We would like to thank Aleksandra Shatskikh for her assistance in the cataloguing of this lot.
Kazimir Malevich’s Landscape is an extremely rare and early work that dates from 1911, a breakthrough moment in the artist’s career. One of a series of large, boldly coloured and expressively rendered works from this pivotal moment of artistic discovery and development, Landscape is part of the artist’s Neo-Primitive period, a short phase during which Malevich fused influences from the European avant-garde with the visual culture of his native Russia to create an aesthetic that was entirely unique. A monumental work that stands at over a metre square, it is one of the largest works of Malevich’s early oeuvre, its commanding size a reflection of its importance within these opening years of the artist’s career. Rendered on a square format – a feature that would become one of the defining features of his movement, Suprematism – in Landscape, Malevich has employed a purposefully raw, direct and immediate means of pictorial construction, as he explored the act of painting itself. It is this abiding artistic interest in pure painting that would lead the artist, just four years later, to his radical, abstract Suprematist works.
It was with Landscape and the rest of this breakthrough series of large scale Neo-Primitivist works that Malevich first gained critical recognition in Russia. Presented in a number of early exhibitions, many of which have come to define the early years of the Russian avant-garde, including the 1912 ‘Union of Youth’ in St. Petersburg, and, in the same year, the ‘Donkey’s Tail’ in Moscow, Landscape was, perhaps most importantly, one of the group of works that Malevich chose to take with him to Berlin in preparation for his retrospective there in 1927. The show was enormously important to Malevich. Travelling from Russia via Poland, where he also staged a small exhibition of his art, Malevich selected what he considered to be the greatest, defining works of his career to date with which to present himself to a broader European audience. That he chose to include Landscape in this select group is testament to the importance with which he regarded this pivotal early work. Since then, Landscape has been shown in a number of other significant retrospectives of the artist, including most recently the 2013-2014 retrospective held at the Tate Modern, London and Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam.
At the time that Malevich executed Landscape, Moscow was a hotbed of artistic creativity and innovation. The latest avant-garde developments from France and Germany had been presented to Russian audiences in three successive exhibitions organised by a group known as ‘The Golden Fleece’. The first show in 1908 included over 200 works by Western artists, mostly from Paris, featuring the likes of Cézanne, Van Gogh, Gauguin, as well as Matisse, Derain and Braque. A year later, a second exhibition was staged, this time combining Russian and Western works; and in 1910, the third and final showing of this type was held, featuring mainly Russian artists in a bold visual assertion of their own individuality and innovation. Malevich, who had settled permanently in Moscow in 1906, would likely have visited these exhibitions, among others, becoming exposed and immersed in the radical stylistic and formal innovations of his European counterparts.
In addition to 'The Golden Fleece', two major modernist collectors, Sergei Shchukin and Ivan Morozov, also played a vital role in disseminating the Parisian avant-garde to a Russian audience. An industrialist, Shchukin made it his life’s purpose to present the most innovative artistic developments of European art to his native Russia. Having started his collection with Impressionist works, his taste gravitated towards the most cutting-edge art of his day as he amassed an astounding, unprecedented array of early Twentieth Century masterpieces by Cézanne, Gauguin, Matisse, and later, Picasso. In 1908, he opened his Moscow home, the Trubetskoy Palace, to the public. There, visitors found room after room filled with the greatest examples of avant-garde painting; from Gauguin’s strange and beguiling Tahitian idylls, and Picasso’s angular proto-cubist figures, to Matisse’s explosive Fauve landscapes, still-lifes, and, in 1911, his monumental murals, La Danse and La Musique. Shchukin’s home and collection soon became a haven for young Russian artists, playing a central role in the development of the country’s contemporary art world; ‘Who among Russian artists does not count in his past, as a moment of enlightenment and light from “nowhere”, Shchukin’s gallery? Everybody does’, the critic Nikolai Punin explained (N. Punin, quoted in K. Akinsha, ed., Russian Modernism: Cross-Currents of German and Russian Art, 1907-1917, exh. cat., New York, 2015, p. 34).
