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31 august 2022

I first saw Andrew Spira's work on "Black Squares before Malevich" in the Public Domain Review. Like all of the Review's contributions, Spira's essay was offbeat, but it struck some kind of deeper chord with me, in its highly original detection of a curious, persistent artistic tradition. I am very glad to see Spira's work in its book form, Foreshadowed.

Kazimir Malevich painted Black Square in 1915. If James Whistler burst on the art world, as John Ruskin sneered, by "flinging a pot of paint in the public's face," Malevich did him one better: ruthlessly obliterating a canvas under a mechanically-applied coat of opaque black paint. As Spira explains, Black Square was no joke. Malevich intended to stretch painting beyond its logical extremes, to obliterate not just that one canvas (where he evidently overpainted an earlier colorful design), but to annul the entire art form and the very need for visual representation.

The influence of Black Square is obvious in any museum of modern art, from Frank Stella to large chunks of many a canvas by Mark Rothko, right down to the latest contemporary with a monochrome or rather antichrome disposition. But Spira isn't interested (here) in the influence of Malevich's image. He is interested in its precursors: the "precedents of the unprecedented."

Because there were several prominent black-square images in cultural circulation in the century before Malevich, and even further back in the past. A few of these, Malevich could have known about; others (like the black page in some editions of Tristram Shandy) he almost certainly didn't.

There's no direct evidence, for instance, that Malevich would ever have seen Gustave Doré's 1854 comic-book-style depiction of Russian prehistory as a completely black square. But the possibility is intriguing: if Russian culture had emerged, even in parody, from primeval blackness, Malevich brought it full circle, or I guess full square.

Offensive joke images about "Negroes" doing inky things at night also proliferated in the 19th century (as did all-red and all-white joke frames; Malevich would later do famous all-white images and employ red color fields in his paintings, too).

But black squares were most prominent, before Malevich, in censorship, including self-censorship. Artifacts from the age of humanism forward replace portraits (in particular) with black squares and oblongs. Sometimes, insouciance stepped in to poke fun at the censors. Spira reprints a comic magazine cover by Lyonel Feininger, from 1906, when parodic images of European monarchs used to be blotted out of German periodicals. Czar Nicholas II's children show him a magazine cover with a black square on it: who's this? Me, he replies, because in Feininger's cartoon, the czar has no head – just a black square.

Foreshadowed is a wonderful study, and I wonder how it was composed. One could either spend years serendipitously collecting black squares, or one could do a bunch of weird Google image searches. Maybe a bit of both went into the book. Spira is a veteran art historian, who includes some of his own photographs of "found" black squares in the volume; he has clearly been thinking about the image persistently and for a long time. But the chances of running across enough items to write a whole book about remain long unless some sort of research paradigm could simultaneously enhance the odds.

Spira, Andrew. Foreshadowed: Malevich's Black Square and its precursors. London: Reaktion, 2022.