major importance to his development were the two collections of art from the west, amassed by the wealthy textile merchants, Sergei Shchukin and Ivan Morozov. In their palatial residences Malevich encountered the work of Monet, Gauguin, Cezanne, Matisse and Picasso. This added still greater verve to his pursuit of an avant garde style, and his dizzying stylistic shifts now took in cubism and futurism. But after this exposure - within a very compressed period of time - to such an array of styles, he needed a period of isolation. This was provided by the first world war: only then, when cut off from external stimulation, could he make the great leap that suprematism represents.
His own writings indicate a complex theoretical underpinning to his use of such a bold abstract language. He is often referred to as a mystic, owing to his wide reading in philosophical and speculative literature. He was also fascinated by ideas surrounding the fourth dimension, but his thinking about art was crucially influenced by his association with the Russian formalist Roman Jakobson and by the poetic innovations of Kruchenykh and Khlebnikov. He shared with these poets a desire to explode conventional logic in order to arrive at a new empirical understanding of reality.
He was also indebted to his fellow artists Natalia Goncharova and Mikhail Larionov, who reignited his passion for folk art and his interest in the power of icons. The directness of expression in folk or peasant art lies behind the blunt simplicity in some of his suprematist pictures. As an artist, teacher and revolutionary, he was determined to bust up what he saw as the bourgeois hold on art, which turned painting into "a necktie on the starched shirt of a gentleman and a pink corset holding in the stomach of a fat lady". It was a bitter irony that later in his career, when socialist realism was the order of the day, his art and he himself would be criticised as "bourgeois" by the Soviet authorities.
No one, however, was more determined than Malevich to overturn centuries of painting rooted in Renaissance ideals. This art, he declared, was merely "aesthetic", and, unlike suprematism, never original or an end in itself. It is argued that Malevich went further than Picasso or Matisse. Whereas they kept hold of some form of representation, however much they pushed it to its limits, Malevich abandoned the depiction of reality altogether.
And so his 1915 Black Square, even in its battered state, remains an icon for an uncompromisingly modern age. The Tate catalogue refers to it as a "tabula rasa", and this is correct, for it was an emptying out, of all the habits, tricks, skills, clutter and values associated with painting. Malevich was not averse to making further versions of this landmark work. Two of these are included in this exhibition, but not the 1915 canvas. Even so, this absent picture, owing to the long shadow it has cast in its persistent questioning of the nature and purpose of art, is perhaps the most dominant presence in the entire show.
Malevich: Revolutionary of Russian Art is at Tate Modern, London SE1, from 16 July to 26 October. tate.org.uk.
Black Square 1929
From left: Self Portrait, c1910, and Suprematist Composition, 1916