The secret message of the Black Square

Jeremy Gordin writes on ­Malevich’s famous painting, in the light of SA's bizarre politics

I have recently been reading about Kazimir Malevich (1879-1935), the Russian avant-garde artist, “whose pioneering work and writing,” according to Wikipedia, “had a profound influence on the development of abstract art in the 20th century”.

This work included in particular ­Malevich’s famous “Black Square” or “Malevich’s Black Square” (1915), known as an “iconic painting” and “frequently invoked by critics, historians, curators, and artists as the ‘zero point of painting’.”

“[Black Square is meant to evoke] the experience of pure non-objectivity,” wrote Malevich, “in the white emptiness of a liberated nothing.” In 2011, a famous American art critic added, “Apart from a peculiarly Russian mystical tradition, which he exploited – evoking the compact spell of the icon, as a conduit of the divine – [Malevich’s] work amounts to a cosmic ‘Song of the Open Road’” [i] .

I have no idea what the “zero point of painting” is (or was) nor do I fully understand how an icon operates “as a conduit of the divine”. Why would the Divine, who, as everyone knows, is an elderly, impatient, largely unforgiving, Hebrew-speaking fellow with a long, white beard, why, with respect, would He be channeling Himself through Russian icons? [ii]

To me, the painting looks like a black square inside a white-ish frame, no more, no less[iii]. But then, when it comes to such matters, I concede that I’m a bit of “a truck driver,” as I was described by a barperson named Farida, plying her trade many years ago at a now defunct Johannesburg hotel.

This happened when she chose, so to speak, my drinking companion Roy rather than me and really hurt my feelings [iv]. But if I might (decades later) be more polite about myself, it’s not so much that I’m a truck driver but that I’m partially a “typical Litvak” (Jewish Lithuanian), as described by a number of historians: viz., “analytical, skeptical, rational, unemotional, and anti-mystical”[v]

Unfortunately for Malevich, however, it seems that Joseph Stalin, although a Georgian by birth and probably someone who’d have arranged to have your head (slowly) separated from your body if you’d publicly suggested that he was a Litvak [vi] – unfortunately for Malevich, when it came to avant-garde painting, Stalin seems to have had about the same level of appreciation as I (or vice-versa, I suppose). 

In the USSR, so-called Socialist Realism came to the fore in the 1920s and in 1926 the art institute of which Malevich was director was forced to shut after a party newspaper said it was rife with “counterrevolutionary sermonizing and artistic debauchery”[vii].

Then in autumn 1930 [viii], Malevich was arrested and interrogated by the Cheka or maybe the OGPU, accused of “Polish espionage” (his parents had been born Polish [ix]), and threatened with execution presumably if he ever again painted monochrome squares. Thankfully, however, he was released from imprisonment in early December.

Now here (if you were wondering) is where this tale grows exciting.

The world keeps turning, the Divinity (or his former chief of staff, Satan) finally got hold of Stalin, perestroika took place, and so on and so forth, and by 2015, actually well before then, Black Square was hauled out of obscurity and installed at Moscow’s State Tretyakov Gallery, considered the world’s foremost depository of Russian fine art.

There, while using a microscope to view the Black Square, art historians discovered a message underneath its black paint. Was this message “Down with Stalin!” “Viva Trotsky!” or “Free Ukraine!”? Alas, no.

The message apparently reads “Battle of negroes in a dark cave.” And this is clearly linked to an 1897 “comic” by French writer Alphonse Allais (1854-1905) [x], a completely black square, with the caption, “Combat de Nègres dans une cave pendant la nuit” (“Negroes Fighting in a Cellar at Night”) [xi]. I don’t have to explain the significance of this, I’m sure [xii].

Here's the problem though. We’re not supposed to be amused by “jokes” like those anymore. It’s not very Woke, is it? So there has been something of a pushback. Some scholars argue, for example, that Malevich’s painting was hacked, so to speak, and someone else wrote that naughty line. Perhaps an OGPU agent with a sense of humour, or is that a Russian oxymoron?

I’m more inclined to think that artists (especially artists) are as human as the rest of us and have the same “prejudices,” especially those prevalent in the era in which they live – even if the artist was nabbed by the tyrants of his day and even if the artist was the “iconic” Kazimir Malevich, creator of “one of the seminal works of modern art, and of abstract art in the Western painterly tradition generally”.

I think too that just as a cigar is sometimes just a cigar (cf. Freud [xiii]), sometimes people simply find certain things amusing, even though others don’t. I know this after decades of telling certain jokes to people who look at me as though I were something the cat brought in.

