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Kazimir the geometer

The permanent collection of works by Kazimir Malevich, the founder of Suprematism, at the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam is hugely instructive in the development and persistence of Modernist form, writes Rory Olcayto

There are many good reasons to visit Amsterdam, and I’m sure you’ve got your own specific list, but near the top of mine is a trip to the Stedelijk Museum, which has recently been refurbished and extended by Benthem Crouwel (and reviewed this week by Felix Mara).

Stedelijk has a vast collection of pure, distilled Modernism

The extension in particular, smooth and vast like a deep space starship and a wicked foil to AW Weissman’s 19th century banded brick fortress, is something of a future shock. The contemporary bolt-on, however, is trumped by what you’ll find inside: angular visions of a weird new world even more shocking than Benthem Crouwel’s.

Stedelijk has a vast collection of pure, distilled Modernism, the best of early 20th century art and design. It’s the kind of stuff – drawings, paintings and sculptures by the Constructivists, the founders of de Stijl, the Bauhaus, among others – that architects seek to replicate even now, with varying degrees of success, 100 years after the fact.

And among this crop of genius work, one collection stands apart and feels more relevant than ever before: Stedelijk’s stunning Malevich collection, the best and most comprehensive in the world.

Malevich is perhaps even more significant a pioneer in the field of geometric abstract art than Mondrian

The Russian painter and designer and founder of Suprematism, Kazimir Malevich, is perhaps even more significant a pioneer in the field of geometric abstract art than Dutchman Piet Mondrian. His influence on contemporary architecture is huge: again, today, greater than Mondrian’s.

Famously, Zaha Hadid’s graduation project at the Architectural Association in 1977 unashamedly drew heavily upon Malevich’s iconographic style. Entitled Malevich’s Tektonik, an abstract painting of a hotel located on London’s Hungerford Bridge, Hadid’s composition seems to be literally drawn from the Russian’s sculpture, Alpha Architectonic.

In an essay published in 2008, Owen Hatherley makes an interesting point. Despite finding Malevich’s output astounding, he writes: ‘The Suprematists wanted to remake the world, and their new world looked quite astonishing, but purposeless’ suggesting Malevich had little to say politically.

‘He’s not someone that can really be taken seriously as a political-aesthetic thinker,’ he adds. The same could be said about Hadid, despite her partner Patrik Shumacher’s retrofitted Parametricist agenda. Not that this should diminish our appreciation of either’s work. That would be very hard to do, especially regarding Malevich, as you wander round the many rooms in the Stedelijk, dedicated to his art.

These are visions of an electro-mechanical future

These are visions of an electro-mechanical future, of automated processes, of the environment as data, before that world had fully materialised. They still feel prescient today. You’ll see how desktop computer-generated art of the ’70s and ’80s, both for games and utility software when computer processing power limited the palette of colours and geometric forms, directly appropriates the Malevich style.

You’ll also see how graphic design by figures such as Neville Brody and Peter Saville in the ’80s and ’90s, which in turn defined the digital landscape we inhabit through phones and tablet devices today, feeds from the same trough. But mostly you’ll see great art by a mind attuned to a century’s background hum. The feeling it transmits? Exhilaration.

Exhibition: Kazimir Malevich permanent collection, Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, Museumplein 10, Amsterdam, The Netherlands

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