Malevich’s art from this early period in his career shows a restless quest for artistic discovery, as he hurtled through the various styles and movements of the turn-of-the-century avant-garde, consuming Post-Impressionist, Symbolist, Fauvist, and, as the present work demonstrates, Primitivist ideas of colour and facture. At the heart of Malevich’s voracious yet assured consumption of the styles of the avant-garde was his desire to comprehend primarily their essential formal qualities, deconstructing and practicing variations in handling and technique. As Camilla Gray explains, ‘Malevich from the outset was not concerned with nature or analysing his visual impressions, but with man and his relations to the cosmos’ (C. Gray, The Russian Experiment in Art, 1863-1922, London, 1986, p. 145).
At the time that he painted Landscape, Malevich had become close to Natalia Goncharova and Mikhail Larionov, artists who were crucial to his own artistic development. Pioneering figures of the early Russian avant-garde, these artists were determined to forge a distinct aesthetic from their European counterparts, vehemently asserting that art should be based upon their own visual culture. Following the direction of European Primitivism – both the primitive subject matter of Gauguin, as well as the radical stylisation and simplification that non-western art had shown Matisse and Picasso – they sought inspiration from their native country, using Russian Orthodox icon painting, folk art and murals, peasant woodcuts, known as ‘lubki’, textile patterns from Siberia, or scenes of urban or rural life as the basis for their radical subject matter and raw, expressive artistic technique.
In 1910, Malevich included two early works in the first of a series of exhibitions conceived by Goncharova and Larionov, called the ‘Jack of Diamonds’, a name taken from a pack of cards, that reflected Larionov’s interest in peasant life and folk art. A landmark moment in the history of modern Russian art, this exhibition, which included a combination of Russian and European artists, from Jawlensky and Kandinsky, to Lhote and Gleizes, ‘shook severely the aesthetic foundations and consequently the foundation of art in society and criticism’, Malevich recalled (Malevich, quoted in J. Milner, ‘Malevich: Becoming Russian’, in Malevich, exh. cat., London, 2014, p. 33). While Malevich’s work drew little attention, his involvement in this exhibition was essential for his artistic development, rousing in him an intense burst of creativity that led to the creation of his Neo-Primitive works, including Landscape.
Soon after his involvement in this exhibition, towards the end of 1910 and the beginning of 1911, Malevich began a series of large, highly coloured and expressively executed gouaches, portraying, like Goncharova, peasants within nature or at work, or, more rarely, the landscape itself, as demonstrated by the present work. Indeed, of this breakthrough Neo-Primitive series, Malevich executed only two landscapes – the present work, and one other, Village, which was in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York, though was lost in 1939. With this series, Malevich adopted a deliberately primitive approach to picture making – both in subject matter and style – as Landscape encapsulates. Having grown up in rural Ukraine and later, Russia, Malevich was familiar with the scenes of peasant life that now filled his art. These images remained with the artist for many years, appearing not only in his Neo-Primitive period, but his cubist works that followed. Indeed, he later recalled that it was from this rural childhood and youth that, ‘the feeling for art and things artistic developed in me’ (Malevich, quoted in C. Douglas, Kazimir Malevich, New York, 1994, p. 8). Malevich’s background had also exposed him to native art forms and visual traditions; as he later recalled, ‘I watched with great excitement how the peasants made wall paintings, and would help them smear the floors of their huts with clay and make designs on the stove’ (Malevich, quoted in Malevich & A. Upchurch, ‘Chapters from the Artist’s Autobiography’, in October, vol. 34, Autumn 1985, p. 29). Later, he found great inspiration in Russian icon painting, admiring the spiritual aspects of these works as well as their boldly simplified, naïve imagery and execution. In studying these traditional art forms, Malevich realised that, ‘the point is not in the study of anatomy and perspective, not in depicting the truth of nature, but in sensing art and artistic reality through the emotions’ (Malevich, quoted in Kazimir Malevich: The World as Objectless, exh. cat., Basel, 2014, p. 27). It was this innate understanding of art that would come to play a defining role in his path towards Suprematism and pure, geometric abstraction. Never confined entirely to the practice of Western naturalism or mimesis, Malevich would become the first to envisage, and later create, an art entirely freed of a recognisable subject.