Once, when senior barons of the mining industry were still involved in newspapers (in 1994?), I told the Harry O and Abie joke[xiv] at a high-level luncheon of Times Media executives, including a couple of barons, and you wonder why I never made it to CEO?

Still, although my forte is neither didactics nor morality, and though I seem not much good at telling jokes or (modern) art appreciation, I do feel there are some lessons that we can cull from the example of Malevich and his Black Square.

Sometimes we minorities (blacks, Jews, gay people, Afrikaners, men, etc.) just have to roll with the punches. Not always – but sometimes. And also, we must keep laughing. Rabbi Altmann and his secretary were sitting in a coffeehouse in Berlin in 1935. “Herr Altmann,” said his secretary, “I notice you’re reading Der Stürmer! I can’t understand why. A Nazi libel sheet! Are you some kind of masochist, or, God forbid, a self-hating Jew?

“On the contrary, Frau Epstein. When I used to read the Jewish papers, all I learned about were pogroms, riots in Palestine, and assimilation in America. But now that I read Der Stürmer, I see so much more: that the Jews control all the banks, that we dominate the arts, and that we’re on the verge of taking over the entire world. It makes me feel a whole lot better.”[xv]

Politically speaking, we should also note, as mentioned above, that the world keeps turning. Stalin, his ilk, and their appalling ways are long gone from Russia. Now in charge of Russia is a kind-hearted sweetheart named Vova Putin, who loves children and dogs.

Similarly, though it might not happen in my time or yours, we can certainly hope that by the time our children or grandchildren are in their 50s, the destructive bozos in the ANC will be long gone and Seffricans won’t be fighting with one another in some dark cave.

Additionally, from a political point of view, it’s important for us to learn – if I might use a locution from my hippie days ­– that “sh-t happens,” it really does, and sometimes it’s pretty bizarre sh-t. It’s almost unbelievable, isn’t it, for example, that Malevich would write a “racist” notation underneath his iconic canvass? Or, if you prefer – which is even more weird – that some OGPU jerk would do that.

Yet consider the weird stuff with which we Seffricans live without even breaking a sweat. The millionaire president of our republic gets nabbed with $580 000 cash stashed in a sofa at his dacha, Phala Phala. No crime, no foul, the Prez says: the money was paid for Ankole cattle or buffalo by Sudanese businessman Hazim Mustafa, but it was Sunday, the banks were closed, so we stored the money. Jeez, get over yourselves.

Meanwhile, the DA, headed by John Steenhuisen – clearly an over-serious and righteous bunch, none of whom looks appreciative of a good yarn – they apply, using the Promotion of Access to Information Act, to the Receiver of Revenue for some information pertaining to the aforementioned latkes.

Says SARS: nope, no documentation can be found to confirm that that amount of money was “declared” upon entry into South Africa, as the law says it should have been. Well, if you’ll pardon another phrase from my misspent youth, the DA just about cream their jeans. They forget for a moment that no one with any brains, especially not a wealthy person, would fill in that little slip when s/he enters the country [xvi]. Or maybe for $100 a friendly customs official inadvertently lost it.

This is truly bizarre stuff, shouts the DA. What’s going on? Enter from stage left, on the day after (if not before), SARS Commissioner Edward Kieswetter, known affectionately (by shifty taxpayers such as me) as the Primary Bedwetter. Fast Eddie says: Nah, we’ve kept an eagle eye on young Cyril and to date Cyril and his companies “are compliant with their tax obligations”.

Hmm, fishier than a Boksburg-based fishing company awarded a large fish-catching quota [xvii]. Much fishier even than counter-revolutionary and debauched scribblings ­under Malevich’s famous Black Square.

Anyway, I must go. I’ve carefully gone through the cabinet in the passage, reshuffled a few things, and hauled out my water paints, brushes and indelible ink pen. In the white (or black) emptiness of a liberated nothing, as it were, there is much to do before the lights go off again.


[i] “Song of the Open Road” is a poem by Walt Whitman from his 1856 collection Leaves of Grass. It has 15 sections, each with 3-4 stanzas. “Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road, / Healthy, free, the world before me, / The long brown [NB! – not black] path before me leading wherever I choose.” Don’t those famous critics even read what they’re quoting?

[ii] Yes, I am fully aware that many major thinkers such as Maimonides (1138–1204 CE), to name just one, argue that Yahweh cannot be thought of as having a human form, that He cannot be described in any terms mortals can comprehend. Maimonides argues cogently that we can describe the Divine only by describing what He is not. The scholars, like art critics, always intent on making life more difficult than it need be, describe this view as Negative or Apophatic theology.

