A Short History Of BLACK CANVAS — Square And Otherwise

Kazimir Malevich. Black Suprematic Square. (1915)

Kazimir Malevich called his Black Suprematic Square a ‘naked icon without a frame’, and himself a ‘President of space’. He openly declared his intention to ‘kill the art of the picturesque, and put it in a coffin.

Boy, am I glad he didn’t succeed, otherwise, by now, our senses surely would’ve been overwhelmed and assaulted by black squares, Black Squares and BLACK SQUARES.

Still, as Malevich predicted, the picture has become a landmark in the world history of art. To this day art critics gash, “Malevich freed the concept of art from all its traditional rules, signified the square as something new, attached to it a null form, and made it the basis of a new art, which he named Suprematism...”

Bless his restive heart and his restless brush, Malevich painted at least four versions of Black Suprematist Square. They differ in pattern, texture and shade of black. The artist, you see, was searching for the absolute “weightlessness” and flight of form. Upon completion, Malevich declared, ‘This is not art, it is something else.

Agree. It is. Not Art that is.

However — and I find it exceedingly curious — Malevich was not the first (and not even the second) artist to experiment with solid black.

Robert Fludd. The Great Darkness (1617)

Robert Fludd. The Great Darkness (1617)

Nearly 300 years before him, in 1617, Robert Fludd created the first all black work of art on canvas. It was called “The Great Darkness”. It’s a square, all right. Black. Fairly solid. No one proclaimed this painting something new or attached to it a null form. Perhaps, because Robert Fludd, English physician and polymath, was ahead of his time. In fact, his black square was an illustration of his elaborate cosmogony.  His concept based on the three principles of Paracelsus’ alchemy, those of Light, Darkness and Water, of which  Darkness  was the “prima materia”, thus  The Great Darkness. 

Fast forward a few years. 237 to be precise.

Paul Gustave Doré 1832 – 1883, a French artist, engraver, illustrator and sculptor, published  an album of humorous caricatures Histoire pittoresque dramatique et caricaturale de la Sainte Russie, d’après les chroniqueurs et historiens Nestor Nikan Sylvestre Karamsin Ségur etc. (Dramatic and colorful caricature history  of Holy Russia, according to the chroniclers and historians Nestor Nikan Sylvestre Karamsin etc. in my imprecise translation). This is how Doré depicted the mists of antiquity in which the Russian origins were irredeemably lost:

Paul Gustave Doré

Paul Gustave Doré

Russians feel aggrieved to this day… not so much by the “origins” but the not-so-gentle depiction of the Russia’s further development.  But I digressed.

Black squares marched on. Charles Albert d’Arnoux (Charles Constant Albert Nicolas d’Arnoux de Limoges Saint-Saens), otherwise known as Bertall, painted  View of La Hougue under the cover of the night. Those white splotches aren’t stars but rather a poor quality of the image.

Bertall. View of La Hougue.  (1843)

Bertall. View of La Hougue. (1843)

October 1, 1882. ‘Les Arts Incohérents’ (The Incoherent Art?) exhibit in Paris. The most sensational among the paintings – not necessarily a compliment here – was a completely black image, painted by the poet Paul Bilhaud. The name of a painting was ‘Black men fighting in a cellar at night‘. This was a perfectly black rectangle, all right.

Paul Bilhaud

Paul Bilhaud

And from here onward, the color palette gets livelier and lovelier.  The artist Alphonse Allais catches  Bilhaud’s humorous drift. In 1883, at an exhibition titled Incoherent Shows, he put up ‘First Communion of Anaemic Girls in the Snow‘. This was a white rectangle.

«First Communion of Anaemic Young Girls In The Snow» (Carré blanc) 1883

«First Communion of Anaemic Young Girls In The Snow» (Carré blanc) 1883

The following year, he displayed another monochromatic creation – a red painting titled ‘Apoplectic Cardinals Harvesting Tomatoes by the Shores of the Red Sea‘.

Alphonse Allais. Apoplectic Cardinals Harvesting Tomatoes by the Shores of the Red Sea.

After this, mischievous Alphonse expanded his collection with Blue, Green and Grey rectangles, and published a book with these works, adding  a blank musical score to the collection, which he called ‘Funeral March for the Deaf‘.  Political correctness was not yet invented, thus the uproar was only that of laughter.

Not one of the earlier black squares  became a landmark in the world history of art or aspired  to kill the art of the picturesque, and put it in a coffin. But then Malevich burst on the art scene and squarely painted it black. Or unified all forms and art into an absolute null. Cosmic voices made him do it

Makes me wonder if self-proclaimed ‘President of space’ was even aware of these works of his predecessors. My personal favorite from all the above is mischievous Alphonse Allais, particularly his skillful portrayal of Apoplectic Cardinals, Harvesting Tomatoes by the Shores of the Red Sea. I like the uncanny sense of color — perfectly harmonious fusion, amalgamation and inter-flow of the color scheme red on Red on RED.

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3 comments on “A Short History Of BLACK CANVAS — Square And Otherwise

  1. Pingback: A2 preliminary bits | Kev Byrne 1971

  2. Pingback: Assignment 2 – Barriers | Kev Byrne 1971

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