October 19, 2014

Tate à Tate - A Tale of Two Abstractionists

Hello from rainy London where the art scene is gearing up for a big week including two major fairs and a plethora of important auctions.  But before all the hoopla begins, I'm going to take you on a tour of two Tates, the Tate Britain and the Tate Modern, and their narratives on two major abstract artists, J.M.W. Turner and Kazimir Malevich.

Let's start at the beginning, at the historic Tate Britain, built on the site of the former Millbank Penitentiary as a branch of the National Gallery.  At the time of its opening, in 1897, it was the showcase for the nation's collection of British art from 1790 to the present.  Over the years the Tate Gallery has expanded to include four sites with the Millbank location as the epicenter both geographically and historically.

Now on view at the Tate Britain is "Late Turner - Painting Set Free" an exhibition dedicated to the later works of Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851).  It is largely due to the bequest of 30,000 works on paper and 300 oil paintings by the Turner heirs to the National Gallery, and subsequently the Tate Gallery, that transformed the institution into a major repository and study center for British art.  For the first time ever, Tate Britain is presenting a retrospective of the later work of their patron, focusing on the last sixteen years of Turner's life.

"Norham Castle Sunrise" circa 1840-45

J.M.W. Turner turned 60 years old in 1835.  While that may not be an impressive age by today's standards it was a remarkable age at the time.  Turner took advantage of his "advanced" age to finally express himself as he wished, unfettered by public or critical opinion, with the benefit of his years of study of color and light.  The result was a group of watercolors and oils that are examples of abstraction long before the concept could be applied to art. 

On display are extraordinary works depicting landscapes, historical views, biblical passages, seascapes and travelogues all executed in a dreamy but highly expressive style.  Imagery from shipwrecks to snowstorms from Venice to Lucerne are imbued with vivid color and even more intensive emotion in Turner's distinctive and evocative manner. 

"Snowstorm - Steamboat off the Harbour's Mouth" 1842

If you thought this was going to be an exhibition of Victorian landscapes, you were in for a big surprise, but just down the river, a quick and scenic ride on the Tate Boat, another big surprise is waiting at the Tate Modern.

Kazimir Malevich (1879-1935) is probably the most important and recognizable Russian artist of the 20th Century.  Though he began his career as a painter of landscapes, peasants and religious scenes, he soon explored more avant garde approaches to art such as Cubism and Futurism.  He ultimately forged a hybrid of the two "isms" combining the deconstruction of Cubism with the dynamic movement of the Futurists in a uniquely Russian style.
"The Knife Grinder (Principle of Glittering)", 1912

Working in an environment of general social and political upheaval in Europe and particularly Russia, Malevich endeavored to create a new icon for the Modern Age.  Though actually painted in June of 1915 - while Russia was in the throes of the First World War - Malevich dated his visionary "Black Square" as 1913, the date he conceived of the idea.  Though exceedingly simple in composition and design, "Black Square" was a revolutionary concept and signaled a new beginning in Modern Art. 

 "Black Square", 1913

Positive and negative, absent and present, spiritual and concrete, a beginning and an end, "Black Square" was so radical and so powerful that it was only revealed to the public months after it was created and then hidden again for 50 years.  Beside being Malevich's greatest accomplishment, it also was the springboard for his new art "ism", Suprematism.

Drawing on the idea that the artist's of the past were "counterfeiters of nature" and that the new world, i.e. Russia during World War I and just prior to the Russian Revolution, needed a new vision that was non objective and true.  Suprematism answered that call using simple colors and shapes to express pure artistic feeling rather than the visual depiction of things and people.

"Suprematist Composition", 1916

This is the first exhibition in a quarter century dedicated to Kazimir Malevich and his enormous impact on art as we know it today.  The Tate, in collaboration with major museums in Russia, Amsterdam, Greece and around the world, has brought together an extensive selection of paintings and very rarely seen drawings to demonstrate Malevich's artistic evolution from beginning to end.  Presented against the backdrop of major historical events - the fall of Tzarist Russia and the Stalinist Era - and with the realization that Malevich and his contemporaries were working in an artistic vacuum, cut off from the rest of the world, this exhibition fixes Malevich's place among the stars of Modern Art.

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