But if Maimonides were around, or if I ever meet him (you know, later on, when I’ve shuffled off this mortal coil), I’d say to him, “I understand the point you’re making, Rav Moshe, but talking person-to-person, you know perfectly well how most people actually perceive of Him. And look over there, at that old ballie with the long beard sitting on the throne. I rest my case”.

[iii] The ‘blackness’ has over the years become scuffed and discoloured, as though, as someone noted, the painting had spent decades patching a broken window. Not surprising – because the painting spent most of its time deep in the Soviet archives, classed among the lowliest of the state’s treasures.

[iv] At the time, as I’m sure you realise, we were both vying for Farida’s affection.

[vi] Various writers have tried to explain Stalin’s later, rabid antisemitism by suggesting that Stalin’s mother or father might have been Jewish. I recall for example the odd description (“odd” because so obviously anomalous and so pointed) of a character called Arkady in John le Carré’s Agent Running in the Field (2019) [/opinion/not-a-bad-spook-book]: “The illegitimate street-child of a Tbilisi prostitute of Jewish origin and a Georgian Orthodox priest is secretly nurtured in the Christian faith, then spotted by his Marxist teachers as an outstanding pupil. He grows a second head and becomes an instant convert to Marxism-Leninism.”

Perhaps one should heed the words of historian Albert Lindemann: “It may be enough simply to note that Stalin was a man of towering hatreds, corrosive suspicions, and impenetrable duplicity. He saw enemies everywhere, and it just so happened that many of his enemies virtually all his enemies were Jews, above all Trotsky. ... To observe, as his daughter Svetlana has, that ‘Stalin did not like Jews,’ does not tell us much, since he ‘did not like’ any group. His hatreds and suspicions knew no limits ...” (Esau’s Tears, 1997).

[vii] Debauchery, ay? I suppose those bohemian artists were rolling about on the canvasses with the models. One wonders about the physiognomy and colour of the model who sat for Black Square, but maybe let’s not go there.

[viii] September? October? we are not told.

[ix] Perhaps needless to say, the ANC has learnt from “masters” about how to reduce all issues to ones of race or ethnicity.

[x] Apparently a very funny fellow. Wikipedia tell us that “While consuming absinthe at café tables, Allais wrote 1 600 newspaper and magazine pieces, and co-founded the Club of the Hydropaths,” those allergic to water. (To which David Bullard and I belong, btw.) He cultivated the verse form known as holorhyme (all verses are homophonous; entire lines are pronounced the same way). For example: “Par les bois du djinn où s’entasse de l’effroi, / Parle et bois du gin, ou cent tasses de lait froid.” “By the woods of the Djinn where dread heaps up, / Talk about and drink gin, or a hundred cups of cold milk.”

Allais wrote the earliest known example of a completely silent musical composition. His Funeral March for the Obsequies of a Great Deaf Man of 1897 consists of 24 blank measures. And, as you guessed, Allais exhibited some of the earliest examples of monochrome painting: his plain white sheet of paper, First Communion of Anemic Young Girls In The Snow (1883) and a similar, completely red, work, Apoplectic Cardinals Harvesting Tomatoes on the Shore of the Red Sea (1884). And, as you’ve also guessed, he produced a painting, inspired by his friend Paul Bilhaud’s entirely black painting entitled “Negroes fight in a tunnel” (1882).

[xi] Though now it is more closely linked by “experts” to an 1882 monochrome by Paul Bilhaud (1854-1933); see endnote immediately above.

[xii] Reminds me of a riddle or quiz from one of those small magazines I used to read when I was about 10. Q: If a black person, completely dressed in black, is walking down a road which has no streetlights, how would a motorist see him? A: Who said it was nighttime?

[xiii] Though it is now insisted that Freud never said this.

[xiv] Abie goes to a Johannesburg restaurant for a key meeting with investors. On entering, he sees Harry O sitting quietly in a corner eating his lunch. Abie approaches him, tells him how important his upcoming meeting is, and asks Harry O to do him a small favour. “When you’re leaving, won’t you please come over and greet me?” Sure, says Harry O, and on his way out, he passes by Abie’s table, where Abie’s seated with four other gents, and says, “Hello Abie, how are you?” Abie looks up at him and says: “F--k off, Harry, can’t you see I’m busy?”

[xv] This is a “Jewish” joke, by the way.

[xvi] Q: Why are rich people so rich? A: Because they hold on beaucoup tight to their money, inter alia filling in as few forms as possible.

[xvii] I’m reliably told such a one actually exists and is quite legendary but hey what do I know?