An appreciation of the principles of icon painting is key to understanding the imagery of both Malevich’s peasant cycles, but particularly the latter which he began in the late 1920s. In the present work two women are depicted full-height, front-on, their heads lightly inclined toward one another, matching exactly the poses of the saints in the Deësis of Orthodox churches. The background also draws on the conventions of icon painting: not only is the golden coloration typical, but the two-toned backdrop recalls the stylized representation of the ground at the bottom of a Russian icon, known as the pozem, and the dominance of a bright yellow tone in the lower tier versus rusty-red ochre above is a classic trope of iconography (see fig. 2). Scarves cover the heads of both women, just as the Mother of God and female saints are depicted in icons. The relationship conveyed is one of trust, prompting a natural association with the meeting of Mary and her cousin Elizabeth, one of the most popular scenes in religious art in Russia and Western Europe in which the pair of "blessed women" become aware that each holds in their womb the future saviors of the world, Jesus Christ and John the Baptist (see fig. 3).
The simplified, stylized clothing is painted in an entirely different tonal key to the background. Malevich uses contrasting red, white and dark colors which recall the domineering palette of his abstract oils and the Suprematist tricolor famously found in his earlier sequence: the black-and-white phase of Black Square (1915, The State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow), the color phase of Red Square (1915, The State Russian Museum, Saint Petersburg) and the final white phase, of White Square on a White Background (1918, The Museum of Modern Art, New York). Nor does Malevich shy away from the geometry and simplification of form that he so cherished as a Suprematist. The shape of the blouse of the right-hand figure approaches that of a white square, the outline of the torso and lowered arms of the woman in red comes close to that of an oval, their heads form equally regular ovoids and the clearly delineated dark skirts tend towards distinctive trapeze and triangle shapes.
Malevich loved oil painting, or rather his "activities with oil" as he called them. He described his first childhood encounter with brush and paint and the feeling of intense pleasure with which he was left. The roof of the house was being repaired, and having waited patiently for the workman to leave, Malevich "leapt onto the roof and began to paint the wood. It didn’t bother me that nothing much came of it, it was simply the act of painting itself that I enjoyed so much—that lovely feeling of the brush and paint interacting" (Kazimir Malevich, Autobiographical Notes, 1923-1925 / Malevich on Himself. Contemporaries on Malevich, Moscow, 2004, p. 44).
The pleasure he derived from his "painting activities" comes across beautifully in the execution and texture of Two Peasant Women. The surface of the canvas has the unsettled and uneven quality of a relief, as though built up with the energetic strokes of an unerring and experienced hand. The depiction of the legs and feet of the peasants has a particular quality or bravura. The complexity of the palette and tonal spectrum is also striking since the apparently uniform patterns of paint are in fact interspersed by flashes of sharply contrasting color, and the yellow pozem, or ground, is broken up by unexpected glimpses of turquoise, green and pink.
Very unusually for a painting by Malevich, the present work has a corresponding sketch. In the drawing titled Two Figures we find the same central motif—the monumental frames of two village women leaning toward one another. The sketch at one point belonged to Nikolai Khardzhiev who later gave it to Ida Chagall, the daughter of Marc Chagall.
The powerful subtext of the present work, and indeed the whole of Malevich’s second peasant cycle, relates to the fate of the rural inhabitants of Soviet Russia who fell foul of Stalin’s politics and programs for the industrialization of the USSR. In his writings from this period Malevich glorified non-urban workers as the most important representatives of humanity, whose direct and durable link with the natural world ought to be revered. The bitter reality of contemporary policies would not have been lost on so sensitive an artist. In his second peasant cycle Malevich’s village inhabitants become expressionless heroes who are doomed to exist in stifled, depopulated landscapes, and it is precisely this context which makes the featureless, blackened faces in Two Peasant Women so expressive and dramatic.
A multi-layered piece, Two Peasant Women draws together elements from both of Malevich’s peasant cycles while incorporating the initial inspiration of icon-painting traditions and his subsequent experiments in geometric abstraction. It is a post-Suprematist work which marks Malevich’s return to figurative painting but is nonetheless enriched by non-objective considerations. Above all, Two Peasant Women is indicative of Malevich’s unwavering delight in the act of painting itself and that visceral pleasure which had long since marked out this great Russian avant-garde artist as a painter first and foremost.
We are grateful to Dr Alexandra Shatskikh for providing this essay.
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