Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Inscribed Vandalism: The Black Square at One Hundred

In October 1882, the poet Paul Bilhaud (1854–1933) exhibited a painting of a black square entitled A Battle of Negroes at Night (Combat de nègres pendant la nuit) at the first “Salon of Untethered Art,” of which he himself was the founder, in the Masonic artistic tavern The Black Cat in Paris. In subsequent Salons of Untethered Art—in Russian translation, a synonym for this phrase could be “cheeky art”—at the same venue, his friend and drinking companion, the writer and humorist Alphonse Allais, exhibited a monochrome white picture (1883) and then a red one (1884).
The derivative imitator Allais cut his masterpieces to a pattern invented by Bilhaud: an illustration was created for a rationally composed amusing phrase—the red rectangle was “Tomatoes being harvested by apoplectic cardinals on the shores of the Red Sea,” and the white one was “Anemic girls making their first communion in snowy weather.”1
Fifteen years later, in 1897, Alphonse Allais published his April 1 Album, dedicated to April Fools’ Day, with Paul Ollendorff’s publishing house.2 It included seven “magnificent plates” interspersed with texts by the author and publisher; they took the form of monochrome rectangles set in fanciful graphic frames above pompously solemn captions. First came a black rectangle, with a more prolix title than the original: A Battle of Negroes in a Cave on a Dark Night(a reproduction of a famous picture). Allais was obliged to provide the explanation in brackets, since he was not the originator of the jest. Later on, Allais “forgot” about Paul Bilhaud’s authorship (they had quarrelled), and he attributed the creation of A Battle to himself; this version has become firmly established in history.
More than a century later, in late 2015, the State Tretyakov Gallery in Russia revealed the results of an expert art-historical and technological analysis performed, using the very latest equipment, on a different painting of a black square. The analysis indicated that Kazmir Malevich’s The Black Square (1915) was the third composition to have been painted on this canvas: the first was a Cubo-Futurist work, and its colors were already dry when Malevich set an abstract composition on top of it. It was on this second layer, while it was still wet, that the artist painted The Black Square. The new analysis also turned up an inscription on the white margin of the Square: “A battle of negroes … [continuation illegible].” It wasn’t long before the authorship of these words was attributed to Malevich himself.

Text by Aleksandra Shatskikh
Journal #85 - October 2017