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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Decoding Icons of Harmony

In 1904, Kazimir Malevich painted a tranquil, representational landscape, "Apple Tree in Blossom," which warrants comparison with the work of that most beguiling of Impressionist landscape painters, Alfred Sisley. Just over a decade later, in 1915, he exhibited "The Black Square," a painting comprising precisely that and nothing more.

Rarely could two works (both of which are exhibited in the Russian Museum in St. Petersburg) be more dramatically polarized: the first is a balmy evocation of spring that invites a subjective, anecdotal interpretation, while the second is a confrontational icon of the embryonic Suprematist movement. Incomprehensible to many then and now, "The Black Square" has become the most feted geometric painting of the century.

No one acquainted with the two works would deny that the intervening period was one of enormous change and development for the artist. In Kazimir Malevich and the Art of Geometry, Newcastle University art history professor John Milner makes a masterly attempt at understanding the transformation which took place. Moreover, his erudition and perception reveal that the development of Malevich's aesthetic was even more complex than the radical difference between the two images suggests.

As the title of the book indicates, Milner examines the notion of geometry as an organizational structure capable of carrying meaning. This in itself is no innovative idea, as Milner recognizes. Pythagoras posited the belief that numbers, which lie at the root of geometry, are capable of reflecting the harmony of the universe. Similarly, Renaissance thinking taught that divine order can be expressed in the geometry of human proportions, as exemplified by Leonardo da Vinci's "Study in Human Proportions According to Vitruvius," in which the figure of a man is inscribed in both a circle and a square.

However, Milner does not confine himself to these familiar interpretations of the significance of geometry. He also tackles far more arcane religious, philosophical and mathematical systems of thought current at the time of Malevich's artistic experimentation. For example, Malevich's art is examined in the light of the then fashionable idea of a fourth dimension, which challenged the conventional systems of depicting three-dimensional space by suggesting the existence of an additional time-related axis. This was a topic of considerable interest in Russia following the publication of Peter Ouspensky's pivotal book on the subject, "The Fourth Dimension," in 1909.

Milner convincingly demonstrates how the great influx of contemporary French art into Moscow (primarily as a result of the inspired patronage of the merchants Sergei Shchukin and Ivan Morozov) introduced Russian avant-garde artists to the complex cosmological and mathematical aesthetic notions which were then so influential in the West. For example, he examines the impact of Matisse's fervent advocacy of the power of harmony and proportion. Matisse's "Notes of a Painter," in which he outlined his views on the subject, was published in Russian in 1909, and Matisse himself visited Russia in 1911.

Alongside this dialogue between the Russian avant-garde and the most modern aesthetic notions of the West, Milner proposes an innovative and entirely Russian method of analysis for Malevich's work.

Taking an obsolete Russian unit of measure, the arshin, and its one-sixteenth part, the vershok, as his guide, Milner demonstrates that if the all-important geometric divisions in Malevich's paintings are examined according to this system, then what in a decimal system is an incomprehensible series of meaningless dimensions becomes a simple framework of harmonious proportion.

Milner brings his encyclopedic range of interests to a climax in a brilliant deconstruction of Malevich's work; never before have so many angles been measured in a single artist's oeuvre. But while Milner may be capable of continually relating the book's numerous topics back to the central issue of geometry, the layman reader may not be.

Moreover, Milner expects his reader to be able to catch hold of, and then juggle, various complex philosophical and mystical systems of thought without always explaining them adequately in the first place. Thus, although he is quite right to refer to the influence on Malevich's work of the Theosophists who saw geometry as a source of spiritual enlightenment, little explanation of the movement is given within the main body of the text. The reader is advised to read Appendix Two, which gives a lucid summary of Theosophy, before beginning the book. But rare is the reader who scans the appendices before turning to the main text.

The other major flaw in Milner's work is his failure to acknowledge Malevich's 19th-century Russian sources. He decodes Malevich's peasant motifs, for example, while giving scant mention to that most seminal of Russian peasant painters, Alexei Venetsianov.

For example, Venetsianov's painting "Ploughing, Spring" (exhibited in Moscow's Tretyakov Gallery) shows a peasant woman walking barefoot over furrowed earth with ethereal delicacy, where in reality she would tread gingerly over the rough soil. This relates to Malevich's "Scyther," who, in Milner's own words, shows "a light balletic pose in bare feet, certainly inappropriate to scything." Yet Milner ignores the existence of Venetsianov as a vital precursor. Here the author once again reveals his Achilles heel, also evident in his "Dictionary of Russian and Soviet Artists, 1420 to 1970," in which the inimitable 19th-century satirical painter Fedotov merited less attention that the moderate 20th-century theater designer Fedorovsky.

A virtuoso at decoding 20th-century Russian and Soviet art, Milner falls down when confronted with the rich Russian tradition which preceded it.

Nevertheless, this book on Malevich is an exemplary work. With a range of ideas as impressive as the range of collections, both European and Russian, in which he has sought suitable examples, Milner explains the development of Malevich's artistic orientation with extraordinary perceptual agility.

"Kazimir Malevich and the Art of Geometry" by John Milner. Yale University Press, 238 pages, ?40 or $60.