However, unlike Goncharova and Larionov, who deliberately turned their backs on the movements, styles and influence of the European avant-garde, Malevich was more open to the developments occurring in the West; indeed, he actively utilised and explored them. In Landscape, the motif of houses tucked into the landscape is instantly reminiscent of the work of Paul Cézanne. Malevich has depicted this scene with the same, distinctive, constructive brushstroke of the great French landscape painter who had died just a few years earlier, in 1906. Indeed, John Milner described this work as Malevich’s ‘tribute to Cézanne’ (J. Milner, op. cit., London, 2014, p. 35). Divided into patches of colour, which are clearly demarcated in some areas, such as the stylised tree foliage, the composition takes on a structure akin to Cézanne’s influential landscape paintings – his oft-quoted advice to, ‘treat nature in terms of the cylinder, the sphere and the cone’ becomes particularly relevant when considering the present work. It was these landscapes, in which Cézanne shunned mimesis in order to attain the ‘sensation’ of nature itself, that would prove so influential to Braque and Picasso and their development of Cubism in the early 1900s. Indeed, following in this lineage, Landscape is also undeniably related to the early proto-cubist landscapes of Braque and Picasso, examples of which Malevich could have seen in Shchukin’s home (see for example Braque’s Le Château de la Roche-Guyon, 1909 and Picasso’s Maisonette dans un jardin, 1908, both now in the Pushkin Museum, Moscow).
Yet, Landscape has clearly been rendered with an impressive spontaneity and rapidity that is at odds with the methodically constructed cubist landscapes of Braque and Picasso. There is a powerful directness and rawness of expression as the artist applied patches of colour across the large sheet. This gestural brushwork is also the antithesis of Cézanne’s lengthy and meticulous mode of pictorial construction, reminiscent instead of the explosive colour and the vigorous paint handling of Fauvism. Indeed, the dazzling pink and orange tones that Malevich has used on both the houses and the setting sun behind the hills in the background of Landscape instantly evokes Matisse’s radiant Fauve landscapes painted in Collioure in the summer of 1905, one of which Shchukin also had in his collection (Vue de Collioure, Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg).
In this way, Malevich combined the idiosyncratic, distinctive pictorial languages of both Cézanne and Matisse, and fused them to create a new, synthesised form of Russian landscape painting. While it would be easy to suggest that the landscape and village is a scene from his youth in Kiev, in fact, this was an imagined scene: the artist’s aim was not to record a real vision of the world, nor derive a subjective interpretation from this, as Cézanne and the cubists did, but to immerse himself in pure painting itself (A. Shatskikh, Kazimir Malevich ‘Landscape’, n.d., p. 15). This is heightened by the square format that Malevich chose to present this landscape scene. This is a constructed image, not a mirror or depiction of nature, but a geometricized interpretation of the forms and volumes that constitute the landscape. Simplified and stylised, this work shows the artist exploring methods of pictorial construction, unpicking formal conventions of colour, perspective, volume and space. It was this overriding interest in the relationship of space, form and colour that would become essential to Malevich’s art, as he continued to deconstruct the conventions of representational art, before arriving, in 1913 at the origin of what would become The Black Square and the birth of Suprematism.
While Landscape encapsulates Malevich’s early artistic development, the exceptional exhibition history of this work also demonstrates the path that led the artist to become one of the most influential artists of the 20th Century. Landscape was first exhibited in 1911 at the First Moscow Salon. This was Malevich’s first major exhibition as an artist and included 24 early works that were divided into distinct groups: The Yellow, Red and White series. The Yellow and White groups contained his earlier, Symbolist works and the Red, his more recent, highly coloured Neo-Primitive works, including Landscape.
A year later, from March to April, Malevich was included in Larionov’s seminal ‘Donkey’s Tail’ exhibition, held in Moscow. A momentous exhibition in the history of the Russian avant-garde, this show also held great importance in Malevich’s own career, marking the moment that he became known in his own right as an independent and important artist. Organised by Larionov, this exhibition included his own work, as well as that of Goncharova, Chagall and Tatlin. Indeed, this was the first time that this group of leading Russian contemporary artists had been shown together. Malevich included his most recent work, namely the whole group of Neo-Primitivist works, including Landscape, that he had created throughout 1911. Seen together, the artist’s synthesis of the east and the west into a distinct pictorial language was clear to see. Large, rapidly executed and boldly coloured gouaches and oil paintings would have filled the walls, featuring monumental images of peasants rendered in a deliberately primitive style, as evidenced by the present work. This exhibition included works such as Bather, The Gardener, On the Boulevard, and Floor Polishers, many of which are now housed in the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam.
