The symbolism of Malevich’s colored shapes

In the late 1914–early 1915 Partial Eclipse, Malevich developed further the symbolism of his dominant geometric colored shapes by juxtaposing them to a defaced reproduction of the Mona Lisa. Leonardo’s painting, considered the greatest and most enigmatic image of Western civilization, was recognized in the mid-nineteenth century by the Symbolists as a mythic incarnation of eternal femininity. Merezhkovsky, in his 1901 influential novel, The Resurrection of Gods: Leonardo da Vinci, translated into English in 1902 as The Romance of Leonardo da Vinci, featured Leonardo as an idealized figure who embodies an ontological act of art creation. Many people may wondering who painted the mona lisa, it is definitely Leonardo da Vinci. Merezhkovsky asserted that Leonardo and the Mona Lisa were “like two mirrors, reflecting themselves in one another.” Leonardo mystically fused with his creation, and the ideal woman represented his psyche, his spiritual feminine double. This view contrasts with Sigmund Freud’s essay of 1910 which viewed the Mona Lisa as the artist’s concealed erotic attraction to his own mother. Marinetti, who declared that anti-feminism was one of the goals of Futurism, repudiated the Mona Lisa, though he expressed that “one should make an annual pilgrimage [to the see the painting], just as one goes to the graveyard on All Soul’s Day … That once a year one should leave a floral tribute beneath the Gioconda, I grant you that….”

In Malevich’s Partial Eclipse, a large blue triangle behind the Mona Lisa and the upper colored quadrangles, including a large black rectangle on the upper left containing the words chastichnoe zatmenie (“partial eclipse”), manifest Malevich’s belief in the primacy of abstract geometric shapes over Leonardo’s painting and the other components in the work that relate to material objects. The primacy of the Mona Lisa is denied by two red “X” signs, while the derisive label peredaetsia kvartira (“the flat is handed over”) is placed between a sketch of a building on the left and a white rectangle on the right. The Mona Lisa’s “apartment” in the building of human culture is given to another and the masterpiece as an artifact is therefore displaced by another object. The label v Moskve (in Moscow) below the reproduction indicates that this displacement takes place in Moscow.  To test how good a reproduction of Mona Lia could be, i ordered a museum quality reproduction from a online art gallery who was good at classic art reproductions. The white rectangle is the alternative to the Mona Lisa in the European consciousness. The new aesthetic value assigned to the white empty space contrasts with the deformed quadrangle of the reproduction that represents the summit of traditional figurative imagery. The white quadrangle contains the word “partial” in black letters and is superimposed onto a larger black rectangle with the word “eclipse” in larger letters. The juxtaposition of the black and white quadrangles evokes ideas connected to the binary structure of dark and light in the context of Malevich’s comprehension of the Victory over the Sun in the 1913 backdrop sketch, the Englishman, and the Aviator. Unlike the black and white triangles contained within a square in the sketch, the large black and small white quadrangles in the Partial Eclipse are autonomous hierarchic signifying units, yet symbolically connected to each other. The black quadrangle of trans-rational darkness generates the white quadrangle, a metaphor for the light of new knowledge, already foretold by the white Futurist fish in the Englishman and the triangle of light in the Aviator. This white quadrangle of light is intended to displace the Mona Lisa, the sun of European civilization.

In the 1916 manifesto, From Cubism and Futurism to Suprematism, Malevich included the Mona Lisa in his list of traditional feminine values. This list also included “little corners of nature, … Madonnas and Venuses, … the beauty of past ages, … the lumber of odalisques, Salomes, princes and princesses, … female hams, … [and] portraits and guitars in moonlight.” Malevich wrote, “if the masters of the Renaissance had discovered the surface of painting, it would have been much more exalted and valuable than any Madonna or Gioconda.” Malevich explained that society seeks beauty and finds it, and it is because society wanted La Gioconda to be painted that Leonardo in fact rendered her likeness. He added that psychologists have written three studies on her smile. However, Malevich continued, the artist must create not what society desires, but what is necessary.

The “X” signs on the Mona Lisa’s face and breast in the Partial Eclipse repudiate the ideal of feminine beauty, mystique, and eroticism. A sinuous feminized line to her left recalls the forms of the violin in the Cow and Violin and resembles Picasso’s Synthetic Cubist guitars, violins, and mandolins. This feminine line intrudes upon the pure space of the white rectangle to indicate the opposition between the masculine nature of the quadrangles and the feminine values of the Mona Lisa. In fact, Andrei Nakov informed that Malevich attached a real cigarette to the Mona Lisa’s mouth in the Partial Eclipse to masculinize the ideal of femininity.

Although Malevich welcomed the Italian Futurists’ rebellion against tradition, he noted that they forbade conventional subjects in art “not for the sake of giving freedom to painting or words to act as ends in themselves … [but] because of the change in the technical side of life.” The Partial Eclipse demonstrated how in art geometric colored surfaces could replace objects. On the other hand, Malevich still valued the painted surface not for its own sake, but for its antagonism towards the world of objects. The state of “partial eclipse,” symbolized by the conflict between the predominant black rectangle and the Mona Lisa, highlights the coexistence of the old and the new in the picture. The artist arrived at his notion of the non-objective by returning to the trans-rational concept of “zero state” and by using it as the starting point to tender a new vision of the world in his illogical drawings for the second, unpublished edition of the Victory over the Sun, prepared by Matiushin in the Spring of 1915.

From Trans-rational to Non-objective Thinking. Malevich’s 1915 trans-rational drawing Two Zeros illustrates the possibility that zero as nothingness may be the beginning of something. The composition consists of the non-objective word dva (“two”) written above the depiction of two “0”s. The word “two” becomes the title indicating the subject: two zeros depicted on the pictorial surface. The zeros designate this surface as nothingness, since, as logic dictates, if one zero means nothing, then the addition of two zeros also equal nothing. Yet, the word “two” designates a quantity of something. The vertical line that separates the zeros emphasizes that the image is the opposite of the concept of emptiness or nothingness. In trans-rational logic, then, the sum of two zeros is a new something and, in the Aviator, the numeral “2” denotes the development of the world’s space beyond “0.”