Interview with Andrei Nakov about Malevich
Way back when I was starting to study the history of art in Paris, I said to my professor that I was much taken with twentieth century painting. He looked at me disapprovingly and asked, “Do you want to become a serious art expert or a run of the mill scribbler?” I understood what that was about, and when the time came to defend
a doctoral dissertation, I opted for the art of the Italian Renaissance. Today it’s unbelievable that only thirty years ago abstract painting was considered as something undeserving of attention, and that was the view not only among academics. When I first tried to organize an exhibit of Malevich’s works in France 1 encountered no understanding whatsoever, including on the part of people who have since changed and now determine the development of French culture.
I started my research with Kandinsky, and studied German, since the painter had lived in Bavaria, and there was a lot of material on him there. I taught in America and in England, and therefore know English well. But I live and work in France, and so, naturally, I write in French. However, as a Slav, 1 consider my knowledge of Russian as a great advantage — it lets me study the original sources.
The more I delved into Russian art, the more I was attracted to the enigmatic figure of Kazimir Malevich. 1 felt like an explorer to whom a marvelous, unknown, unexplored continent had revealed itself. Fortunately, I rather quickly grasped the most important thing: a personality of that magnitude must be understood in his entirety, and not just through his painting.
My work was nightmarishly complicated in every which way. 1 did not have access to official Soviet sources, and I got into the holdings of the Russian Museum only in 1987. Later I was able to work with Malevich’s texts in the Central State Archive of Literature and Art (TsGALI). Finally, the times changed and everything became much simpler. And so, step by step the contours of his persona became clearer to me.
I worked — some people think — for too long a time. But once you’ve decided to do an absolutely honest job, you’re absolutely duty bound to investigate everything, not to overlook any details. The most important works of Malevich I even subjected to technical analysis, to establish once and for all absolute criteria for authenticity. I studied an unbelievable number of fakes, and analyzed even the most unremarkable details of his artistic techniques. My catalogue is ready, and I hope that it will be of assistance in organizing exhibitions at which Malevich’s work will be shown in a totally different light. The catalogue includes about 1700 paintings, drawings, and print sheets. There are more than 2000 pages of text. Funny thing: many years ago it looked as though there wasn’t enough material, and today there’s a finished monograph of 1500 pages, and I could double its size.
Malevich’s artistic thinking smacks of alchemy: it is so metaphorical that it seems as though a visible transformation of energy, essence and form is taking place, in which everything is
qualitatively changing, moving into “space-time,” into a fourth dimension. We now better understand his aesthetic reaction, his norms and sensibility. Probably for that reason it is now somewhat easier for us to relate to Malevich, and it’s possible to write slightly more accurately about him. We’re not moving away from Malevich; indeed, we’re moving towards him. And not as quickly as some people think. A true understanding of his creative legacy demands enormous intellectual and moral efforts.