From the time of this seminal, breakthrough show onwards, Landscape featured in the majority of Malevich’s most important retrospectives, including, in 1920, his first one-man show in Moscow, the ‘16th State Exhibition, K.S. Malevich, His Way from Impressionism to Suprematism’. With over 150 works hung chronologically, this exhibition mapped out the artist’s development from his very first forays into the art of Impressionism, through to his triumphant, groundbreaking conception of Suprematism and the works of pure abstraction that he had created.
Seven years later, Malevich finally received permission to travel out of Russia. Since 1909 when he had first planned to travel to Paris, he had attempted several times to visit Europe, though had never been able to. At this point, the political regime in the Soviet Union had begun to suppress avant-garde and abstract art in favour of state-sanctioned Socialist Realism. As a key exponent of this form of art, Malevich was a prime target for the regime. Seeking to free himself from this artistic oppression and establish himself in Germany, Malevich managed to organise an exhibition of his work to be held in connection with the annual Grosse Berliner Kunstausstellung (Great Berlin Art Exhibition) which opened there in May. With the plan for this exhibition to later travel to Paris, Vienna and Cologne, he took with him over 100 of his paintings, drawings, theoretical diagrams and writings, carefully selecting the only the finest examples of his work with which he would finally introduce himself to a European audience. Landscape was one such work.
On his way to Berlin from Russia, Malevich stopped for a month or so in Warsaw, and while there organised a small, impromptu exhibition at the Polish Arts Club in the Polonia Hotel. When he arrived in Berlin at the end of March, Malevich immersed himself in the art world there, travelling to the Dessau Bauhaus, where he met Walter Gropius, as well as Kurt Schwitters, Jean Arp and Mies van der Rohe. With the opening of the exhibition, Malevich was hailed as a great hero, a pioneering leader of abstraction, or, in the words of writer Ernst Kállai, ‘a second Moses, a Moses of art who was said to have freed his disciples from the shackles of painting and to have conducted them to the confines of a new artistic territory filled with promise’ (E. Kállai, quoted in A. Nakov, Malevich: Painting the Absolute, vol. III, London, 2010, p. 218). Few records of the exhibition exist, however, it presented a chronological view of Malevich’s work, with at least 70 paintings, drawings and architectural models that traced his development from Impressionism, through his Neo-Primitive stage, to Cubism, Futurism and finally, Suprematism (see T. Andersen, Malevich, Catalogue raisonné of the Berlin exhibition, 1927, Amsterdam, 1970).
Malevich’s grand plans for this exhibition to travel and for a new life in Berlin were however, tragically halted when he was called back to Soviet Russia in June, shortly after the exhibition had opened. Malevich left the entire group of his works in the possession of a group of artists and custodians in Germany, foreseeing that they would likely be confiscated by the Soviet regime if he had returned with them. In addition, he left his writings, as well as five works of art with the von Riesen family, who served as his hosts while he stayed in Berlin. One of these five was Landscape, which remained with Hans von Riesen until 1963. The rest of the works were hidden in Germany throughout much of the 1930s, their existence known only by very few people. Ultimately the group would become part of the highly influential holdings of Malevich’s work in the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam.
Malevich would never see these works again, believing at the time of his death in 1935, that they had been lost. Due to the totalitarian Nazi and Soviet regimes throughout the 1930s, both of which forbade abstraction, Malevich’s art, as well as his name, was largely overlooked and forgotten. In 1953, a Soviet journalist reported seeing the artist’s iconic White Square in an exhibition in London, writing that the creator of this work was an ‘American abstractionist’ (quoted in A. Nakov, Malevich: Painting the Absolute, vol. 4, London, 2010, p. 130), illustrating just how obscure Malevich and his revolutionary work had become. As a result, it was the works that Malevich selected for the Berlin exhibition that came to define the artist’s reputation around the world, serving as almost his sole creative legacy for much of the Twentieth Century.